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Shopping the Neighborhood

World Class, Next Door

Upscale boutiques await intrepid shoppers at South Coast Plaza and Fashion Island in Orange County.

November 30, 2001|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN | TIMES SENIOR FASHION WRITER

The simple act of shopping has become so fraught with contradictions, it's no wonder that we're all paralyzed. We don't know if it's patriotic to spend big or, in these uncertain economic times, wildly irresponsible. Sometimes it feels unsafe just going to the mall, and other times it's a source of reassurance to get out and mingle. Why can't shopping just be a relaxing day out?

It still can be. Now that many of us are sticking closer to home for the holidays, turning a shopping trip into a day- or weekend-long excursion may have new appeal. Orange County's premier shopping spots, South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa and its nearest rival, Fashion Island in Newport Beach, have been refining their attractions, with an emphasis on cherry-picked designer collections. The high-end malls--located five miles apart--cater to sophisticated fashion connoisseurs, time-pressed families and anyone who finds shopping an inseparable part of the holiday ritual.

The centers also offer a sense of ease, adventure and a break from the routine for many visitors outside Orange County. Alexander Aledia, 32, and his wife, Chris, 31, frequently drive 11/2 hours from Valencia with their infant son to Fashion Island because "this is the only place we like to walk around," Alexander said. It doesn't take long to run across groups of tourists from such disparate places as Japan or Utah.

Though Los Angeles boutiques may set the pace for avant-garde fashion, many don't offer free parking, kiddie trains or some of the best designer, children's or affordable fashion, all under a few million square feet of shingles. Combined, the malls offer more than 500 stores, many of which aren't found elsewhere in Southern California--or the nation. South Coast Plaza snagged the new Yves Saint Laurent boutique in the region and also claims the only boutiques in Southern California for Jil Sander, Sergio Rossi, Pottery Barn Kids and Donna Karan New York, to name a few.

Though Orange County has had a reputation for fuddy-duddy fashion, mall owners have aggressively sought out new store concepts and exclusive European brands and mixed them with amenities that help make the shopping experience more relaxing and entertaining. Anton Segerstrom, a partner in the family-owned South Coast Plaza, said he hopes that the center, which last year drew 21 million visitors who spent nearly $1 billion, could draw more regional residents from its 100-mile radius of shoppers. After all, many long-absent visitors may not recognize some portions of the centers. Two years of renovations and improvements have transformed South Coast Plaza and its surrounding theaters, restaurants, hotels and spa into something that Segerstrom just can't call a mall.

"We call it a 'shopping resort,'" he said, while dining at Troquet, an award-winning French bistro on the center's third floor. A new pedestrian bridge over Bear Street links the former Crystal Court to the main mall. The center is within walking distance of the Westin hotel, the Orange County Performing Arts Center and a row of restaurants including the highly rated Gustaf Anders and the new Morton's of Chicago.

Since 1999, South Coast has added 70 new stores, which gives the place the feeling of attending a well-planned dinner party for the world's leading trendsetters. "A lot of companies, such as Gucci and LVMH [fashion conglomerate LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton] see this as a one of the must-have locations," Segerstrom said. Many top designer brands from Italy, France and the U.S. are neighbors, while a few surprise guests now populate the west mall where Crate & Barrel and Macy's Home Store emphasize home decor. Even a mall staple such as South Coast's Banana Republic is a two-story behemoth with more and better merchandise than the typical store. Kiosks and carts don't block South Coast's wide walkways, which eases the path of your stroller and your elbows.

About five miles south, the open-air Fashion Island shopping center boasts not only serene koi ponds and ocean views, but also a 115-foot natural Christmas tree, the first and only NIKEgoddess, the first West Coast Via Spiga shoe store, and Orange County's only Neiman Marcus, which is adding a third floor. Fashion Island offers the only Orange County location for 30 retailers, and several, such as Japanese Weekend Maternity and Stuart Moore jewelers, are exclusive to the mall in Southern California. More stores and restaurants are to come with an ongoing expansion. The center manages to feel intimate, though it holds 240 stores, including anchors Macy's, Bloomingdale's, Robinsons-May and Neimans, and dining hot spots Fleming's Prime Steak House and chef Roy Yamaguchi's Roy's Pacific Rim Cuisine.

Southern California may not offer natural evergreen trees, snowmen and other traditional symbols of the winter holidays, but we go with our strengths. We really know how to shop. Following is a list of some of the centers' newer and notable stores.

South Coast Plaza

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