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New Threads on the Block

Upstart clothing stores draw the alternative set to Fullerton's quaint, and now diversifying, downtown.


Among the brick and stucco buildings in the quaint business district of Fullerton, a new wave of upstart clothing stores has turned this 110-year-old town into a peculiar melding of Mayberry and Melrose.

With names such as Pyro, Nothing Shocking and Roadkill, and mannequins dressed in everything from black vinyl bras to blue hair, the stores have helped Fullerton become a mecca for those seeking alternative fashions. Fullerton is starting to challenge other areas, namely Laguna Beach with its artsy boutiques, Costa Mesa with its so-called anti-mall and Huntington Beach with its many surf-and-skate shops.

"Of course, everyone is having hissy fits about body piercing and see-through bras," says Judi Smith Trasport, an artist and sales rep at Rebel Smith, a women's boutique that has the kind of romantic ambience typically associated with the town. Still, Trasport says, most people welcome "a little more diversity" to the town because it's bringing in more foot traffic.

Fullerton's Downtown Business Assn. reports that the chief complaint old-timers have about newcomers such as Pyro is that the increase in business has added to a parking shortage along Harbor Boulevard--not the worst problem for merchants to have.

"At first, some people weren't too sure about the new store names, but the whole point of downtown is that it will never be Brea Mall," says Michael Ritto, association president.

Those who frequent Fullerton are drawn to the town's eclectic offerings.

"You can go to one of the new shops and get your navel pierced, or you can go to an upscale boutique like Myra Magis," says Gayle Kaplan, a Yorba Linda resident and Fullerton regular who leans more to Myra Magis than to Pyro.

Up and down Harbor, and along connecting Commonwealth and Wilshire, there's a growing concentration of stores run by and for Gen Xers. Young entrepreneurs are attracted by the town's five colleges, including Cal State Fullerton and Fullerton College, and five high schools. They're also looking for a place with a past, the kind of character a mall that sprung up overnight can't offer.

Daniel Olender, who just turned 20, opened his Pyro clothing store eight months ago. Although he has showrooms in Los Angeles and New York that wholesale his Pyro clothing line, he chose Fullerton as the site of his first retail location because the demographics were perfect for his brand of funky fashions, which are heavy on vinyl, faux fur and polyester plaid.

"It's a large area of people to draw from," says Olender, dwarfed behind a massive executive desk in his back office. "And I like the downtown atmosphere."

Salon Unity, which delivers hip haircuts, opened in Fullerton three years ago because the owners--six entrepreneurs ages 24 to 30--liked the downtown feel and wanted to attract a creative, experimental clientele.

"We cater to artistic young people. A lot of our clients are on the cutting edge," says owner James Cook.

People come to Fullerton to escape the monotony of suburban strip malls, he says, as well as the sameness of chain stores.

"They're tired of going to the mall. They're looking for something that's not so corporate," he says. "When we first opened there, weren't that many interesting stores, but it's getting better and better."

On a recent weekday morning, half a dozen people in their teens and 20s hunkered over coffee cups and cigarettes at Rock-N-Java, one of several local coffee shops.

"I spend a lot of time in Fullerton. There are more places to hang out," says Brenda Wall, a 17-year-old Orange resident who on this day sports blue jeans, a black T-shirt and heavy eyeliner.

Wall likes to frequent the local clothing stores, especially Denim X Change, which sells vintage clothes, and Ipso Facto for "jewelry and stuff."

"I'm not a total mall rat," she says.

It's not just the young and daring who will venture into stores with names like Nothing Shocking and Pyro.

"We get people you'd never imagine in here, from guys in suits and ties down to the trendiest little kids," says Tim Anderson, 31, who owns Nothing Shocking with his wife, Elise, 28.

Amid Nothing Shocking's more offbeat offerings, such as spiked leather collars and furry bras (OK, so it's not Mervyn's), there's tamer fare, including Jackie O-style chemises, retro poly shirts, sunglasses, skateboards and repro T-shirts.

Body piercing is a store specialty--"but nothing life-threatening," says Anderson, whose face serves as an advertisement with its pierced lip, eyebrow, nose and ears.

A Fullerton resident since he was 3, Anderson opened Nothing Shocking here four years ago because "it's a small, cool little atmosphere. A lot of people are starting to tap into Fullerton. There's always a new generation of kids here. It's getting more trendy. Every place you walk into has a cool little vibe."

He attributes the growth of alternative start-up businesses to Orange County's evolution into a more street-smart, sophisticated area.

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