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A Street Named Desire : Fashion: Gloomy economic news dampens few spirits along Rodeo Drive, where retailers remain confident that wealth and shopping are here to stay.


At first glance, Beverly Hills seems like God's gift to doomsayers. The town these days is full of morality tales about the perils of easy money and inflated real estate prices. A naive visitor might even wonder why bearded men in robes aren't parading about with signs proclaiming, "The End Is Nigh."

For instance, walk (or have your chauffeur drive you) down Rodeo Drive to Wilshire Boulevard. Right there, across the street, stands the building where junk-bond sorcerer Michael Milken plied his trade not all that long ago, making $550 million for himself in one year. Meanwhile, casual talk is filled with references to multimillion-dollar estates being knocked down to half price, say from $12 million to $6 million.

Yes, you say, the chic, supercharged greed of the '80s is long dead in Beverly Hills, as it is everywhere else. It is getting very dark in Moneyland.

But turn around, go back up Rodeo.

Watch late autumn tourists flutter down the sidewalks, clearly overawed by what they see.

Check out the emerald tiara in a store window.

Take in the new, $200-million-plus retail development called Two Rodeo Drive/Via Rodeo with its 100,000 hand-set cobblestones. (Yes, that's right, $200 million. More or less. Probably more. Anyway, it's the most expensive mini-mall in the universe, wags have noted.)

Look at the other new construction up and down the street as merely lavish stores get upgraded to fabulously lavish.

Above all, talk to the people operating behind the facades and foyers of marble, glass and polished wood, both the new money men and the merchants and landlords who have been here for decades.

In short order, it is clear that the Rodeo Drive of just a few years ago--already more than ritzy enough for more than 99% of Planet Earth--is being transformed by a wave of change. Within the past couple of years, a flood of international investors, developers and big-name fashion houses have staked out major turf here, with designers like Valentino and Christian Dior making the street among their premiere global outlets to the carriage trade.

Thus, as a new and supposedly more restrained decade gathers momentum, this street of material dreams is undergoing a dramatic transformation that promises to make its own world-class standards for conspicuous consumption obsolete.

Whether this latest wave of change proves lasting is, naturally, subject to some doubt. Much of the development and upgrading was planned or launched before the latest economic worries surfaced. Also, Rodeo is as notorious for weeding out stores--like Lanvin and Torie Steele--as it is for making fortunes. Furthermore, the street is filled with mutterings that business is off or not keeping pace--if not for the person you're talking to, then for the guy down the street. Some insiders will even admit that Rodeo Drive isn't recession-proof.

The anxiety, however, floats above a bedrock of confidence in the long-term prospects of the street's two-and-a-half blocks. Which brings us to the core Rodeo ethic: financial disasters come and go, but wealth lasts forever--and shops forever. There is a corollary: A smart merchant is a survivor and always in fashion with the rich, even when they're grumpy and not spending freely.

At least, those are Carolyn Mahboubi's convictions as she sits in her second-floor office facing the big, arched window that overlooks Rodeo. She is the proprietor of a shop selling fashions by Italian designer Gianni Versace. Her family owns the Rodeo Collection, a development intended as a showplace for expensive shops when it opened a decade ago, as well as two other properties on the street.

Mahboubi, 25, concedes that the Rodeo Collection has never lived up to the hype that greeted its opening. But the collection will be getting a face-lift, she notes, predicting that it will shine as bright as any other place on the street. Meanwhile, her confidence in the staying power of real money is unshaken.

"Will the money run out? I don't think so," she says. "Every time someone gets poor, someone else gets rich. The money doesn't go anywhere. It just changes hands, and we're always here for those people who get rich. It's the first place they come to."

While Mahboubi is brash and outspoken, Richard Carroll, 69, is cool and reserved. But he is also confident. He has been on Rodeo Drive for 40 years running Carroll & Co., a 15,000-square-foot men's store that sells conservative, tailored menswear. This latest round of development has been somewhat unexpected, says Carroll, a former head of the city planning commission that made sure Rodeo was kept safe for fashion retailers.

"We've been surprised at what our baby turned into," he says. "We never realized what it was."

Carroll, who describes Beverly Hills as a "closely held corporation," believes the street reached a new plateau in the recent past because of the flood of new development and particularly with the opening of Two Rodeo.

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