If Mayberry RFD were crossed with Paris’ Avenue Montaigne, the result might be Melrose Place: two leafy blocks with a global array of luxury boutiques nestling against one another, many with gardens or terraces and climbing vines. Easy to miss while driving through the nearby West Hollywood design district, this tributary of Melrose Avenue is the fashion-lover’s antidote to shopping malls or the endless boulevards of Los Angeles.
On Melrose Place, birdsong replaces canned music and storekeepers sweep sidewalks in the morning. Santa Maria Novella, the 400-year-old perfumer and cosmetic-pharmacy founded by Florentine nuns, set up its only West Coast shop there. French and Italian luxury fashion boutiques Marni, Chloe and Bottega Veneta sit cozily with American fashion houses, including The Row, Oscar de la Renta, Irene Neuwirth, Monique Lhuillier, Rachel Comey and Zero + Maria Cornejo. Indeed, over the past decade fashion has overtaken Melrose Place, turning it into a rival for splashier Rodeo Drive. “People like it because it has a vibe,” says real-estate broker Jay Luchs.
The latest neighbor to arrive is Mansur Gavriel, fast expanding beyond its iconic minimalist bucket bags into shoes, breezy ready-to-wear and even menswear. The store (the brand’s third) opened in February at the west end of Melrose Place with an additional attraction—a cafe serving lunch and afternoon bites such as shaved pasta Romanesco, zucchini salad and polenta cake. With a new take on retail, virtually everything in the Mansur Gavriel store and cafe is for sale, including bottles of Italian olive oil, the dishes and wicker basketry.
Melrose Place lacks the crowds of Rodeo Drive or South Coast Plaza, and boutique managers say that their clients tend to be local and come with the purpose of shopping for apparel rather than to browse for whim purchases such as fragrances and small accessories. “The Place” is also frequented by Hollywood stylists and personal shoppers who cater to clients that have demanding red-carpet and social needs.
Alex Bolen, chief executive of Oscar de la Renta, says that when he and the late designer chose to open a store on Melrose Place more than a decade ago, “we decided it would become a destination for our clients.” Consequently the apparel collections available on Melrose Place are generally more extensive than those in mall boutiques, and they often focus on the brands’ highest-end couture. The Balmain store at the east end of the street recently featured rare heavily beaded and embroidered runway items that would be hard to find at a department store.
If Melrose Place has a shortcoming, it’s a dearth of easy parking. A few stores, such as Bottega Veneta, have spots for a customer or two behind their stores. Ride-sharing and GPS systems are leading more travelers to discover Melrose Place in search of off-the-beaten track gems. Discovery is helped along by the emergence of eateries, anchored by Fig & Olive. While Alfred’s coffee house is the most noticeable place to grab a bite or a sip, with tables spilling out onto the sidewalk, just up a small alleyway are a Moon Juice juice bar and the pink Instagram-worthy walls of Alfred Tea Room, which serves up frothy matcha and other teas.
Melrose Place is a tributary of the longer and more storied Melrose Avenue, which runs through the heart of Los Angeles. Melrose Avenue to the east was the retail soul of L.A.’s punk scene in the 1990s—a period when the neighborhood businesses on Melrose Place included a dry cleaner and a porn-film shop. (It had nothing to do with the soap opera Melrose Place, which was actually filmed in a small Los Feliz apartment building miles away from West Hollywood.)
Luchs recalls arriving in LA in the mid 1990s and eating glazed shrimp at Manhattan WonTon, which later became the celebrated French restaurant Bastide and today is Mansur Gavriel. Over time, rug purveyors and antique stores moved in—today’s Chloe boutique was formerly an art gallery—but there was still a mix of offices and even residences in 19tk, when Neil Diamond bought a small building with a rectangular swimming pool in the courtyard for his office and studio. The singer’s office was later overtaken by the John Frieda boutique, where celebrity hair stylist Sally Hirshberger attracted clients like Meg Ryan, who were soon dashing along the small street to appointments.
Today that building holds the spa-like The Row boutique, where it’s tempting to take a seat on one of the chairs by the pool and read a book. This is the second store for the coveted label founded and designed by former child actresses Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen. Here, too, in addition to The Row’s meticulously placed clothes, handbags, shoes and jewelry, even most of the furnishings are for sale—though some require the personal approval of the owners (the Olsens).
The Italian brand Marni was the fashion pioneer on the street in 2004, followed quickly by Marc Jacobs, which soon drew the attention of Oscar de la Renta. On a visit with Alex Bolen to Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, de la Renta suggested they take a look at the new Marc Jacobs store. Jet-lagged after flying from New York, the two gentlemen arrived before the store opened, but an unoccupied two-story brick building down the street drew their curiosity, Bolen recalls. He wandered along the side of the building and discovered an unlocked window. “So I did what some people would call breaking and entering,” Bolen says, noting that both he and de la Rental were dressed in suits and ties—and that de la Renta protested out of fear they could be arrested. “I climbed through the window,” says Bolen, “and I walked through the space, opened the door and persuaded Oscar to come in.”
The Oscar de la Renta boutique there today is entered through a white wooden gate and a brick garden path that could lead to Miss Marple’s house. There is an inviting brick terrace and a prodigious array of the exquisite evening and wedding gowns for which the label is famous. A fireplace in the foyer completes the residential tone.
Maria Cornejo took over a former rug store on Melrose Place in 2010, bringing in her brother to oversee the construction. “When we thought of opening a store in L.A., I liked the idea of a shopping street rather than a mall,” says Cornejo. The street’s hodgepodge of architecture is its essence, she notes. “Every place has its own character.”