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L.A. Is a Magnet for Designers

July 30, 1998|BARBARA THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They come for the celebrities. They come for the Asian and European market. And sometimes they just come for the weather. Whatever the reason, the Los Angeles area has become a hub for fashion designers opening free-standing stores.

In the last year, big-name designers like Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, as well as more specialized designers such as Cynthia Rowley, Jil Sander, Todd Oldham and Kate Spade have opened shops here.

Kenneth Cole, best known for shoes and clever ad campaigns, has had a store on Sunset Plaza for seven years. Recently, he's opened two more, one in Century City and the other on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica.

"He likes to visit--that would probably be his first excuse," admits Kristin Hoppmann, Kenneth Cole spokeswoman. And he likes the exposure to all things L.A.

"As much as we'd like to think all the fashion trends come out of New York, the people starting the trends are in L.A.," Hoppmann says.

A free-standing store allows stylists for celebrities to walk in and get swift service. As a result, Cole shod "Suddenly Susan" stars Brooke Shields and Kathy Griffin.

Cole still maintains his headquarters in New York, where, along with San Francisco, he does a "huge business." But Hoppmann says Asian tourists who visit the Sunset shop give him recognition in the Asian market. That name recognition also translates locally to more department store sales, she says. A shopper is more likely to try on a Kenneth Cole shoe at Macy's if he knows about the store on Sunset.

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Coralie Langston-Jones sees Los Angeles as the "city of the millennium." The publicist represents sister shoe stores Freelance on Robertson Boulevard and Pom d'Api in Beverly Hills. Freelance shoes are also sold at Barneys New York. "It's symbolic to have a location in Los Angeles and to have your clientele having Hollywood names," she says.

And there is a more obvious reason.

"To be able to put Beverly Hills on the shopping bag . . . that obviously means something," she says. "It's a measure of having established yourself in an area."

When it came time to open a West Coast Freelance, which has shops in major cities around the world, two cities were discussed: San Francisco and Los Angeles.

"L.A.'s much more fashion forward," says Langston-Jones. And, she readily admits, a Freelance store allows stylists to easily shop for movies, TV shows and celebrities.

Langston-Jones, who moved from London five years ago, says the end of the Southern California recession has meant booming business for retailers.

"Just the amount of money that's in L.A.," she says, combined with a need to dress up in the entertainment industry mean big business for the fashion industry.

Hollywood has long been famous for the California casualness of the suit and T-shirt of the '80s, but styles are changing. "Casual elegance"--exemplified by a long silk sheath or cashmere trousers--is taking over. The entertainment industry is starting to dress up.

Langston-Jones tells about a party she recently attended in the Hollywood Hills.

"The only people who hadn't dressed up were supermodels," she says.

"I watch South Coast Plaza just like I watch the Third Street Promenade just like I watch Madison Avenue," says Tom Julian, a trend analyst for the New York advertising agency Fallon McElligott.

Having a Beverly Hills or Los Angeles address, says Julian, "is almost a built-in marketing opportunity." This coast offers not only access to Hollywood, but also national and international exposure from tourists.

"For Tommy [Hilfiger], it made strategic sense because you see his lifelines to music and fashion," Julian says.

Hilfiger opened his first free-standing store in Beverly Hills in November. The designer wanted to open a flagship store either there or in New York when space on Rodeo Drive became available, says Alexandra McElwaine, director of publicity for the Beverly Hills store.

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Rodeo Drive is a major tourist destination, and that helps business.

"In July and August, all the Europeans come," she says. In January and June come visitors from Asia.

"Tourism is a very important part of our business," McElwaine says. So important that the store works with local hotels and tour guides to make sure it's on the map for visitors.

The Beverly Hills store has exclusive lines, so when visitors go home they are more likely to stay in touch with salespeople to order clothes.

"Retail is so competitive that you really want to not only work successfully with residents of Beverly Hills," she says.

The Beverly Hills store has allowed Hilfiger, known for his casual clothes, a chance to promote his new black-tie line by suiting (and tux-ing) celebrities such as "ER's" Noah Wylie and Eriq La Salle.

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