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THIS GIMMICK WORKS : Make-Believe Alex Sebastian Makes for-Real Fortune for South Coast Plaza Partners, Ober and Barnett

February 16, 1988|MARY ANN GALANTE | Times Staff Writer

Alex Sebastian has spent much of the past decade in the public eye. He has gotten piles of fan mail, appeared in glossy magazine ads, produced his own private-label Cabernet Sauvignon and sold bottles of sexy cologne with his name on the label.

Not bad for a 10-year-old, especially one who lives only in the make-believe world of advertising, with next-door neighbors like Mrs. Paul and Mr. Goodwrench.

Alex Sebastian, you see, was created in 1977 as a sales tool to help introduce a new men's clothing store called--what else--Alex Sebastian Men's Wear.

But while Alex got all the ink, it is Larry Ober, his creator and one of South Coast Plaza's most successful merchants, who has been raking in the profits.

Sales Have Climbed

In the decade since Ober and partner Douglas Barnett opened the store, sales at Alex Sebastian have climbed ever upward. Last year, the tony shop was the top full-line men's store at the megamall and, on a sales-per-square-foot basis, possibly the most successful in the nation. Gross revenue for the 2,500-square-foot store was "well over $2 million," Ober said, or about four times the national average of $250 a square foot.

Today, Ober and Barnett own three stores at the county's premiere mall: Alex Sebastian, the new Alex Sport and Larry Douglas (which was the partners' first store and is named after them).

They also own a second Larry Douglas and two other Alex Sebastians, all in other Southern California malls. Combined annual sales for the six stores--which are managed through a holding company, Larry Douglas Ltd.--are "well over $5 million," Ober said.

A former May Co. buyer who successfully made the transition to entrepreneurship, Ober, 50, is considerably more soft-spoken and understated than his brash alter ego.

Advertising Gimmick

He created Alex Sebastian as an advertising gimmick to launch the first store of that name, telling his tale in a biography that was mailed to 100,000 Southland households.

The story--which mentioned that Alex was opening a clothing store at South Coast Plaza to share his love of tasteful things with other men of the world--told of how Sebastian grew up in the world of hand-tailored clothes, thoroughbred horses and manicured lawns.

Born into an old-world European family that made its fortune in wine, Sebastian was described as the sort who sipped his private-label Cabernet Sauvignon by the fireplace, draped to perfection in a silk jacket and trousers of crisp linen--all sold, of course, at the new South Coast store.

And a star was born.

"He became kind of a mystique," Ober recalled. "Some people asked for him" when they came into the store. Others wrote him letters.

To feed the myth, Alex Sebastian wine was served in the store. The wine has since been discontinued, but four-ounce bottles of Alex Sebastian cologne still are sold at $34.50 a bottle.

Nowadays, merchandise from all six of the Ober-Barnett stores is promoted in Visions, an oversized, full-color "fashion brochure" Ober mails quarterly to 125,000 carefully selected households.

Another of Ober's marketing touches is to impress on his salespeople that they are not salespeople but "clothing counselors" who "don't sell anything." His staff helps customers coordinate outfits, but never bothers them with a sales pitch, Ober claims.

The Ober-Barnett stores' shoppers tend to be affluent men in their 30s, 40s and 50s who like fashionable, well-made--and sometimes very pricey--clothing. It's the sort of merchandise that would appeal to, say, LA Law's Arnie Becker.

And Ober's customers do include some real-life stars. Celebrities like Merv Griffin, Kenny Loggins and Donny Osmond wear threads from Alex Sebastian and Alex Sport. A busload of athletes like Rod Carew, Joe Montana and Eric Dickerson also have made a few selections.

But the stores' main appeal isn't their celebrity clientele.

Instead, it is the line of clothing that Ober and Barnett have put together and constantly update.

It is "very, very contemporary, and that seems to be the market today," said Howard Chasin, manager of Chasin's, a men's and women's apparel store at South Coast Plaza. "It's super, super high fashion and a real trendy look. . . . He caters to the young, affluent kid who's 20-40 years old and . . . he's really got that market at the mall."

Ober prefers to describe his merchandise as "upscale, quality, international clothing."

That translates to full lines of clothing--including suits, shoes, and sportswear--at Alex Sebastian and Larry Douglas.

The partners opened their first store, Larry Douglas, at South Coast in 1975. Ober describes the merchandise in the 1,900-square-foot store as "younger, international clothing . . . moderately priced." That translates to sportswear and suits in the $350-$550 range.

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