THE NEW MELROSE
TACKY, TAWDRY AND TOURISTY
Byline: Michael Marlow
LOS ANGELES — Once designer shops, art galleries and celebrities filled the street. Now thrift shops, hamburger joints, jeans racks and hordes of teenagers in baggy pants have taken over Melrose Avenue.
“It’s turned into a kids’ market for T-shirts and ear piercing and body piercing,” said Carmen Korey, a retail broker with realtor Cushman & Wakefield. “Melrose used to be real trendy, but not today. It doesn’t have the hip upscale customer anymore.”
Although it doesn’t approach Venice Beach for downright funkiness, Melrose rarely attracts better stores these days. Instead, it’s become a magnet for such shops as Atomic Garage, which has a wall of T-shirts displayed in picture frames and a deejay on Saturdays playing club music; Beat-Nonstop, which sells T-shirts, baseball caps, CDs and cassettes, and Wasteland, a used clothing store that originated on Haight Street in San Francisco and offers button-down flannel shirts at $2 to $3, as well as jeans and costume jewelry. Several high-profile businesses have said goodby to Melrose.
Two years ago, the Charles Gallay designer boutique, which sold John Galliano and Industria, among other labels, moved to Sunset Plaza. Last spring, the Harrari women’s apparel boutique relocated to Robertson Boulevard.
Michel Perey opened the Commes Des Fous designer boutique on Melrose in 1982, but in 1990 left the business to his ex-wife and opened Les Habitudes, which carries Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano, on Robertson. Perey said Melrose in the Eighties evoked a European shopping promenade, had a low-key atmosphere and boasted a collection of better retailers. Now, he said, it lacks sophistication and is “a tourist trap and an outdoor hangout for local kids.” He recalled when celebrities could stroll the avenue without being besieged by fans.
“Today, it’s like being in a shopping center,” he lamented. “It’s too young.”
Steve Garrisi, manager of Z Gallery, a modern furniture store launched on Melrose in the Eighties and relocated to Beverly Center last year, said the street has followed the demographics of its shoppers.
“There are more T-shirt stores because there are four times the number of kids on the street,” he pointed out. “Nothing lasts forever. That’s how fashion goes.”
MAC Cosmetics, the hot Toronto-based manufacturer and retailer, said it considered Melrose, but ruled it out. MAC operates two stores near Melrose, in the Beverly Center mall in Los Angeles and on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. In March, another MAC will open several blocks south of Melrose on Robertson Boulevard.
Some better businesses continue to call Melrose home. These are generally on the western section of the avenue, an area that seems worlds apart from the heart of the Melrose district, between La Brea and Fairfax Avenues, which draws the tour buses and serves as a backdrop for the “Melrose Place” television show. Maxfield, on the west end near Robertson, is a destination store. It sells Jil Sander, Issey Miyake, Dries Van Noten and other European designers to a clientele that has its share of celebrities, but the Maxfield customer generally doesn’t shop elsewhere along Melrose or drop in at places like Johnny Rockets for a cheeseburger.
Two upscale jeans and sportswear retailers — Fred Segal and Replay — are also destination stores with cafes. When Segal began selling upscale jeans and sportswear at Melrose and Crescent Heights Boulevard 30 years ago, the store was adjacent to rat-infested buildings, according to Michael Segal, a partner and son of the founder. He disputed the notion that the bloom is off Melrose.
“You have to look at the whole stretch of Melrose,” Segal said. “There’s a fascinating assortment of stores, restaurants, production companies, art galleries and decorator shops. There’s something for everyone, from infants through older adults, to enjoy on Melrose Avenue at every income strata. What more could you ask from a street?”
The expanding Los Angeles retail scene also has had an impact on Melrose. The street was the only game in town during much of the Eighties. Today there is competition, pulling retailers and shoppers elsewhere.
“In its heyday, Melrose was rather unique,” said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles County. “Now you have Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, La Brea and Robertson. There are niche streets all over.”
Jerry Felsenfall, a Melrose property owner for 20 years, said after the street became hot, everyone wanted a piece of it.
Landowners responded by dividing stores that were 2,000 square feet and 3,000 square feet into smaller spaces and raising the rents to take advantage of the higher demand. Lots of T-shirt stores and cheap gift shops moved in because they could do a hefty volume in the smaller spaces.
“The unique shops that used to pay a more reasonable rent basically couldn’t compete,” Felsenfall said. “They couldn’t pay the high rents that the T-shirt and food places could pay. There became an excessive number of these stores at the expense of Melrose.”
Felsenfall, however, believes Melrose may be moving into another phase of development, beyond T-shirt shops, many of which have recently closed. He reads this as a weeding out of an overpopulation and a sign that there may be room on the avenue for more innovative retailing.
Felsenfall said there was a “thinning out” of yogurt shops several years ago. During the height of the yogurt craze, there were shops peddling the product on most corners in communities such as Westwood in Los Angeles, which is home to UCLA. Today there are fewer shops, but those that have survived are more successful.
“The market on Melrose is demonstrating its own sense of discrimination,” Felsenfall said. “The proliferation of generic items is being rejected. A lot of international shoppers come to Melrose looking for unique items, and the [retailers] that respond to this will be most successful.”
If landlords combine some of the spaces they subdivided in the late Eighties, the street could offer more options to larger businesses. Z Gallery, for example, moved from Melrose to Beverly Center because it was looking for a space of about 8,000 square feet and couldn’t find it on Melrose. Beverly Center was more than willing to accommodate, said Garrisi of Z Gallery.
“We outgrew Melrose,” Garrisi said. It wasn’t a case of being dissatisfied with the area, he added. Several stores that cater to the designer customer have survived the past few years. X Collection, for example, has thrived for four years selling John Richmond, Van Buren, Jean Paul Gaultier and others for a clientele that includes the Los Angeles club crowd. The store has even launched its own designer line, called F8. In addition to being sold in X Collection, it is available at other retail accounts.
“I’ve got no complaints,” said Jimmy Rojas, co-owner of X Collection. “There are fewer stores around to give us competition.”
While rents on Melrose have risen to $2-$4 per square foot, they are still a bargain compared to other venues, such as Rodeo Drive, which charges $10-$13 per square foot.
Rojas of X Collection is bullish on the future of Melrose. “Regardless of what’s on the street, tourists will continue to come here because of ‘Melrose Place,”‘ he said. “They’ll come because of the hype.”