By  on March 5, 2010

LOS ANGELES — After years of dressing red-carpet celebrities, Vera Wang has finally made her entrance in the movie capital.

Her first West Coast boutique opened Thursday in a 4,100-square foot space on Melrose Avenue, near Diane von Furstenberg, Marc by Marc Jacobs and Theory.

The store, Wang’s third freestanding unit in the U.S. along with boutiques on Madison Avenue and SoHo in Manhattan, houses her ready-to-wear collection in an artistically styled, dark purple front room with mannequins suspended from the 26-foot ceilings. There are concrete floors and walls, black French doors and a glass-encased flame between the ready-to-wear collection in front and bridal collection in the back.

The larger bridal space has purple banquettes along the walls and a small staircase leading to a landscaped patio in the rear, featuring a glass wall with water cascading down it.

“I wanted to bring sexy into bridal,” said Wang, who arrived here this week to oversee the opening with company president Mario Grauso, including a dinner at the store on Tuesday attended by guests such as Reese Witherspoon and Renée Zellweger.

“People tend to equate bridal as overly decorative,” she said. “It has this image as being poufy and all frills and ruffles. This is a little bit darker, but it’s about being sleek, elegant and beautiful, clean and detailed.”

Wang initially planned to open a two-story, 11,000-square-foot store in 2008 and a separate space for her now-dormant Lavender line. The recession forced that blueprint to be scrapped.

She wasn’t the only high-end designer forced to rethink her retail plans along Melrose Avenue because of high rents and the fallout from the economic downturn. Susan Dell’s now-defunct Phi label backed out of a lease across the street from Wang’s store and Nanette Lepore closed her boutique.

“It was like a faucet from September [2008] to November,” said Wang, who in late 2008 laid off about 350 workers, primarily sewers in its factories in Ohio and Florida. “It was like an overnight change. I’ve never seen things get so bad so fast. The killer was when Saks went 80 to 90 percent off just days after our [merchandise] delivery.”

Rents in the Melrose Avenue neighborhood have dropped to $4 to $6 a square foot compared with an estimated $10 a square foot a few years ago.

“We took on too much,” said Grauso, a former president of Carolina Herrera Ltd. and Puig Fashion Group, who took over the executive reins in October, freeing up Wang to focus more on the creative side. “The rents at that point were astronomical and it was no time to be overreaching.…Now, it’s all about controlling a much smaller amount of very high quality product.”

The designer said she and Grauso are retooling the business to build sales, and that the company is moving with caution, given the recession’s painful lessons. Wang and Grauso have said they want to develop the jewelry and shoe sectors; expand distribution internationally, especially in Asia, and dress more celebrities for the red carpet.

Wang said she wants to resurrect the Lavender label but Grauso said the company is dedicated to the existing lines for now. It will explore relaunching Lavender when the economy is more stable and the core labels are well-ensconced in growth mode.

“We have plenty of other things to focus on right now,” he said. “We will revisit Lavender once we have gotten through the work ahead.”

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