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A 'Mall' Where Gen Xers Feel Right at Home

January 14, 1994|ROSE APODACA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — Picture this: stripped, wrought-iron patio furniture draped with tapestry fabrics and arranged over a worn Oriental rug, not indoors but alfresco. Castoff junk, such as a yard-long ceramic fish, carefully exhibited as art. A few feet away, free-standing pillars supporting a gilded Madonna statuette and a vase of fresh flowers.

Young people come to this former factory and warehouse to hang out or peruse the alternative publications. They listen to the jazz, blues or alternative-music ensembles that perform next to the Gallery, where local designers show their wares. Soon, they will be able to screen music videos and watch foreign and art films.

Incidentally, these visitors also come to shop.

Welcome to the Lab, a 40,000-square-foot experiment in retail, custom-tailored for the '90s and targeted at that most discussed group of the decade, Generation X.

Anchoring the new center are Urban Outfitters, a chain that merges comfort with cool; Na Na, the terminally hip retail end of a company built on a Dr. Marten distributorship, and Tower Records Alternative, devoted to new music as long as it's not classical.

The Lab is embraced as a one-stop shopping source by youths who eschew mainstream dress, music and lifestyles. They may have previously zigzagged to boutiques selling unconventional and pre-trendy fashions or traveled Los Angeles' La Brea Avenue or Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, which features Urban Outfitters and Na Na. The Lab's founder, Shaheen Sadeghi, says it's designed to be everything a traditional mall is not.

"Malls are homes to corporate America; they're very much homogenized," says Sadeghi, who dubbed his center, in the shadow of mecca mall South Coast Plaza, an "anti-mall."

"Our approach to our customer is apropos to the times. We don't try to dazzle," Sadeghi says. "Malls don't like people to hang out. We do. The mall works with national brands; we don't, necessarily. I don't want to bum the malls out, but anybody that's young and hip doesn't want to go to a mall. Once you do, you lose your cool."

Sadeghi, 39, is familiar with youth culture: Before beginning the project 14 months ago, he served a year as president of surfwear giant Quiksilver, preceded by five years as executive vice president at Gotcha.

"The whole idea is that this is not a perfect world," he says. "People like (the Lab) because it's not perfect."

The former factory has been gutted, carved, acid-washed and transformed into post-apocalyptic remains that house 15 store spaces, ranging from Urban Outfitters' 12,000 square feet to the Collector's Library, a crammed comic-book source, at 256 square feet.

Beams and pipes are exposed inside and outside stores, as are the structural metal tubes that once ran through a concrete wall. A few solid chunks remain as a reminder. Much of the wood and metal scraps that cover the walls were found in salvage yards.

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The use of these "poor elements" fits the recycling mode often advocated by the Lab's target market, says Lab architect Ron Pompeii of New York-based Pompeii A.D.

"Rather than create a synthetic bubble where everyone is pulled in and air-conditioned and treated to Muzak, we cut into an existing structure, revealing what's there instead of covering it with some other kind of material," he says.

Following the anti-mall theme, Sadeghi invited retailers, such as Na Na, that avoid malls. "This is the only one that's in any kind of 'mall,' " says Na Na co-owner Lynn Tyler, "and this isn't a traditional mall, anyway."

Initially, the Lab considered a bazaar-like environ where up-and-coming local designers could set up shop, much like London's Hyper Hyper, which supports new English designers. That, however, was nixed, Sadeghi says, because "you just can't shove 50 new people without prior retail experience into a space."

Instead, he cites Urban Outfitters as an outlet for fledgling labels. Already, home-grown companies such as Split, Soul, 26 Red, Spot Girl, Fusion and Sjobeck hang alongside the Philadelphia-based company's own lines--Urban Outfitters, Free People, Co-operative and Renewal.

And some local designers have settled into homes of their own at the Lab. Newport Beach's Modern Amusement will sell its hip, retro-style kids' clothes when it opens in a log-cabin-designed store Feb. 1. In the spirit of recycling, much of the store is being constructed with discarded wood; the counter is being made from pieces from the old Laguna Beach boardwalk.

Jewelry designer Spencer Brown sought to avoid "the general public" by opening his Spencer Collection/the Bead Co. at the Lab. The Belmont Shore artist sells some of his 600-piece line as well as thousands of beads of glass, shells, ceramic, semiprecious stones and other materials.

Hyper Hyper's spirit has not been completely abandoned by the Gallery, a consignment showcase that will rotate local designers' wares monthly.

The courtyard's weathered furniture is for sale by Bungalow, which has a conventional sister store in Laguna Beach. And, not to be left out, there is a Lab store that sells signature Ts, pullovers, hats and other basics dyed in muted colors.

If that's not enough for the young bohemians, among the businesses set to open soon are Taxi Taxi, a vintage clothing store, a hair salon and two restaurants, in addition to a coffeehouse named the Gypsy Den.

"We wanted to mix together all the things important to this generation," Sadeghi says. "But this is about more than shopping. It's quite the opposite of a strip center; you don't pop in and leave. It is a place where culture can be nourished."

The Lab, 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa. For general information, call (714) 497-9899.

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