The shopping district known as Melrose Heights is not as obvious as label-obsessed Rodeo Drive or as celebrity-greased as the see-and-be-seen Robertson Boulevard. There is no shoulder-to-shoulder foot traffic and crowds don't clamor to get into the stores. In fact, for many a lazy afternoon hour, the leafy sidewalks on Melrose between La Cienega and Fairfax are empty, except for the valet perched on a lawn chair in front of the Marc Jacobs boutique with little more to do than study Star magazine, and a musician strolling along while strumming a guitar.
And yet Melrose Heights has emerged as L.A.'s hottest retail thoroughfare by flying under the radar -- like many of the fashion brands that set up shop here -- and appealing to those in the know. Fred Segal, at Melrose Avenue and Crescent Heights Boulevard, used to be one of the only high-end hubs. But now that the Marc Jacobs, Marni and Tracy Feith boutiques have opened, the area is seriously heating up. A second wave will follow this fall with Diane von Furstenberg, Paul Smith, Tarina Tarantino, Suzanne Felsen, Antik Denim and London-based Temperley opening stores along the stretch.
Don't expect the kind of pierced-and-tattooed street scene that Melrose is known for east of Fairfax Avenue. Melrose Heights is where the one-of-a-kind vintage look of the Eastside meets the designer chic of Beverly Hills. That means empire-waist tops, skinny Bermuda shorts, boho sandals and bags that aren't instantly recognizable by their designer, though buying them might still require blowing the rent. The mood on the street is in step with fashion's new air of discovery -- the feeling that the only way to be stylish in an over-hyped, over-photographed, over-marketed world is to wear something nobody has ever heard of.
Like so much of L.A., Melrose Heights has a behind-the-scenes aura that suggests the person behind that pair of oversized sunglasses could be famous. The appeal of shopping here is not the overt hustle and bustle but the possibility of discovery -- that Kirsten Dunst could walk into Miss Sixty trailed by a phalanx of paparazzi, that Johnny Depp might drop into his office above the Kate Somerville salon or that a wardrobe stylist could pop into Marni exclaiming that she's there to pull clothes for a shoot with Kate Hudson.
Long a destination for the best-tressed visiting the Sally Hershberger salon, Melrose Place is now home to several high-end clothing boutiques -- if you can find them hidden back in the quaint, European-style piazzas, climbing with hot-pink bougainvillea vines.
"A lot of these places don't look like they really want you to come in," said Amy Spach, a writer from Hollywood Hills dressed in a summery skirt while recently shopping on Melrose Place.
Exclusivity is the point, says retailer and designer Delia Seaman, who owned Curve and Vionnet on Robertson Boulevard before opening Delia on Melrose Place earlier this year. Instead of walk-in customers, Seaman relies on word of mouth for traffic to her upstairs boutique.
"Everything is private, and there's not a ton of signage," said Seaman, who targets older customers with such hard-to-find lines as Lancetti, Antonio Marras and Future Classics. "There are so many stores and so much commercialism in fashion. Everything is so available that there's something nice about a small, private street. But you have to have an established customer. The store might be empty sometimes, but then Courteney Cox came in last week."
Next door, Henry Beguelin sells earthy, handmade Italian shoes for $500 and up. And Joann Smyth is a jeweler who caters to celebrities such as Madonna, Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Aniston and Cameron Diaz with delicate pearls and stones in unusual colors. For those on a noncelebrity budget, her $50 chain-link rings with single freshwater pearls or semiprecious stones are a hit.
"The trees on this street should really come down," Smyth says, addressing the issue of bringing in more foot traffic. "But they are part of the charm. This is not a typical retail environment. It's kind of the anti-mall." Her biggest complaint is the lack of lunch options for shoppers. Bastide, on the north side of Melrose Place, is only open for dinner. "We really need a Dean & Deluca," Smyth says, referring to the New York-based chain of gourmet shops.
A few doors down at the Tracy Feith men's store, a sales associate passes the time reading a magazine on a shag rug. He wears the brightly patterned swim trunks that characterize Feith's surfer style, with a polo shirt and bare feet. The store is in the same airy building as facialist-of-the-moment Kate Somerville, whose Titan laser "nonsurgical face-lifts" and "Dermal Quench" treatments bring in the likes of Paris Hilton, Jessica Alba and Sharon Stone.