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Riches to Rags Tale?

Owner Says Dust Is Taking Her to Cleaners

June 23, 1998|LESLIE EARNEST | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Aissa Wayne remembers the advice that her father--legendary actor John Wayne--used to give when her mother needed the right dress for a special occasion.

"He would say: 'Go to Apropos,' " she said.

Today, she'd have to find an alternative.

The tony Fashion Island boutique, which lures well-heeled shoppers from Beverly Hills and Saudi Arabia, has been shut down since early last month.

Owner Pat Waxman blames the closure of her Newport Beach store on construction dust from a soon-to-open Starbucks coffee outlet next door.

Waxman said she won't sell dusty clothing. And if she cleans the garments, they would have to be sold as used apparel, at a huge discount.

"I carry wonderful merchandise," she said. "I can't expect my customers to accept clothes that have been destroyed by construction dust."

The battle lines, it seems, are being drawn.

On one side is a lone veteran retailer whose moneyed clientele includes judges, attorneys, artists and actors. On the other is a giant coffee company that is squeezing into communities across the country. In between are insurance firms, a construction company and one of the showiest shopping centers in Orange County.

Seattle-based Starbucks issued a one-sentence statement saying the matter has been turned over to insurance companies and that it is confident it will be resolved. Starbucks' construction company, CMG Construction in El Segundo, did not return telephone calls.

Waxman wants reimbursement and damages totaling $1.5 million before reopening the store. She fumes at the prospect that the new Starbucks--set to open Saturday--could be in business before she is.

Meanwhile, her clientele--some of whom have shopped in Apropos stores in Orange and Los Angeles counties since she opened the first one in La Habra in 1961--is suffering what could be described as withdrawal symptoms.

"I was totally upset," said Anaheim resident Jean Davenport, who learned of the closure two weeks ago when a friend called from New York to break the news. "I've had a headache ever since."

Waxman wants $500,000 for the merchandise in her store, including accessories, which she said were purchased for specific articles of now-ruined clothing.

"I put things together," she said. "If I don't have the clothing, what am I supposed to do with the accessories?" She wants about $1 million more for additional expenses and damages.

With the clothing at Apropos now shrouded in plastic, new merchandise--some shipped from France and Italy--is piling up at Waxman's Santa Ana office. She plans to begin carting outfits to her customers' homes so they can make selections there.

"I've had to pay for all this merchandise, and I have no cash flow," she said.

Fashion Island general manager Henry Lichtman said such problems are commonplace at malls where shops are continually being added or remodeled. Generally, he said, the difficulties are easily resolved.

During the Starbucks construction, the contractor tried to divert dust by sealing the premises and duct openings and using "misters" to dampen the dust so it would sink to the ground, he said. CMG also employed a machine that reroutes the dust outdoors, Lichtman said.

Most nearby stores reported minimal or no problems as a result of the construction, he said.

"With the exception of Apropos, there were one or two other merchants who said, 'Gee, we have some dust in our store,' " he said, "but they did not take the position that their merchandise was a total loss."

Waxman's customers say they appreciate the position she has taken. They would expect no less, they say, from a store where scarves cost $156, some suits go for $1,600 and an evening dress may run $2,800.

"Listen, if I pay $800 to $1,200 for something, I really don't expect anything to be wrong with it, except maybe it won't be in style next season," said Davenport, the customer from Anaheim. "When you spend that kind of money, you can go anyplace."

Not everyone is similarly sympathetic, according to Waxman. She believes the coffee giant and insurance companies are not taking her plight seriously.

"Everyone is denying everything," she said, "like it's a joke."

To represent her in the skirmish, Waxman has hired Robb Greenspan, a public adjuster with The Greenspan Company/Adjusters International in Los Angeles. Eventually, the battle could move to the courtroom.

They are initially seeking reimbursement from Waxman's insurance company, Pacific National Insurance Co., which can in turn seek compensation from whomever it thinks is responsible, Greenspan said.

The insurance adjuster who is handling the claim declined to comment.

If Pacific National is not receptive, some of the offending dust will be shuttled to a forensic laboratory for analysis to identify its source, Greenspan said.

"It's typical construction dust," he said. But the insurance company "is having trouble seeing the damage." The problem is compounded by the fact that the dust is barely visible on some of the clothing, he said.

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