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By Design | FASHION / SENSE OF STYLE

Taking Time to Look at the Flowers in Bloomies

September 26, 1996|MIMI AVINS | TIMES FASHION EDITOR

Bloomies is coming! Bloomies is coming!

When the word spread that Bloomingdale's, the New York City department store, would open in four prime Southern California locations in November, people whose shopping genes rule them with a power equaled only by the raging hormones of a teenager cheered. But others, those who either bypass New York on their travels or believe a visit there should be dedicated to pursuits loftier than the search for the perfect velvet pantsuit, asked, "What is this thing called Bloomingdale's?"

Certainly the store's tacky mail-order catalog, a feast of leggings and appliqued tunics, wouldn't encourage anyone to put the store on their itinerary.

The flagship of the 17-store Bloomingdale's chain fills an upper East Side block in a neighborhood of townhouse-lined streets, where characters who might have stepped out of a Woody Allen movie stroll with small dogs cowed by years of city living. Sometime in the late '70s, when "yuppie" entered the national lexicon and baby boomers started earning their first healthy paychecks, it became more than a store. Bloomingdale's was a destination, the place to go on a weekend afternoon--to browse, people-watch and hang out.

The people in its ads looked the way everyone did in their favorite fantasies, and the mix of merchandise communicated the presence of a divine intelligence, with an uncanny understanding of which objects make the pulse race. Bloomingdale's held, if not the secrets of life, then at least the key to the mysteries of great style.

On a survey last week of the 59th street store, signs of that old magic were evident. Great department stores often struggle, though, with the challenge of making their satellites as strong as the mothership. Assuming Bloomingdale's wouldn't go to the trouble of making its new outposts dumbed-down, mall versions of the proud New York namesake, here is a preview of the sort of pleasant surprises the California stores might hold:

In the first-floor women's accessories area, a hip-slung belt with a silver hook closure looked vaguely Gucci-ish. At $85 was it better than the $65 leather strap that threaded through a gold Elsa Peretti-like buckle? The salesman showed me how to knot the latter, then cited the inspirations for this class of belts, including '70s jewelry designer Robert Lee Morris.

The behind-the-scenes buyers and fashion coordinators who interpret and edit trends have done their jobs perfectly here. There was no shortage of designer accessories--acres of Chanel bags and Ferragamo belts. Even with no real Gucci, facsimiles of the look of the season abounded.

When the things one sees in every store suddenly appear more interesting, it's either because the items are bought more selectively, displayed enticingly, or both. That's the feeling on the floor where Ellen Tracy, DKNY, Emanuel and other popular, mid-priced labels are housed, (and even in the department where sheets are sold.) The sportswear displayed on mannequins or hung like chic scarecrows on walls resembled ski clothes. The shopper gets a clear message about the current mood.

Bloomingdale's droll fashion director, Kal Ruttenstein, explains: "Our claim to fame has always been sportswear, and right now we're big on active wear people can wear to the supermarket."

Following his mandate to "be first or at least be best," Ruttenstein also championed the store's temporary "Rent" boutique from March through August this year. He stocked the space with hologram tops and vinyl micro-minis inspired by the hit musical, clothes manufactured especially for the store. (A "Rent" boutique will probably open in the California stores when the play comes to San Diego next summer.) The next limited-run theme boutique in the works is "Evita," tied to the holiday opening of the feature film starring Madonna.

*

A pioneer in creating individual boutiques for each designer, Bloomies also houses design starlets in an area called Paradox.

"That's an experimental place where we begin someone new in a small way," Ruttenstein says. "We hope they'll eventually become strong enough to have their own space."

The effort to showcase special collections extends throughout the store. Bright, whimsical china by British interior designer Tricia Guild stands out in the housewares department, and a sampling of styles from the lower-priced Mani men's collection by Giorgio Armani, Valentino Uomo and Joseph Abboud are exclusives.

It's not as if Bloomingdale's comes like carpetbaggers ready to educate us frontier folk about big city style. Most of the goods on the young designer floor are from California companies such as Laundry by Shelli Segal, BCBG, Guess, Parallel and Karen Kane. Those California styles introduced to New York by Bloomingdale's will be coming back home. In the karma of the retail world, sometimes what goes around comes around.

* Sense of Style appears Thursdays in Life & Style.

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