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Rodeo Retailers: Life, Death in the Flash Lane

February 07, 1986|DIANE REISCHEL | Times Staff Writer

For many retailers, Rodeo Drive is the street of fortune--a shopping mecca that cashes in on glamour, prestige and an international fashion image.

But others find it's not so easy to make it on the street of gilded dreams.

An early sign of flux came 18 months ago when Lanvin, a Paris-based fashion boutique, left Rodeo. Last December, Rome-based Fendi moved out. Along the way, several other businesses have vanished from the street.

Mathews, a women's apparel store, closed its doors in June after 17 years on the street--weary, owners say, of Rodeo "glitter" and "astronomical" rents.

Furrier Lowell & Edwards moved off Rodeo Drive last April to less pricey digs nearby, as did the Williams-Sonoma gourmet cookware store (in June) and Hunter's bookstore (in August).

And Celine, the European women's boutique, left Rodeo in December, the result of too many tourists and not enough spenders. Next month, the store plans to reopen elsewhere on Rodeo in half its former space.

'A Little Disillusioned'

"I think some people are a little disillusioned with Rodeo," notes James Sheekey, senior sales consultant with Coldwell Banker in Beverly Hills. "They thought just because they were there, they were going to be fantastic merchandisers. They found out the street does not make the tenant."

Yet, it's still the Gold Coast. Some longtime retailers say they would never leave Rodeo. Others are expanding. And still others, new to the street, say their sales are beyond their greatest expectations.

Fred Hayman, president of Rodeo cornerstone Giorgio, Beverly Hills, calls Rodeo "the best street in the world," for those who understand its sophisticated clientele. "There is a lot of good traffic on Rodeo, if you know how to handle it."

But real estate agent Gilbert Dembo says competition from Melrose and Montana avenues, Beverly Center, Westside Pavilion and Century City malls has cut into the sales of some Rodeo retailers, who pay among the highest rents in the city.

"The small merchants are having a very difficult time, not getting the traffic that is required to sustain them," says Dembo, president of Gilbert Dembo & Associates, a Beverly Hills-based commercial real estate firm. "Rent is a factor. Some landlords are more reasonable than others."

In a Jan. 10 editorial, March Schwartz, publisher for 20 years of the weekly Beverly Hills Courier, urged Rodeo retailers to treat customers more courteously and to "hunker down and get on the ball."

Schwartz reported counting 74 store vacancies in the Business Triangle of Beverly Hills, of which Rodeo Drive is the kingpin address. This "golden triangle" is bordered by Santa Monica Boulevard, Wilshire Boulevard and Crescent Drive and includes parts of Rodeo, Beverly, Camden, Bedford and Roxbury drives, Brighton Way and Dayton Way.

"This is as high as I've ever seen it (the vacancy rate)," Schwartz says in an interview, blaming the problem, in part, on absentee store ownership and retailer inexperience.

Although real estate agents won't confirm his count, Coldwell Banker salesman Stanley L. McElroy Jr. says: "The vacancy factor has been getting larger and larger."

"Whenever rents keep getting higher, there's always going to be more turnover," McElroy says. "You have to be that much better a retailer to compete."

Many are competing. Beverly Hills Revenue Manager John Brewer says taxable apparel sales in the Business Triangle were up an estimated 8.9% in 1985 over 1984, compared to an estimated 7.5% growth in statewide general sales.

"Beverly Hills business did not grow as fast as retailers anticipated, but it's slightly better than the average for the state," Brewer says.

Rodeo Drive commands the highest rents in the Triangle, with monthly boutique rentals running $10 or more a square foot, McElroy says. That translates to $10,000 a month for a 1,000-square-foot store. Rents on other streets in the Triangle run one third that amount, according to McElroy.

Ruth Mathews says she and her husband, Arnold Albert, closed their 35-year-old retail business in June rather than face a costly new lease.

"We would have had to go off of Rodeo, after all those years," says Mathews, co-founder and clothing designer for the store. "The rents went absolutely astronomical.

"When the property went up, up, up, we decided we weren't going to work for the landlords any more." Mathews, who also co-founded Mathews shops in New York, Chicago, Palm Springs and Newport Beach, came to Rodeo in the late 1960s, a time when the street had "a California signature" and catered to the neighborhood, she says.

But when the Rodeo Drive Committee formed in 1977 to promote the street internationally, Mathews says the street was hyped as "rich, rich, rich. That kind of thing, to me, was obscene. I think the only thing the (committee) did is bring a lot of shoplifters and tourists, and they made landlords very rich."

Developer Don Tronstein, chairman of the Rodeo Drive Committee, declined to address Mathews' statement.

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