VENICE, Calif. — Michael Paradise, co-founder of The Stronghold, a premium denim company based in Los Angeles, strolled Abbot Kinney Boulevard here, a wool newsboy-style cap shielding his face from the sun.
The mile-long street, two blocks from the beach, is the site of The Stronghold’s first store in a brick building built in 1925 that Paradise and partner Michael Cassel are refurbishing to give an early 20th-century look. The shop, set to open mid-June, will include a custom denim studio turning out jeans priced at more than $1,000.
“Abbot Kinney is a cool, hip place to be,” Paradise said. “But it’s still a little bohemian, still kind of lazy.”
Venice and its main street, Abbot Kinney Boulevard, have come a long way. Just five years ago, the gently curving boulevard was plagued by gang violence and drug users. Now, the inexorable hunt for lower rents and edginess, coupled with a convenient location and an environment that shuns chain stores in favor of smaller independent boutiques, has made Venice a high-end retail destination. The challenge is to keep it unpredictable and less sanitized than other beachside enclaves.
As with Echo Park, another up-and-coming Los Angeles neighborhood, Venice’s grittiness is perceived as a stylistic match for fashion-forward apparel.
Designer Pamela Barish opened her eponymous 600-square-foot store on Abbot Kinney three years ago and has kept a design studio in Venice for more than 15 years.
“Venice has that element of danger, and it’s also an artists’ community,” she said. “And even though Abbot Kinney is getting to be more like SoHo, the street life of Venice prevails.”
The boulevard was named after Venice’s founder, Abbot Kinney, who acquired most of the land in 1905 through the luck of a coin toss with a business partner. Kinney’s original plan for his “Venice of America” was to re-create the atmosphere of Venice, Italy, canals and all.
Instead, by 1910, Venice had been transformed into a Coney Island-like amusement area. In a decline that started in the Thirties, the city slowly lost its luster, leading to empty storefronts, abandoned buildings and crime.
Venice’s difficulties compounded even as it solidified its reputation as the birthplace of counter-culture movements. The area became a magnet for visual artists in the Sixties and Seventies because of the spacious, cheap housing.
“People were living inside Abbot Kinney’s storefronts and creating art inside,” said Jeffrey Solomon, a board member of the local chamber of commerce. “You couldn’t see them, because they would board up the storefront.”
Venice eventually spawned the famed Zephyr skateboarding team — a ragtag group that went on to reinvent the sport, as chronicled in the documentary “Dogtown and Z-Boys.”
Also, during the Seventies images of the neighborhood’s boardwalk — and adjacent Muscle Beach, with its pumped-up denizens — became familiar and synonymous with the California lifestyle. By 1977, the neighborhood was known as the “roller-skating capital of the world.”
Venice’s famed boardwalk retains its polyglot of vendors, performance artists, cyclers, bodybuilders and, yes, skaters.
And Abbot Kinney Boulevard is one of the only shopping districts in Los Angeles that has adopted a no-chain-store policy — a standard backed by the chamber of commerce.
Last year, Amanda Dugan, a resident of Venice for 11 years, opened Brick Lane, which specializes in British labels such as Ben Sherman and Pringle, in a 105-year-old house.
“My concept would have worked in a few shopping districts in L.A., but this is my neighborhood,” she said. “I wanted to be here when it grows.”
Sam Lauachus, owner of A. Mason, a designer specialty store that moved from Montana Avenue, an established shopping district in Santa Monica, to the street last year, said Abbot Kinney’s strong merchant’s association protects single-store retailers.
“Don’t you think Starbucks is dying to get a spot on the street? They’re never going to get one,” she said. “The merchant’s association would probably lie down in front of the bulldozer. When I opened up, people would find really sneaky ways to ask me if I had more than one store. I kept saying, ‘Don’t worry, I only have the one.'”
Lauachus, who codesigns a contemporary line called The Maitlands in a studio above the store, is a longtime Venice resident who has watched Abbot Kinney reinvent itself.
