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West of Fairfax: High Concept, High Dollar

The area is now more boutique than antique. It's got the styles to be a big hit--but needs to be customer-friendly.


Melrose Avenue has long been the barometer of hot, hip and happening--the heart of young, trendy, rainbow-hair-and-black-leather-loving Los Angeles. Some of those shoppers have moved on to west of Fairfax Avenue, where in the last year a flurry of high-fashion boutiques, many from New York or Europe, have re-energized a neighborhood once better known for antique stores, flower shops and its lone fashion retailer, Fred Segal, a resident for nearly 30 years.

Early settlers on the new Melrose included Miu Miu, which opened in January 1999, and a few months later, Liza Bruce, Betsey Johnson and Ruby Mae. Others quickly followed. More shops are coming, with the announcement this week of London's lingerie store Agent Provocateur planning to open by September near Liza Bruce.

Some of fashion's best craftsmanship, materials and design are represented in the boutiques, giving even the casual shopper a quick lesson in international style. With many European designers represented on the street, sizes are consequently smaller (read: itty-bitty). The largest women's European size is typically a 48, which roughly translates to an American 10, and for men, a 52 roughly equals a 36-inch waist. Designer names also mean high prices, but dedicated shoppers can find unique items for less than $100 in many stores, including several gift shops.

The neighborhood gives off a decidedly casual vibe that extends from the low-pressure (and often badly trained) sales staff to the unhurried atmosphere in the often sparsely populated stores. A few retailers hope to give the place an identity by creating a neighborhood association that could sponsor signs, parties and perhaps name the area Melrose Heights.

The new mix of stores echoes the lineup in New York's Soho and Nolita neighborhoods. The Melrose version has a long way to go to be considered shopper friendly, however. Even the sales help complains about the dearth of cafes and the limited parking.

The boutiques' design, while often beautiful, seems more concerned about aesthetics than comfort. How else to explain no seats or mirrors in many of the dressing rooms? Store owners like to trumpet their innovative mix of merchandise--and brag about stylists popping in to pick up a few things for this or that movie or television show. But many of the clerks have product knowledge as thin as their thighs and are unable to explain the merits of the individual collections. Most stores display one example of a style, leaving the customer to wonder if more sizes exist elsewhere (and don't expect a sales clerk to drop her diet soda to help you).

If the high prices, small sizes and scant shopper amenities sound discouraging, just think of your shopping adventure as cultural anthropology. This is where those who are too rich and too thin come to stay too gorgeous. And a lower-priced shopping fix is available, if you require, a few blocks away at the Beverly Center.

The Route

Start at Kilkea Drive, just west of Crescent Heights, and walk east along both sides of Melrose until you're just short of Fairfax.

The Stores

Daryl K, 8125 Melrose Ave., (323) 651-2251. Designer Daryl Kerrigan, famous for the fit of her low-rise pants, brings her sporty slacks, skirts and jackets that until now have been the badge of honor of chic downtown Manhattanites. Current looks: the $150 Velcro-closing denim jackets or stretch-cotton slacks for $80 to $100 and up.

Emma Gold, 8115 Melrose Ave., (323) 651-3662. The new high-fashion outpost carries some hard-to-find European clothing labels, including Andrew Gn, Clements Ribeiro, Anne Demeulemeester and Matthew Williamson. Owners Mark and Emily Goldstein, who own Madison on Robertson and Brentwood Gardens, show their affinity for footwear with their wide-ranging shoe selection that includes hand-carved wooden clogs and $100 rhinestone rubber thongs that coexist with Sergio Rossi, Marc Jacobs and Sigerson Morrison shoes. Sample items: $45 snake-print tank top and a $1,140 Matthew Williamson embellished skirt.

Feathered Nest, 8113 Melrose Ave., (323) 782-0232. This place is packed from floor to ceiling, corner to corner and front to back with handmade and antique goodies. Furniture--overstuffed sofas, chairs and beds--lamps, tables, pillows and antique toys are standouts. The store also offers custom furnishings, accessories and interior design services and consultation.

JonValdi, 8111 Melrose Ave., (323) 653-3455. The Los Angeles design team of Jonathan Meizler and German Valdivia were early residents of the new Melrose. Expect to be wowed by the detail in their precisely crafted men's and women's clothes, and by the prices--$900 for a pieced women's silk jacket and $1,400 for a wool suit coat. Sneak a peek at the VIP back room where the stars shop.

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