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All This and Shopping

No Longer Just Casinos, Smorgasbords and Sequins, Las Vegas Has Become a Shrine to Designer Boutiques and Themed Malls

April 29, 1998|JEANNINE STEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's a new sound in Las Vegas, one that's getting louder and stronger than the cling-clangs and the boop-boops of slot machines: the ka-ching ka-ching of cash registers.

They're ringing at Gucci, Armani, Hugo Boss, Neiman Marcus and Donna Karan, words once as foreign to Vegas as "good taste." That's because Las Vegas isn't just a mecca for gamblers--it's also becoming a shopper's paradise.

Upscale retail is the newest wave to hit this town, which, for the dimly aware, has been experiencing a metamorphosis in recent years. Once known only as a haven for fans of gaming and overwrought nightclub shows, massive expansion on and near the strip and increased convention business has given Las Vegas a new reputation. Now it's sold as a family-friendly, restaurant-savvy town with themed hotel mega-plexes. It also boasts two high-end shopping malls on the strip, and there's much more to come.

But don't expect to find those malls filled with the glitz and glitter that made Vegas Vegas. Mannequins are draped with expertly cut Versace suits and romantic Escada dresses, not tacky rhinestone-studded jackets and feather-trimmed gowns. Window displays would not look out of place on Rodeo Drive or Fifth Avenue.

It was an evolution waiting to happen, say those who have been keeping a watchful eye on the city.

"What we noticed about Las Vegas," says one mall developer, "was the enormous amount of tourist traffic. The volume being done by the gift stores [in the hotels] was outstanding. But basically, retail-wise, Vegas had frozen. There was never a good place to go to shop."

Not anymore.

The Fashion Show mall, built in 1981 and upgraded in 1993, was the strip's first retail showcase. Nestled between Treasure Island and the Frontier hotel, its stores include Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nicole Miller, Bally, Talbots, Williams-Sonoma and Jessica McClintock.

In 1992, serious competition came along in the form of the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace.

An enclosed 526,000-square-foot arcade, it boasts a mix of high- and mid-range stores, including Polo Ralph Lauren, Shauna Stein, Niketown, Virgin Megastore, Emporio Armani, Banana Republic, Fendi and Fred Joallier. Space goes for about $250 to $300 a square foot, topping Rodeo Drive at $192 a square foot. It boasts a daily average traffic count of 45,000 to 50,000.

But buying and eating aren't the only attractions here; some come just to see the interpretation of an ancient Roman street scene--presuming they had malls back then. Peaceful curved ceilings depict a trompe l'oeil scene of billowy clouds on a blue sky that change throughout the day, approximating sunrises and sunsets.

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Among the attractions is the hourly show "Atlantis" in the Roman Great Hall, which combines animatronics and special effects such as a laser light show, fire and steam. For something more calming, shoppers can gaze at a 50,000-gallon saltwater aquarium stocked with tropical fish.

Phases 3 and 4, to be completed in 2000, promise even more shoppingtainment.

It's that intense mix of shopping and spectacular visual effects that's setting Vegas apart from the average American mall.

"The idea of an invented street is a very powerful one for retailers," says David Sloane, associate professor in the school of urban planning and development at USC. "Horton Plaza [in San Diego] is in some sense a village with a set of streets going around. CityWalk [in Universal City] really tries to bring you in. In Beverly Hills, you have Rodeo Drive, then Two Rodeo, which is an invented open arcade."

Sloane's latest Vegas vacation in February included a stop in at the Forum Shops, where, he says, "I was surprised by how total an environment it was. By the time I left I was disoriented; I didn't know where I was vis-a-vis the street or casino. I felt enveloped by the space.

"My sense is that [the designers] are trying to create a separate environment," he adds. "They want your consciousness to be completely in that environment. In fact, it's a very simple box. When I went back the second time, I was able to get my bearings. But the same kinds of issues that apply to shopping apply to gambling. They don't want people to look at a clock and say, 'God, I've been here for three hours.' The longer you can keep people there, the better."

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the Forum Shops developers should be basking in a warm, fuzzy glow.

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That's because new strip hotels currently under construction promise their own themed shopping plazas, complete with upscale stores, restaurants, attractions and entertainment. That makes sense, since Vegas' basic nature can be summed up this way: If big is good, outrageously enormous is better.

Where once there was skepticism in bringing upscale retail to Las Vegas, now there is confidence in a booming economy and a growing city. Its 1.2 million population is growing by some 72,000 people a year.

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