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It’s trendy to be frugal

Months before financial markets collapsed in fall 2008, boutique proprietor Lee-Lee Sprenger noticed that her usually free-spending customers were flinching at $900 price tags on sweaters fresh from Italy. Sales at Melange on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica have been sinking ever since.

“We’re barely making it here on Montana,” she said. “Most of the businesses have had a 60% drop in sales.”

Sprenger is holding on, barely, but dozens of empty storefronts and “going out of business” signs along the tony shopping street attest to the pervasive misery afflicting merchants.

The rarefied Westside -- that repository of riches old and nouveau, that bastion of Bimmers and Benzes, Vikings and Valentinos -- is showing some recession-induced fraying around its relatively prosperous edges.

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Signs of distress abound on once-hot retailing strips like Los Angeles’ Melrose Avenue and West 3rd Street, which increasingly resemble no man’s lands.

A recession for Bel-Air and Brentwood, to be sure, looks different from a recession in Detroit or Riverside, where manufacturing and warehousing jobs and purchasing power have been shredded.

“The Westside of Los Angeles may be feeling depressed and in the dumps and a little insecure, but it is nothing compared to other parts of the country,” said Peter Dunham, a Los Angeles interior designer.

In good economic times, Westside shops, party planners, galleries and decorators tend to thrive, catering as many do to the wealthy and the wealthy wannabes. The area has long been a mecca for those seeking unique, trendy or deluxe items that people don’t need but must have.

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In the recent bad times, however, even big spenders have found themselves embracing a new frugality that requires forgoing that new pair of $500 stilettos or $250 jeans.

Some spending cutbacks are the sort only a multimillionaire could appreciate, like canceling one of multiple private club memberships or sharing a private jet with another family. But the malaise has also hit middle-income Westsiders who in flush times helped keep cash registers ringing.

Along Montana, where home-grown businesses have lent the street an aura of charm and uniqueness, more than 30 storefronts sit vacant. Among the departed are fixtures such as KidsBizz, rug merchant Effandi and Ames Apparel. Babystyle closed after a quick liquidation. Shabby Chic, a once unstoppable force in home furnishings, also went under. Women’s clothier Darylle B reduced its space, and Subtle Tones is seeking smaller quarters for its clothing and home items.

Deep discounts drew Liz Conroy, 25, to Montana Avenue recently. Just four years out of college, Conroy, a political consultant, said she is “struggling with the job market” and has plenty of company.

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“All my friends who graduated with me are going through rounds of layoffs,” she said. “Everything’s blowing up around them.”

By contrast, Dori Weisberg -- who helped launch the Television Food Network and whose husband, Robert, co-founded HBO -- could have afforded to pay the full $185 price for a Shabby Chic sheet but was pleased to snag it for $45.

Having returned recently after several months in New York, Weisberg was stunned by the number of “For Lease” signs on Montana. “I’m used to changing stores, but not empty stores,” she said. The downturn was perhaps the inevitable result after years of easy credit. “People were way overspending, almost mindlessly,” she said.

The recession’s effects are rippling out to a wide range of entrepreneurs.

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For Randy Fuhrman, a Los Angeles event planner whose clients have included Barbra Streisand, Steven Spielberg and Walt Disney Studios, business began heading south last October. Private and corporate clients canceled holiday parties that had been months in the planning, in some cases forfeiting thousands of dollars in venue deposits. Even now, Fuhrman said, some customers who have money despite the stock market dive seem too embarrassed to spend it.

“They just don’t want to throw it in their friends’ faces,” he said. “Corporate is the same way, afraid to do anything that looks extravagant.”

Like many competitors, Fuhrman is trying to reinvent himself. He has offered to teach private cooking classes in homes, prepare small dinner parties and produce scaled-down events for scaled-down fees.

“I did one wedding that I kind of gifted because they had only a $1,500 budget,” he said. The burly brownie baker also recently pitched himself to a cruise line as the “Bear Chef.” (So far, no nibbles.)

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Katie Leede McGloin, a Santa Monica interior designer, said her clients have been redoing one room at a time rather than an entire house. There’s a sense, she said, that “the party’s over, the bubbly times, and it’s a time to draw in.”

“Everyone has become much more conscious of the bottom line,” she said. Commercial brokers say they are seeing signs of life. Vacant storefronts on Beverly and Canon drives in Beverly Hills are filling up, and, nearby, South Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles is coming back, said Jay Luchs, executive vice president of CB Richard Ellis.

But on Montana, high rents continue to force the shuttering or downsizing of strapped stores. Selling European imports remains a challenge at Melange. Sprenger recently posted a big “inventory sale” sign.

“We will be moving a couple of blocks west,” she said. “Same street, but at a markedly reduced rent.”

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martha.groves@latimes.com


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