The Crowd: Celebrating a visionary

It is no simple task to cast a magic spell over a social event.

On Sept. 19 in the garden of Hotel Bel-Air, Los Angeles, the executive team of Costa Mesa's South Coast Plaza welcomed 100 guests for a 45th anniversary celebration dinner. The operative word was "magic."

The plaza's talented Debra Gunn Downing, exquisitely attired in a floor-length, summer, sleeveless satin gown by Lanvin and escorted by beau attorney Charles Kanter, introduced the evening's host, Henry Segerstrom, South Coast Plaza founder and managing partner of one of America's legendary fashion empires.

Segerstrom joined his very chic wife, Elizabeth, and dedicated son Anton Segerstrom and his bright and beautiful bride, Jennifer. The Segerstrom contingent proudly greeted the arriving crush, many of whom had dealt with the journey on the San Diego (405) Freeway from Orange County to be a part of the special occasion.

The night sky enveloped the stately sycamore trees in the hotel garden bringing down the daytime temperature from the triple digit mark to an intoxicating 75 degrees by 8 p.m. A light dew dusted the thick green grass as is the norm in Bel Air's Stone Canyon, even on the hottest of days.

Designers set up one long banquet table seating all 100 guests down the center of the garden lawn. Fifty-foot strands of twinkling white lights hung from the tallest limbs of the craggy sycamores. The sounds of an orchestra of crickets clicked and ticked away, punctuating cocktail conversation as guests moved from an upper terrace where hors d' oeuvres were offered, down to the garden for dinner. O.C.'s Sunny Ravanbach of the Black Iris created a centerpiece of magnificent roses and orchids interspersed with white magnolia flowers from one end of the table to the other.

The anniversary evening was created to coincide with the unveiling of South Coast Plaza's fall 2012 portfolio, which had been shot in California's Big Sur.

The enormous trees of Stone Canyon seemed to be an ideal fit for such a party, and also an opportunity for fashionistas to explore the newly renovated and redecorated hotel, which had been shuttered for two-plus years while undergoing a new look. The legendary hotel remains a romantic hideaway but no longer exudes old world understated class. Its décor now follows the modernistic trend: angular, simplistic and monochromatic. Definitely more youthful, attracting the Hollywood 30-something crowd and those who would like to be in that milieu.

In a way the setting was a perfect choice to showcase the 45-year triumph of an O.C. landmark. Hotel Bel-Air felt it needed to be reinvented for 21st century patrons much in the same manner as Henry Segerstrom and his staff have continuously sought to reinvent and to reach beyond the norm in the world of fashion retail, always looking ahead of the current style to find the next trend, the newest ideas, pushing the artistic envelope.

In 1966, Henry Segerstrom, then 43, a World War II wounded veteran, Stanford University graduate, father of three and business man, turned a longtime, family-run agrarian business into a new 20th century model. He

shared with the dinner table stories of those early days, recounting challenges from the doubters and giving a glimpse into the motivation of the man that made South Coast Plaza what it is.

"There was a French designer, Courreges, just coming on scene," Henry Segerstrom said as the crowd responded with, "Oh, yes."

They recalled the pure white A-line dresses with the orange Courreges logo and the mini white patent leather boots that were the height of French fashion.

"I was able to speak with the designer and convince him that South Coast Plaza would be an ideal location for a store," he continued, adding, "After some negotiation, he agreed and Courreges came to South Coast Plaza. This was the beginning."

To put this in perspective, Orange County in 1967 was not the sophisticated international market it is today. Major anchor stores included the likes of Sears, which remains today surrounded by the ultra trendy design houses. And that is why Henry Segerstrom is often called "visionary."

Guests enjoying a three-course dinner beginning with a gourmet roasted heirloom beet salad and an entrée of loup de mer followed by a summer fruit tart for dessert included O.C.'s best dressed Betty Huang and husband L.S. Huang, Eric Spitz, the new president of Freedom Communications leading the O.C. Register, the glamorous Dee Higby and husband Larry Higby, debonair Michael Moser representing Harry Winston, Jean-Paul Nataf, international fashion stylist Nicole Pollard, from Hermes Yuki Ozawa, and the ever elegant Caroline Graham.

THE CROWD runs Thursdays and Saturdays. B.W. Cook is editor of the Bay Window, the official publication of the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach.

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