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Fashion : Bravo, the Pacesetter of High-Profile Society

September 22, 1989|BETTY GOODWIN | Goodwin is a regular contributor to the Times fashion pages

Rose Marie Bravo isn't a designer label. But from her Union Square office in San Francisco, 38-year-old Bravo wields enormous influence over what the women of Los Angeles will wear to lunch at the Bistro Garden or a performance at the Music Center.

Appointed chairman and chief executive of I. Magnin and Bullocks Wilshire last spring by her mentor, Edward S. Finkelstein, chairman and chief executive of the department stores' parent company, R. H. Macy & Co., Bravo is a retail star--one of the youngest and highest-ranking women in the retail business nationwide.

Her salary was estimated in excess of $1,000 per day in an article that ran in the San Francisco Examiner last fall.

She is not only making her mark on Macy's two toniest divisions, but also on polite society, an important constituency of both Bullocks Wilshire and I. Magnin (preferred by Nancy Reagan)--or at least on how the social people dress.

Paloma Picasso black leather tote bag in hand, Chanel purse on her shoulder, Bravo hits the road with the frequency of a rock star as she dashes from European collections to store inspections to society-splashed San Francisco dinners to honor her name-brand designers. All along the way, she makes mental notes of what high-profile types such as San Francisco socialite Ann Getty wear.

She was on the road again recently for one of her frequent visits to Los Angeles, this time to concentrate on I. Magnin. (She oversees all 23 I. Magnin stores, including eight in Southern California, along with the seven Southern California Bullocks Wilshire stores.)

On this particular day, a car picks her up at home in the wee hours of the morning and delivers her to the airport in time to make it to I. Magnin, Beverly Hills, by 10 a.m. Italian designers Rosita and Tai Missoni are making a personal appearance.

The Missonis are flattered--if a little shocked--to see the chic, high-energy executive standing in the store to greet them. She wears a beige, chevron-patterned suit from their fall collection. (Suit size: large. "I thought, did I gain that much weight?" Bravo giggles.)

"We were always very nicely received at I. Magnin, I must say," Rosita says, "but we didn't expect to see the chairman ."

After spending the morning attending to the Missonis, making sure among other things that they have enough to eat, Bravo holes up inside an office for a conference with Betty Leonard, store manager and operating vice president.

Instead of talking sales figures, she fires off a multitude of questions about certain key social events. Especially the recent gala for the Los Angeles Music Center Opera.

"Does everybody go to this thing?" she grills Leonard. "What were they wearing? Who were the important designers? Any trends in the dresses? Did you see lots of chiffon?

"Was there any Armani? What about St. Laurent with the brocade?" she inquires of two designers with their own boutiques at I. Magnin.

She even wants to know trends in evening bags. Were they beaded, satin or quilted?

These aren't idle inquiries. The Beverly Hills store is a barometer for all the others. (Half of I. Magnin's business is done in Southern California and Phoenix.)

"If something is upscale and unique and expensive and it doesn't sell in Beverly Hills, well, chances are it's not going to sell anywhere we have a store," Bravo explains.

"The ladies in L.A. want whatever's new, whatever's hot. They want it first. They want it now ."

Bravo, a Macy's New York careerist, rose from associate buyer of cosmetics and fragrances in 1974 to senior vice president for merchandising (cosmetics, coats, accessories, fine jewelry) before Finkelstein sent her packing to San Francisco last April. It was just after he acquired Federated Department Stores' California divisions, including the Bullock's and Bullocks Wilshire stores as well as I. Magnin.

"Mr. Finkelstein basically said to me, 'I want you to run these stores, now figure out how to do it,' " Bravo recalls.

She put Bullocks Wilshire and I. Magnin under one management, consolidated buying offices and made merchandise changes, while being sensitive to the stores' differences.

Hoping to imitate the success of the menswear business for Bullocks Wilshire, for instance, a men's suit and clothing department opened in I. Magnin, Beverly Hills, three months ago. In exchange, Bullocks Wilshire has recently seen an influx of women's ready-to-wear designer labels.

Next, like a woman redecorating two houses at once, Bravo started a massive, $5-million-plus (sources say) renovation and redecoration of the Beverly Hills I. Magnin store, and began planning changes for Bullocks Wilshire.

Now, the designer salon at Magnin's has a working fireplace and a pouf covered in a Bill Blass leopard print. Soon, Bullocks Wilshire's first floor will get some spit and polish.

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