House of Mouse Couture

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Times Staff Writer

Forget those tacky, touristy T-shirts with Mickey Mouse slapped across the front.

Walt Disney Co. today opens its first high-end apparel store. Disney Vault 28, a reference to 1928, the year Mickey debuted in the cartoon “Steamboat Willie,” opens its doors at Downtown Disney, a collection of shops and restaurants nestled between the Disneyland and California Adventure theme parks in Anaheim.

At Vault 28, T-shirts aren’t $20 or even $50. Most run about $75. For the fashion-conscious, there are pouty Tinkerbells and hard-to-find designer Mickey-wear once found only at trendy boutiques.

The Burbank-based entertainment giant hopes the designer concept will have a happier ending than the Disney Stores. Launched in 1987, the chain peddled mass-produced goods at 743 shops at its 1999 peak.


But profit at Walt Disney’s consumer products division, which included the Disney Stores, fell to $386 million in 2000 from $893 million in 1997.

In 2004, after Disney closed more than half of its stores, the last 313 shops were sold to the Children’s Place. Disney continues to operate World of Disney stores in New York, Anaheim and Orlando.

“This is the only one of its kind,” said Marianne Sharpe, Disneyland Resort’s vice president of merchandise and store operations.

“We constantly hear from our guests that they want something contemporary. They wanted products that were not readily available in many areas.”

The company also will test products at its World of Disney stores before deciding whether to expand Vault 28.

Disney launched a vintage and couture line in 2004 but felt it wasn’t capturing trendy teens and women. Up until now, those lines were primarily limited to hipster boutiques like Kitson and Fred Segal.


Vault 28 will be stocked with two new Disney brands, Kingdom Couture and DV28, as well as fashions from celebrity-favored designers such as Chip & Pepper, Paige Premium Denim, Tarina Tarantino and Red Monkey.

The goods don’t come cheap. A pair of jeans costs close to $200. A King Baby leather belt with a skull and crossbones costs $900. Alice in Wonderland-printed panties designed by Kidada Jones, daughter of Quincy Jones, run $32.

Pricey products aren’t new to Disney. Fans are willing to spend hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars on limited-edition art, watches and collectibles available inside the theme parks.

The concept can work if people are willing to pay the price, said analyst Kurt Barnard, president of Retail Forecasting.

“Disney is trying to achieve a store with a difference,” Barnard said. “They may ultimately turn out to be right. The American public is being besieged with stores that all carry what? The same thing.”

To succeed, the company will have to come up with something more appealing than its movie-centric Disney Stores, he said.


“Are enough consumers going to be sufficiently interested in the very high-end T-shirt they propose to sell?” Barnard said. “The jury’s still out on that one.”

This is not the first time Disney has sought a more sophisticated audience. In 1994, it launched a prototype Walt Disney Gallery at Westfield MainPlace Mall in Santa Ana. The store carried high-priced animation art, Lladro figures, flatware and dinnerware.

That store closed, although a Disney Gallery still operates inside Disneyland and a similar shop can be found at Orlando’s Downtown Disney.

Unlike the Disney Stores, which banked on merchandise featuring animated movie characters and responded too slowly to changing trends, Vault 28 isn’t a cookie-cutter operation, said Mary Murray, Disneyland Resort’s director of merchandise and specialized business. Instead of relying on movie tie-ins, most of the clothing depicts classic characters: Mickey, Tinkerbell, Alice in Wonderland and the Cheshire Cat.

“We can change the theme as trends change,” Murray said. “We’re going to be able to react.”

Pirate-themed apparel is popular, with designers slapping skulls and crossbones onto belt buckles, jewelry, T-shirts, jackets and the like. And Disney has merchandise to reflect that, including some not related to its official “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie-licensed products.


The company also has been trying to reinvent Mickey Mouse and its other characters as trendy and urban.

When Disney relaunched the Muppets last year, Miss Piggy modeled for a British fashion magazine in a Prada dress. In 2004, Dolce & Gabbana featured runway models in Mickey T-shirts.

A thermal shirt sold at Fred Segal features “Pimp Mickey” complete with a gold-studded chain, rhinestone-rimmed glasses and a fedora.

Although Pimp Mickey isn’t at Vault 28, that’s the vibe the store is pursuing.

“It’s really moved to a ‘Mickey is cool’ fashion appeal,” Sharpe said.