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Little Shops With Big Impact

Los Angeles' indie boutiques favor local talent over big names, popularizing an eclectic West Coast look.


There wasn't a drop of bubbly for the tattooed crowd, no live models, either--just vodka cranberry cocktails served in plastic cups and a strange film running on a loop with image after image of people knocking on doors. There were freebies--copies of Vogue magazine--until they were commandeered by a mousy guerrilla artist, who defaced each and every Britney Spears cover with stickers that read, "Envy Me Loser," "Fantasy With Purchase" and "Style Beyond Your Reach."

This wasn't your typical in-store fashion event, but Los Feliz's Aero & Co. isn't your typical store. Neither are Show Pony, LaborFruit, Blest or Beige. They are part of a new generation of indie boutiques helping to nurture local design talent and popularize the one-of-a-kind, neo-Bohemian looks that have come to define West Coast hip at this moment.

The cranberry-soaked carouse was actually a trunk show for designers Katy Rodriguez, 32, and Mark Haddawy, 33. The owners of the popular Resurrection vintage stores on Melrose Avenue and in New York's East Village debuted their own line at well-established Henri Bendel in Manhattan last year. But when it was time to introduce it here, they approached Aero. They thought the well-edited shop was just the place for their quirky felt coats and handbags, emblazoned with an abstract tartan created by artist friend Raymond Pettibon.

Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 13, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Sirens & Sailors--A story in the Nov. 2 Southern California Living section about boutiques erroneously called a store Sailors & Sirens. The correct name is Sirens & Sailors.

"[Aero] has a fresh approach. You don't have to have been in this magazine or that one to be here, unlike stores in New York," said Rodriguez, dressed in one of her own designs, a gray cowl-neck dress trimmed in Pettibon plaid. "It's not all about the brand."

Cynthia Vincent, 34, a designer herself, and Alisa Loftin, 33, opened the shop two years ago to feature talent they felt wasn't getting its due. At the same time, they formed the Coalition of Los Angeles Designers, a support group of sorts that has now turned into a nonprofit that organizes charity events and fashion shows, including one during L.A. Fashion Week, which began Thursday.

"The idea was to help designers who didn't have a voice. There were people doing amazing things here and selling them to their friends," said Vincent. Just off Vermont Avenue in an airy space that could just as well be an art gallery, the store was among the first to feature the lines of newcomers such as Magda Berliner, Ina Celaya and Grant Krajecki. A few are now selling their lines to stores such Barneys New York.

New York's signature stores are the old line Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale's. L.A.'s: Fred Segal, Maxfield and American Rag; and, in the past, JAX and Giorgio Beverly Hills. Small stores have long been arbiters of chic here by being the first to take on unknowns such as Rudi Gernreich, Hard Candy Cosmetics and Earl Jeans.

"I have always considered New York a department store city and L.A. a boutique city," said Marylou Luther, a syndicated fashion columnist who was The Times' fashion editor from 1969 to 1985. The distinction "reflects the personalities of the two places. Small shops work in L.A. because it is so spread out."

Like their predecessors, new-generation stores have a point of view. But being the first to bring the latest international designers to L.A. isn't what they're about. It's home-grown talent, now enjoying a boost from fashion's seemingly insatiable thirst for individualistic looks. You've never heard of the designer names these stores feature, but that's the point. "People are interested in wearing anonymous-looking dresses," said Marlien Rentmeester, West Coast editor of Conde Nast's shopping magazine Lucky. "Storekeepers know that, so they are stocking unknown designers."

L.A. offers designers affordable places to live and work, not to mention the possibility of celebrity dressing. Fashion week here has yet to become a world class event, but boutiques--some owned by the designers themselves--have helped L.A. gain clout and local names gain recognition in magazines such as Elle, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue and W.

They have served as de facto showrooms for designers. Because boutiques don't make huge seasonal buys, designers may deliver pieces throughout the year. And their ideas are not limited by shipping dates.

"I've seen people from bigger stores come in to look at what direction we're headed so they can play off of it," said Christina Carey, 24, who owns Blest with knitwear designer Liz Khader. The Hollywood spot is part Zen tranquillity (the dressing room is bounded by shoji screens), part skull-and-crossbones punk rock. It's just steps away from Beauty Bar and open late.

"People love that they can come shop after a few cocktails," said Carey, a club scene regular. There's a line of deconstructed Blest T-shirts for sale (Courtney Love nabbed a few, Carey offered), men's and women's shredded button-down shirts by local label Ynubb, fingerless gloves by Relish with "Rotten" spelled out on them, hand-painted toilet seats and other must-haves.


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