From late 2005 to early this year, fashion boutiques popped up in L.A. like poodle skirts to a sock hop. Not a month passed, it seemed, when we weren't tempted to drop in on a hot new independent-minded store selling a covetable mix of designer and contemporary apparel.
Feminine outposts such as Iconology, Presse and Lily Savitch helped turn La Brea Avenue into a high-fashion enclave, while Sienna, Milk, Aura, ECookie and Filly upped the style quotient on the Westside. This new crop of boutiques was the antithesis of mass-market, offering a tightly edited selection of merchandise that represented the owners' particularly L.A. spin on the trends of the day.
But between our dropping-in, our cooing over Phillip Lim frocks, the sale racks started filling up and the shops got quieter. Then a pair of innovative boutiques that opened during the brief boom -- Iconology on La Brea Avenue and Filly on West 3rd Street -- went out of business last month. A third, Lily Savitch on La Brea Avenue, is expected to fold in the next few weeks, according to owner Lily Savitch.
"It was like a vacuum cleaner had sucked up all our customers," said Iconology co-owner Michelle Dalton Tyree, whose atelier-like boutique was christened by Saks Fifth Avenue's women's fashion director Michael Fink as the future of shopping in L.A. in Women's Wear Daily when it opened in 2005. Hardly an auspicious characterization given the current environment.
Nor are the new stores the only ones struggling. Some of L.A.'s most established boutiques are facing similar conditions. Tracey Ross, whose eponymous store has always been popular among stylish actors and socialites, said that in her 17 years in business, she's never experienced such a dark retail period and has had to cut back on her sales staff hours to compensate.
Diane Merrick, who has owned her namesake boutique for 36 years, said that though sales are still up, price resistance among shoppers has spiked, and holiday corporate gift sales have gotten off to a slow start.
The closings and slowdowns have cast a shadow on L.A.'s reputation as an up-and-coming fashion capital, a place whose style profile and spending power have been validated over the last few years by the opening of boutiques from some of the fashion industry's most celebrated brands, including Martin Margiela, Oscar de la Renta and Helmut Lang.
So what's afflicting L.A.'s once-booming boutiques? And are we destined to become like Las Vegas, where the retail landscape is filled with shiny corporate stores and malls?
Most agree a confluence of factors has coalesced into the perfect shop-sinking storm, not the least of which is the uncertain economy. When consumers start tightening their purse strings, high-end retail suffers first.
"When we first opened, our customer really understood luxury and were willing to pay for luxurious, classic pieces," Tyree said. "Then we noticed a shift around tax time. They would say, 'Well, we can't buy everything now. We have to make choices.' "
Often those choices take consumers to department stores that are able to discount merchandise more deeply and for longer periods of time. Most boutiques, on the other hand, have to move the bulk of their inventory for any given season at full price to be able to afford the next season's collections. Figure in rent and overhead, and two consecutive seasons of horrible sales can -- and did -- equal ruin.
Another factor working against L.A.'s boutique business is the high-end retail glut that occurred when too many boutiques opened at once.
"There's way too much product out there and not enough people to support it," said Ross, who blames department store deep-discounting and more savvy buying for spoiling even her loyal customers.
Years ago, it wouldn't have mattered how deeply department stores discounted their merchandise. They didn't carry the edgier designers, then the sole domain of stores such as Ross' and Maxfield. But in an effort to chase the boutique business, department stores including Nordstrom and Macy's have, in recent years, developed new divisions for young, cutting-edge brands.
"People that are richer than God have moved into town and are now getting discounts from Saks and Neiman Marcus for 30% off, because the stores can afford to give it to [regular] shoppers," Ross said. "It really hits me in my stomach when people ask me for discounts -- even my friends do it. I mean, this is my livelihood."
Given the slowdown, Ross and Merrick said they have to be more careful about how they buy. "I'm very aware of my spending," Merrick said, "I've always been price-driven. Now, I have to be more picky about things like denim."
Ross said she no longer can afford to buy overly avant-garde pieces -- a shame, considering her keen eye for new design talent.
"I love cultivating new designers," she said, "but I can't have pieces in my store that don't sell anymore.
"If people don't support our boutiques, the city is going to become a big department store," she added. "It's going to be all H&M discount all over the place."