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Fall Fashion Issue

Free enterprise

In L.A., It's Always Been About the Power of the Boutique.

August 15, 2004|Booth Moore | Booth Moore is The Times' fashion critic.

It's a typical afternoon on Robertson Boulevard. The paparazzi are camped out across from the Ivy, their lenses turned on the sun-speckled outdoor tables to see if any of the wafer-thin girls picking at grilled vegetable salads is worth a shot. After lunch, the photogs follow the trail of miniskirts and flip-flops to Kitson, "a general store for the rich," as owner Fraser Ross describes it, selling clothing, accessories and gifts. Maybe Halle Berry is trying on a pair of $175 True Religion cords or Paris Hilton is picking up a $38 pink terry cloth makeup bag with "I Love Botox" written across it. If so, a photo of the celebrity with the item could be worth thousands of dollars for the photographer, fashion designer and retailer alike.

At Intuition on Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles, sales staff are packing boxes of Minnetonka moccasins to be shipped out--a little piece of Hollywood for Duluth and Des Moines. Owner Jaye Hersh likes to say she put Minnetonka back on the map. This spring, everyone was mad for Miu Miu's $280 jeweled moccasins, but they sold out within days at Barneys New York and other local stores. Then Hersh spotted a mainstream trend-in-the making while waiting at a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf--a woman wearing Minnetonka's $45 Thunderbirds. "I called Minnetonka, asked them to send me some, got them to celebrities [Drew Barrymore and Kate Hudson], got permission to use their names, got the names to People magazine," Hersh says. "I sold 1,200 pairs in 12 hours."

L.A. style has never been a hotter commodity, thanks to a new generation of independent retailers capitalizing on America's constant craving for all things dusted with Hollywood gilt. Trends are being created here at a pace as frenzied as the celebrity culture--Kabbalah red string bracelets, Disney Vintage shirts, initial bags, Von Dutch trucker hats, Ugg boots, Jelly Kelly handbags and C&C California layered tees, just to name a few.

There has always been an independent fashion spirit in L.A. untethered to New York's 7th Avenue, this country's historical fashion center. Fred Segal nurtured the idea of California casual, opening his first "Jeanbar" on Melrose in 1965. Over the years, the independent boutiques under Segal's umbrella have launched hundreds of lines, including Hard Candy Cosmetics and Juicy Couture.

Tommy Perse defined the flip side of L.A. style at his store Maxfield, introducing the avant-garde black look to Angelenos in the 1970s and bringing the collections of Giorgio Armani, Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons to town in the 1980s. The store now houses one of the world's largest collections of vintage Hermes and specializes in quirky merchandise that appeals to the store's rock 'n' roll clientele.

Today, the power has spread to such stores as Kitson, Intuition, Lisa Kline and the newer Satine, Scout and Elevator, with their influence reaching (through their websites) far beyond California's borders.

When buyers come to L.A. for what's hot, they go to independent retailers to see what designers they're carrying. Jackie Brander, who co-owns Fred Segal Fun in Santa Monica, says, "They shop my store first so they know what designer showrooms to visit. My store helps dictate what happens in fashion around the states."

The age of 24/7 celebrity news also has empowered local boutiques, as their star customers' purchases show up almost instantly across America. Weekly magazines, including People, In Touch, Us Weekly and Star, and the "Today" show and other morning TV programs, have an advantage over traditional monthlies such as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar with their long lead times. The numbers are huge. People magazine brings new trends and merchandise to 36 million readers more than 52 times a year, whereas Vogue has a monthly readership of 1.2 million.

On a good day, People style director Susan Kaufman looks at more than 10,000 photographs of celebrities on her computer screen. On a bad day, she sees 50,000. "They are transmitted continuously, and I can get 70 images on my screen at the same time," she says from her New York office. "I'm looking for anything interesting." That could be a color, a silhouette or a new bag. When she's not looking at photos for her fashion pages, she and her team are working the phones, talking to L.A. retailers on a weekly basis to ask, "What have you got?"

"Weekly magazines are an outlet for designers who may not get coverage in traditional fashion magazines," she says. "More than a Gucci shoe or something not everyone can afford, there are items you can find in these stores that celebrities give validity to. They tie into high fashion but they are things anyone can wear."

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