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Playing in the Majors: L.A.’s Robertson Blvd. Makes the Big Leagues

Robertson Boulevard, one of this city's hottest shopping streets, is about to get a jolt from some of the biggest names in fashion.

Shoppers on Robertson Boulevard.

LOS ANGELES — Robertson Boulevard, one of this city’s hottest shopping streets, is about to get a jolt from some of the biggest names in fashion.

This story first appeared in the December 5, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Dolce & Gabbana’s D&G concept and Chanel are set next year to be the first designer megabrands to hit the three-block stretch between Third Street and Beverly Boulevard — and Ralph Lauren is said to be joining them, sources said. The company did not comment.

In addition, the migration of contemporary companies has picked up steam: Rock & Republic is to launch a 2,000-square-foot store in what had been Poleci in March or April. Vince has signed a lease to take over the 900-square-foot store once occupied by Chan Luu, sources said. The company did not comment. And Seven For All Mankind launched a 3,100-square-foot unit last month.

For designer brands that already have flagships on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, Robertson represents a chance to lure in the coveted younger, hipper audience. Both high fashion and contemporary retailers are betting that they can mutually benefit from being on one of this automobile-focused city’s few bustling pedestrian thoroughfares, which first generated buzz 10 years ago. Since then, Robertson has become a go-to spot for trendsetting, multiline boutiques such as Lisa Kline, Kitson and Curve, as well as a mecca for contemporary branded stores, from Tory Burch to True Religion.

Chanel is opening a new concept store in the 3,500-square-foot space that had been occupied by the U.K. chain Ghost. The fashion house didn’t provide details, but it is likely to try and appeal to a different customer than the one Chanel already has on Rodeo Drive.

Similarly, Dolce & Gabbana, which already has a D&G store at the Beverly Center mall, will open a new prototype D&G boutique for the younger, streetwear-inspired line in the 11,000-square-foot space that had been filled by Maxfield Bleu.

Ralph Lauren, which could take over what is currently an antiques store next door to the famed Ivy restaurant, might carry the same selection of men’s and women’s clothing it does in other stores, according to sources.

Eyewear giant Luxottica opted to place its new luxury concept, Ilori, both on Rodeo Drive, where it launched an 1,800-square-foot store last week, and Robertson Boulevard, where it is to open in a 1,400-square-foot space in June selling about 40 designer sunglass collections. The goal is to enhance the visibility of the chain’s West Coast debut. Michael Hansen, vice president and general manager of Ilori, said the two shopping streets have different consumers that both need to be reached to build brand awareness.

“Rodeo has the true uberluxury type of consumer that typically only shops there and spends lots of dollars, and Rodeo also has the other audience that is heavily tourist based,” he said. “Robertson is a younger audience. It is trendier. It is getting a lot of press.”

Indeed, Robertson Boulevard’s cachet appears undiminished even as the challenges of the broader economy — the housing slump, high fuel prices and tight credit — continue to weed out some boutiques that are relative newcomers to Los Angeles.

“Our Robertson store continues to surpass expectations. It is one of our top retail stores and has been very successful since we opened and is one of our top performers overall. Our continued retail expansion in California — in South Coast Plaza, and in San Diego and Malibu in 2008 — is in large part due to the success of this store,” said Tory Burch.

For luxury “Robertson is a street to watch,” said Robert Cohen, executive vice president of the retail leasing, investment sales and consulting firm RKF. “With brands like D&G and Chanel coming in, it is going to explode and rents are going to go through the roof. That’s what’s missing on Rodeo Drive, quite frankly. Rodeo is a beautiful street but…it is about the tourist.”

Cohen pointed to the precedent of Chanel opening a location in Manhattan’s SoHo in 2002 selling apparel and cosmetics aimed at youthful consumers. “They were admittedly trying to get a younger customer,” he said. “It was the clear motive. It’s all about repositioning your brand.”

Rents on Robertson are $20 to $25 a square foot, a range that has more than doubled in the last two years, compared with Rodeo Drive at $30 to $45; Melrose Place, $15 to $18, and Melrose Avenue, $8 to $15.

Jay Luchs, senior vice president of CB Richard Ellis, said turnover on Robertson amounts to only about three leases a year.

Higher rents are the inevitable result of increasing numbers of deep-pocketed tenants who end up edging out some smaller, independent retailers who may have been pioneers when the street was just starting to gain traction.

It’s a familiar scenario that independent retailers such as Lisa Kline, who opened her first namesake store in 1995, and Harrari, which left this fall to make way for Intermix, hoped would never happen when Robertson Boulevard first starting having a impact in the Nineties.

Kline and other Robertson merchants such as Kitson’s Fraser Ross said that what made that street special — the milieu of homegrown contemporary boutiques and celebrity spotting — is being eroded.

Critics of the big names argue that the Robertson Boulevard customer base has radically shifted toward tourists as local clientele scurry to other up-and-coming shopping streets such as South Beverly Drive or Abbot Kinney Boulevard, where there aren’t hordes of paparazzi and independent, multibrand boutiques — Kline opened on Beverly, and eCookie and Pamela Barish are on Abbot Kinney — still reign.

“In the long run, I think it hurts our business and jacks up the rent because [the designer brands] are on double, triple and quadruple mark-ups,” Ross said. “They give the street a certain elitism.”

Kline took a more pragmatic view.

“Those high-end national stores are OK because they are not direct competition to my business,” she said. “Those stores improve the street, and the customer who shops there would shop at my store, too.” She added that the Chanels of the world “would improve the street over a multibrand [store, as] there is enough of that here already.”

In June, Kline re-signed the lease at her women’s store on Robertson — she also has kids’ and men’s units on the street — for five years at triple the previous rent.

With only three blocks of retail space and a low turnover rate, it’s possible that the Robertson boom may outgrow its current boundaries of Third Street on the south and Beverly Boulevard on the north.

The result would be for retail on Robertson to move past Beverly Boulevard and toward Melrose Avenue, which is experiencing a renaissance of its own on its western end, where it meets Robertson.

Robertson Boulevard, between Beverly and Melrose, is home to art galleries and fashionable interiors stores such as Armani Casa and Fendi Casa, as well as newer tenants like Dominique Cohen jewelry, Ken Pavés salon and Shabby Chic.

“It’s a block where I can see lifestyle coexisting with fashion,” RKF’s Cohen said. “I see the block becoming more dense in the three- to five-year picture, and long term, I’d love to see Robertson fuse with Melrose. It makes a lot of sense,” especially given what’s already there and what’s slated to go in.

At the intersection of Robertson and Melrose, John Varvatos sits on the southwest corner, and the famed Morton’s restaurant, which soon will close and reopen as the Los Angeles outpost of Soho House next year, is on the southeast corner.

To the west on Melrose, there are edgy stores such as Maxfield, Chrome Hearts and Costume National. To the east, there is the Pacific Design Center and a space soon to be occupied by Balenciaga. Jenni Kayne is around the corner on Almont Drive. Other design houses such as Nina Ricci and Givenchy also have been exploring around the area.

Mario Grauso, president of Ricci’s parent, Puig Fashion Group, put it this way when he visited Los Angeles in October: “I can’t say one street is better than another. Los Angeles is just an exciting place right now and there are some amazing options.”