The Lab: Stir 'n' Shop

Times Staff Writer

You are in the heart of Orange County suburbia. Toll roads and cookie-cutter houses to the right, fast-food restaurants, chain stores and South Coast Plaza to the left.

And stuck in the middle is SoBeCa -- as in South on Bristol Entertainment Culture and Arts, a blend of funky London, artsy Soho and trendy Melrose Avenue.

The South Coast Plaza shopper looking for a bargain at the Gap or Banana Republic probably wouldn't be drawn to the Lab, a micro-mall where sandblasted, chemically stretched denim jeans with holes poked in them go for a cool $150 and plain white T-shirts can be had for $48.

Yes, it can cost a lot to look different these days. But that desire to be out of the ordinary is why Priscilla Pandes of Coto de Caza zipped past the Shops at Mission Viejo and South Coast Plaza on a weekday afternoon on her way to the Lab, which calls itself the Anti-Mall. Pandes, a 38-year-old homemaker who drives a minivan and lives in a tract home, came to SoBeCa because Melrose was just too far.

"This isn't your run-of-the-mill mall," said Pandes, a recent L.A. transplant who picked up a pair of Puma tennis shoes while waiting for Urban Outfitters to open. "You won't find this stuff at Macy's or Robinsons-May. The dress is more urban, more New York, more Miami. Less conservative, more artsy."

Nicole Rivelli, a Chapman University junior, showed up looking very '70s in her faded bell-bottom jeans, a brown-and-red Adidas warmup jacket and flip-flops. She was in Costa Mesa, but the funky boutiques reminded her of London. "I lived in London, and this is how people dress there," she said. "I think a lot of people come here because they don't want to fall into a mold. I know I don't."

The Lab opened nearly 10 years ago as a retail experiment catering to the younger set. It's now attracting thirtysomething suburban moms and coming off its best year ever, said founder Shaheen Sadeghi.

"The Gen-X connection is starting to fade," said Sadeghi, a former president of Quiksilver. "I'm 48 and I'm doing similar things to younger people. We're both the coffee culture, the surfboard and snowboard culture, the travel culture and the discovery culture. We're all sort of blending together."

But who would have thought this convergence would happen in Costa Mesa, within a mile of the evangelical Trinity Broadcasting Network and the chain retailers and department stores of South Coast Plaza?

"Costa Mesa has a lot of soul and a lot of texture," said Sadeghi, a Brooklyn native. "And it's neutral, like Switzerland. I call this the Golden Triangle because all three freeways meet here, the 405, the 55 and the 73."

When Sadeghi conceived the Lab, he ignored the Orange County stereotypes and took a closer look at all the hip music the area was producing. While working at Quiksilver, he took particular note of the $1.5-billion skate and surfboard youth culture that was within a 12-mile radius of Costa Mesa.

"When you peel the banana, Orange County has always been the height of high-end fashion with South Coast Plaza and low-end fashion with the Costcos," Sadeghi said. "But we haven't had the hip culture. We always had to go to L.A. for that. Now it's here."

To create it, Sadeghi turned an abandoned factory, overgrown with weeds and smelling of urine, into the Lab. His latest brainstorm is across the street: the Camp, a 50,000-square-foot collection of stores selling all the outdoor gear a nature lover could desire.

There are mountain bikes at Cycle Werks, backpacking and climbing equipment at Adventure 16, skateboards and surfboards at Billabong, and diving lessons at Liburdi's Scuba Center. The sounds of waves crashing can be heard throughout the complex. There's even Bikram's Yoga College, for those wanting to cleanse the body.

Patrice Simon, director of Bikram's, said it took 16 months to find the right location for her high-end studio.

"I didn't want the Mediterranean, barrel-tile roof, shopping center look," she said. "I wanted something with a hometown feel, something with some life and energy."

Sadeghi was reminded why he created the Lab as he sipped a bowl of vegetable puree at its Gypsy Den cafe: On a couch inside the restaurant, a young couple sat and made out, oblivious to the rest of the lunch crowd.

"Those people aren't afraid to be different," Sadeghi said, surrounded by young professionals, families and tattooed rock-star wannabes. "I believe the energy comes from the young people."

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