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Henri Bendel comes calling in L.A.

The tony New York department store opens an accessories and gifts annex at the Beverly Center.

November 22, 2009|By Nora Zelevansky
  • NEW YORK STYLE: Those signature brown stripes can mean only one thing: Henri Bendel has annexed L.A., hoping to tempt Angelenos with its products.
NEW YORK STYLE: Those signature brown stripes can mean only one thing: Henri… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

Henri Bendel -- a milliner from New Orleans in the late 19th century -- probably never imagined that his hatboxes, instead of the hats themselves, would one day become symbols of his legacy. By 1895, he was making debutante gowns and had opened his eponymous Manhattan department store.

Earlier this year, the tony retailer announced that it would stop selling clothing and instead focus on accessories and beauty products. And it would spread into new areas of the country, seeking to conquer far-away realms like Los Angeles.

Before customers even enter the posh brand's new accessories and gift annex at the Beverly Center (which opened earlier this month), a window coaxes with Bendel's signature brown-striped hatboxes in place of merchandise. "We're proud of our glamorous New York heritage," says Ed Bucciarelli, chief executive and president of Henri Bendel. "So our iconic packaging includes a hatbox, which celebrates Henri Bendel, embodies a femininity and also speaks to a certain lifestyle."

Judging by the life-size illustration of a young woman sitting in a pink foam-filled martini glass that also graces the shop's window, Bendel's and its Limited Brand owners are wooing a young, more mainstream audience. Certainly, while the Beverly Center boasts a growing number of high-end shops, it is undoubtedly a mall (just take a whiff of the Auntie Anne's Pretzels scent wafting from the food court upstairs). So while Henri Bendel bellies up to Dior, Gucci and Louis Vuitton, the store also sits beside an inevitable Victoria's Secret. This reality could feel controversial to Bendel's devotees, who may worry that, instead of capitalizing on the existing brand, the powers-that-be may dilute that history.

But to survive in a changing market, one must evolve. This L.A. location is one of 10 Bendel's annexes that have rolled out in high-end malls in the last year, in cities including Miami; Boca Raton, Fla.; Costa Mesa; San Diego; and Dallas. "It was time to maximize the brand," Bucciarelli says, adding that focusing on accessories and gift items seemed right. "We're extending the girls' playground experience from New York to the rest of the country. Our customer is a party girl who wants to see and be seen. We know from research that the L.A. woman is already shopping our store and our brand, so we have a built-in customer there. There's a lot of synergy."

Whether the company is correctly banking on the brand's existing cachet or on mall-strolling walk-ins, traffic has been good. Inside, shoppers peruse the merchandise -- including buttery turquoise leather gloves and Wild Fig and Vanilla Flower fragrances -- and seem particularly drawn to the Asymmetrical Debutante Clutch in a disturbed-stripe pattern or snakeskin-embossed suede and the Bendel Girl Cross Body Bag, which can be worn three ways.

The company's history pervades the store. "The interiors of what we do are just as beautiful as the exteriors," Bucciarelli says. The posh brown stripes do seem to resonate, concludes one shopper, horseback-riding instructor Allison Kandasamy. She wandered into the store with pal Nicole Ellis and opted for a classic pomegranate candle ($30). "I used to live in New York, so I know the brand," Kandasamy says. "I'm not too hot on the stuff that says their name across it, but I like a lot of the accessories. Mostly, I like how they package your purchases here and go to the trouble of wrapping them. That service seems very New York." Judging by the girls' Jimmy Choo for H&M shopping bags, Henri Bendel is indeed drawing its aspirational target customer.

Capsule collections and collaborations are future possibilities, but for now, Bucciarelli notes, "Our products tell the story of our brand from the rich archive of iconography to the colors. Walking through each store is like walking through the heritage."

image@latimes.com

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