“I’ve never seen a neighborhood change so quickly … As we’re speaking, someone is raising the rent on Abbot Kinney,” Lauachus said.
Suzy Frank, owner of Abbot Kinney Real Estate, who has sold commercial and residential property in Venice for 20 years, cited reasonable rents and a rising hip quotient as key factors in why she has a list of 25 merchants vying for space on Abbot Kinney.
“What is bringing people to Venice is the small village atmosphere, the quaint shops and the free spirit,” Frank said.
Commercial rents have risen to about $5 per square foot from just over $2 per square foot a decade ago. By comparison, the leasing prices per square foot in Beverly Hills or on Robertson Boulevard surpass $10, said Los Angeles retail real estate broker Chuck Dembo.
Venice’s increasing housing prices will likely solidify the consumer base for retail.
“I was selling houses for $225,000 to $350,000 in the mid-nineties,” Frank said. “Now you’ll pay $1 million for a little shack, if you’re lucky.”
The market price of a 30-by-85-foot residential lot in the neighborhoods flanking Abbot Kinney is around $2 million, she said. The median home price in Venice in 2000 was $823,500, according to the census bureau.
Among the residents are Julia Roberts and Dennis Hopper.
Barbara Phillips, owner of specialty store Minnie T’s, was one of the first better contemporary retailers to take a chance on Abbot Kinney.
When she moved in four years ago, “there were good art galleries and restaurants, but no high-end clothing stores,” she said.
Phillips carries brands such as Colleen Cordero, Everlast by Norma Kamali and Juicy — familiar names on Los Angeles’ more developed shopping streets, such as Third Street in West Hollywood.
Residents and business owners here agree that numbers in the retail category have spiked dramatically.
“When I opened my store, I was a destination,” Barish said. “And now it’s nice that these other high-end shops are opening because we’re suddenly getting foot traffic, which we never got before.”
Venice’s vital gallery scene — with 30-year-old gallery L.A. Louvre at its nexus — is what lured semiretired fashion model Honor Fraser.
Fraser, featured in a forthcoming Saks Fifth Avenue campaign and who has lived in Venice for four years, rents a small gallery space in the back of a larger gallery on Abbot Kinney, Jaxon House, and is working on a book with artist Mark Licari.
“Venice has a really interesting combination of houses and buildings that are gentrified in a really artistic way, next to things that are quite hard core,” she said. “Also, there’s a great old guard of artists here.”
Jeannie Yamamoto, owner of Jeannie Y, a 1,600-square-foot apparel store specializing in Japanese designers that bowed in mid-May, said she spent more than seven months researching Los Angeles’ shopping districts before deciding on Abbot Kinney.
“Lots of people are looking for something new here and everyone is really cordial and open,” she said.
Yamamoto carries casual pieces from brands such as A.D, Sanrio, Snarl Extra and Tokyo Denim, which she personally designs and sells for between $149 and $189 a pair.
Holly Boies, owner of Salt, a two-year-old, 900-square-foot boutique that specializes in cutting-edge European designer apparel for more mature women, said she anticipated the gentrification of Abbot Kinney.
“I’m a native California girl, and I always knew it would be the next hot spot,” said Boies, who stocks styles from brands such as Hache, which retails from $150 to $750, and Avant, $100 to $300. “It has a low-key, casual feel.”
Despite the proximity to the beach, Abbot Kinney’s retailers sell everything but swimwear — favoring work and evening looks for the fashion-conscious. It may be the only beachside shopping district in Los Angeles that is sans a surf shop.
Solomon credited the new retailers with bringing the spotlight to the boulevard.
“Every single store on that street is totally unique,” he said. “It’s the creativity of the store owners that’s making it successful …If you have a nice restaurant and a really nice place to shop, you have a really nice symbiotic relationship going on. It’s suddenly a place to take a date. It’s got action — you just feel it.”