L.A. fashion's grande dame

Times Staff Writer

When it comes to fashion in Los Angeles, all roads lead to Diane Merrick.

She opened her boutique on Melrose Avenue in 1972, when the street was still sleepy, with bungalows nestled among the emerging decorator shops. Back then, Merrick sold antiques -- jewelry and garage sale finds -- and would gladly drive her Ford Courier pickup out to Malibu to deliver items to Barbra Streisand and other clients.

Slowly, clothing came into the mix -- first T-shirts, then jeans with a big "?" on the back pocket. (These prototypes, which the Marciano brothers sold door to door, were the foundation of the Guess? empire.) She remembers "Maxi" -- Max Azria -- peddling $18 rayon print dresses by the fistful out of his downtown studio (the beginnings of the multimillion-dollar BCBG business). And then there was James Perse selling $8 Fleur de Lis T-shirts near his father's Maxfield store (now he has his own clothing line and boutiques).

Retailer to the stars Tracey Ross worked for Merrick for four years before opening her Sunset Boulevard boutique. So did Claire Stansfield, co-founder of the C&C; California T-shirt label, which was sold to Liz Claiborne last year for $28 million. Gela Nash-Taylor and Pamela Skaist-Levy, the duo behind Juicy Couture, met when they were both working at the shop part time. L.A. designer Jenni Kayne even worked there for a summer.

But a few weeks ago, after 34 years, Merrick learned that the building her store occupied on Melrose was being torn down. She thought it might be time to retire. "But I realized I wasn't ready," she said. "And here I am."

She's opened a new shop in what she has dubbed the "Beverly Heights shopping district," a place as inviting as your grandmother's house, with an overstuffed couch, a big-screen TV tuned to E! and cookies and lemonade on offer.

"I've had customers for four generations," said Merrick, 69, dressed in black pants, a T-shirt in her favorite shocking pink, and diamond and platinum chain necklaces, her hand resting on the coiffed head of her Maltipoo dog, Doll Face. "It's been fun watching the evolution of all these people, of their stories," she said. "And it's amazing how many little kids have had their own MasterCards and their own cars."

The store, on Beverly Boulevard near Martel Avenue, is 2 1/2 times the size of the original. Bright and airy, it has hardwood floors, custom moldings, chandeliers and lots of alcoves for jeans, T-shirts, gauzy beach dresses, handbags and sandals from Ella Moss, James Perse, Splendid, Juicy Couture, Tarte, Sweetees, Botkier, Kooba, Seychelles, J Brand, True Religion, Paige and more. There are also mirrored glass cases for her beloved jewels, and shelves full of her luscious private-label cashmere ponchos and wraps ($198 to $275) in a rainbow of colors.

Today, Merrick is more with the trends than ahead of them, stocking not the jeans with the latest pocket treatment but the ones that are the best fitting.

"People can come in at 4 p.m. after a day at the beach and leave wearing something to wear to a party."

Over the years, she has had her share of celebrity customers. (When I was there, Renee Zellweger came in wearing a baseball cap and sweats, greeting Merrick with a bear hug.) But she's not one to sell and tell.

"I remember Jamie Lee Curtis was one of the first celebrities to shop in my store," Merrick said. "I called to ask if I could give her name to a magazine and she said, 'I do not endorse products.' I've never forgotten that."

Cameos aren't just for celebrities

Thanks to Diane Merrick and others, L.A. is a heck of a boutique town. One of the hottest newcomers is Milk, on Third Street between Harper and La Jolla avenues. It is owned by Bari Milken -- daughter of Michael Milken -- and her cousin Marni Flans. The place stocks Twelfth Street by Cynthia Vincent, Sue Stemp, Aquascutum, Diane von Furstenberg, Missoni and others, with accompanying designer books and knickknacks, as well as menswear by Loomstate, Trovata and Woo. It also happens to be the only store offering L.A. jewelry designer Candace Ang's custom cameos.

Ang draws and casts the personalized resin pendants using a side profile photograph. Strung on vintage chains with key and fleur-de-lis motifs, they are right in step with fall's Gothic mood.

"I saw silhouettes showing up in the graphics and furniture world and wanted to incorporate it into jewelry," the designer said. The custom cameos, $495, come beautifully packaged with a portrait suitable for framing and take six to eight weeks to complete.

Free style hints from Hershberger

On Tuesday, Sally Hershberger, who charges $600 for a haircut and counts Meg Ryan, Michelle Pfeiffer and Sandra Bullock as fans of her perfectly shaggy, layered cuts, will be working a bit of her magic free at her West Hollywood salon. From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., she'll give consultations and styling advice as part of a promotion for John Frieda's Frizz-Ease product. Call (323) 653-4040 for information.

And be sure to check out Hershberger's outfit while you're waiting. Because besides being a hairdresser, she's also a designer of a jeans and T-shirts line called (what else?) Shag.

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