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Topics / PETS : All the Creature Comforts for Cats

August 18, 1994|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a perfect kitty world, catnip and stinky fish-shaped snacks would flow like water. Scratching posts you could really sink your claws into would look like the dog next door. And cushy, fuzzy mouse rugs--with head and tail attached, please--would be stacked mattress-high for the recumbent feline.

No, this is not a cat's hedonistic dreamscape. This is real-life stuff at the Crazy Cat Lady store in West Los Angeles, where Susan Lee, the doyenne of cat lovers, presides over a stock only Fifi could love.

With a "No Dogs Allowed" welcome mat at the door, the place is geared to feline-inclined shoppers, who can choose from an array of designer kitty chic ranging from faux leather jackets trimmed with metal rivets and chains ($40) complete with matching hats ($18) to posh, velveteen lounging thrones trimmed with gold fringe ($79)--crowns not included.

"It's not a pet store . . . it's not a gift store . . . it's really sort of a kitty experience," said Lee, whose store is on West 3rd Street just east of La Cienega Boulevard.

"In this dog-eat-dog world, this is a kitty utopia where you can imagine life as a cat. It's an environment scaled down to their size, a place where cats feel comfortable shopping . . . where they can sit in a club chair ($325) without getting yelled at or try out a (faux) mouse-skin rug ($49)."

The brains behind the business are her cats, Lee said, who "tell me the ideas they have and I translate them."

Lee, a former advertising copywriter who parlayed her kitty passion into a witty, Crazy Cat Lady mail-order catalogue business four years ago, has let her own sybaritic, urbane cats--all five of them--lead the way in merchandise design. For instance, when two of her cats snoozed on a bath towel, she came up with the idea for monogrammed miniature cat towels.

And when Clementine and Tiny E--the E is for Elvis--bedded down on oversized floor pillows, Lee was inspired to design kitty lounging thrones.

"You know how cats like to be elevated off the ground because they feel that they are above it all?" said Lee, talking over a recording of songs that include such feline favorites as "Three Blind Mice," "Three Little Fishies" and "The Pussycat Song."

Lee constructs the product prototypes, then graphic designer Jay Vigon, known for the man/fish icon he created for Gotcha Sportswear, conjures up the ultra-hip geometric cat images that adorn the kitty-ware.

Earrings and pendants--for people--as well as food dish trays and kitty beds are decked with a panoply of cat shapes and other images. A mock cardboard house complete with windows, a door and potted plants transforms a mundane thing like a litter box into the upscale Antoinette's Chateau & Toilette ($125).

"I took the Crazy Cat Lady on because I found it intriguing," Vigon said. "I don't mind cats. I have two little girls who each have a cat."

Of course, Lee is given to hyperbole, as most parents are.

Clementine, who has been brought from home to pose for a photographer, is hiding deep in the recesses of the store. But Lee, who holds one of the gold crowns ($10) decked with multicolored rhinestones she has designed for the fall catalogue's "royalty theme," insists that "Clemmy" loves to wear the crown.

Hours later, after much arduous coaxing, Clementine comes out and the crown is propped on her head, secured by elastic straps around the chin and ears.

"She has PMS or something," Lee said, with a wry smile. "Normally she is transformed by the crown into a princess with regal manners."

Lee said the mail-order catalogue did so well--it has a circulation of 50,000--that she decided to open the store, satisfying customers' desires to see the merchandise while drawing a walk-in clientele as well.

"In a recent survey I mailed out in my catalogue, I asked, 'What products make your tail stand straight up?' (in cat patois: products that are highly desirable). Or, 'What products make you want to use the litter box?' "

The market for chic cat-ware is sizable. Consider that cats are the No. 1 pet in the United States, with 63.2 million felines in households nationwide, compared with 54.5 million dogs. Lee, who addresses catalogues to the cat of the house, established a substantial customer base through advertising in national magazines.

*

Take Robyn Ray, a thirtysomething casting director, who just moved into a new apartment in Beverly Hills. To celebrate the move, Ray bought her beloved cat Shadey a 1950s-style, pink-with-black-trim "Kitty Dinette set" ($159).

"Who needs a big orange cat condo (scratching post and house) in their living room?" said Ray, who keeps her cat indoors. "I bought the dog scratching post. And I bought the leather jacket. . . . It was a moment of insanity, and quite frankly, I didn't have the money."

And as the seasons turn, so does the kitty fashion beat. This fall, fashion writers report that elegance (for people) is in. And Lee is ever ready to rise to the style-makers' forecast. So she has created a new litter box cover, a Biedermeier-inspired screen and a kitty-size "shabby chic couch." The tiny bed/couch comes complete with oversize pillows and damask, tone-on-tone neutral slipcovers with a box pleat trim at the bottom.

"It looks just like our couch," Lee said. "I can't blast (my cat) out of it. I made it because they are always sitting on our couch. As far as they're concerned, it is the same thing."

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