By  on November 19, 2007

LOS ANGELES — A decade ago, the average L.A. Sporting Club customer had three basic items on his shopping agenda: 2(x)ist briefs, a tight-fit T with an ironic or suggestive slogan splayed across the chest and a square-cut, Lycra-blend swimsuit—de rigueur for any August weekend spent sunning at a pool party in the Bird Streets or at nearby Will Rogers State Beach.

Times have changed. West Hollywood, where the shop is located, has never been a frugal enclave, but the emergence of the $14 martini and the $1.5 million bungalow inspired LASC’s owners to phase out moderately priced apparel in favor of designer sportswear, a move that’s simultaneously attracted new customers and spurned some longtime devotees.

“Our movement to higher price points is reflective of a shift we saw in the market several seasons ago,” said Don Zuidema, who cofounded the store during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics with partner Mike McGinley (a third co-owner, Alfredo Izaguirre, joined LASC in 1998). “Our customers caught up with the shift in the middle of this year. Our guys are still trending towards more expensive, unique products.”

Now entering its 25th year in the men’s wear business, LASC’s 4,000-square-foot space on a finely landscaped and pedestrian-heavy stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard just west of La Cienega Boulevard has taken a nod from the designer bacchanal erupting on nearby Melrose Avenue and Melrose Place, where boutiques housing Theory, Marc Jacobs and a soon-to-open Kitson have helped to push rents to $18 per square foot in some areas, according to real estate sources. Impending mixed-use developments along Santa Monica Boulevard and the new 400,000-square-foot Red Building addition at the nearby Pacific Design Center will likely bring rents in LASC’s neighborhood more in line with other L.A. shopping corridors, said City of West Hollywood economic development director Ray Reynolds.

“There’s no question that retail space as well as commercial office space is increasing. You could easily say it’s moving up to $4 to $6 per square foot and could move higher,” Reynolds said. “Santa Monica Boulevard turned the corner eight years ago, when we re-landscaped and widened the sidewalks. We had an image of this stretch as an urban village, and the latest wave of mixed-use development will get people both living there and shopping there.”

LASC’s transformation, which began in 2004, culminated last month with the unveiling of its new “Luxe Shop,” a 400-square-foot corner that approximates a sitting room from Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, with coral wallpaper, vintage cabinets, chandeliers and Oriental rugs. At a glance, the new in-store shop’s mission is clear: Nudge West Hollywood guys to dress up on Saturday nights without falling into the heavily embroidered, button-front shirt trap that has ensnared countless L.A. victims in the past few years. Charcoal and hunter-green Drykorn cardigans share shelf space with $400 jeans and $495 multicolored sneakers by Dsquared.

Premium items range from blazers by Bill Tornade to a $1,550 Diesel white sheepskin jacket with shearling lining. “Santa Monica Boulevard is not the first street in L.A. that people think of when you discuss high-end shopping, but the size of our store and the breadth of our selection make us a destination for a lot of men.”

Luxe is LASC’s third in-store shop: Diesel opened a denim-and-accessories section in 2005. G-Star Raw followed suit a year later with a shop-in-shop that features denim, belts and accessories. Other areas of the store have undergone a similar upmarket renaissance, with an emphasis on southern California brands like Howe, Nixon, Stitch’s and Rvca.

LASC’s branded swimwear and activewear, which sell in about 100 doors in six countries, dominate the casuals section. The private label business accounts for about 15 percent of the company’s $5 million annual revenue, Zuidema said. A new, LASC-designed, upscale activewear line called Sporting Club will debut in February at Project Las Vegas.

“Shopping at LASC is like being a guest at a party hosted by the town’s most genial proprietors,” said talent agent and customer Nevin Dolcefino. “They provide such a perfect mix for my lifestyle. It’s where I buy almost everything I wear.”

Not all customers are keen on the store’s shift toward stratospheric prices, however. “LASC has traditionally been an affordable store, and its location in the heart of West Hollywood has made it easily accessible to all,” said Schulyer Ha, a film marketing executive who has shopped the store since the late 1980s. “It can be nice to have so many high-end brands in one place now, but I’d rather go to the designer stores directly, as they all have independent freestanding stores in or nearby WeHo. There’s more cachet to say I spent $300 on a pair of jeans at G-Star, rather than $300 on G-Star jeans at LASC.”

The move may have some lost customers, but has also helped to push sales per square foot to about $1,000, Zuidema asserted. “And we’ve gained customers who appreciate what we’ve done and how we’ve evolved,” he said. “We are seeing many new faces, from the new professionals of L.A. to parents with their children ... Sales reps used to never make it over to the store. Now they stop by.”

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