Byline: Deirdre Mendoza

PALM DESERT, Calif. — Palm Springs can claim the cachet of having Sonny Bono as its former mayor, a history as a scorched playground for Hollywood legends and some great boutique hotels. However, it is Palm Desert, its lesser-known neighbor 12 miles to the east, that has succeeded in scoring as a shopping destination.
The palm tree-lined El Paseo in the heart of Palm Desert is host to more than 250 shops, restaurants, spas, galleries and salons, and highlighted by a growing cadre of upscale specialty stores and national chains.
A dusty stretch of sand and sagebrush has evolved into the eight-block district where commercial space rents for about $4 per square foot — and its reputation as the “Rodeo Drive of the desert” is duly earned.
Supporting this retail community is an influx of upwardly mobile “urban flight” families who in recent years have discovered desert living in the nine cities comprising the Coachella Valley.
Desert-area home prices start at the affordable $145,000 for single-family dwellings to the $6 million-plus showplaces in gated luxury communities. In the surrounding five-mile radius of El Paseo, the average household income is $75,000, according to a study from Claritus, an independent demographic provider. And longtime residents and merchants agree that a younger generation of fast-track, golf and sun fanatics is revitalizing Palm Desert with a hipper attitude — and a longer retail season.
The area got a major boost in October 1998 when the 200,000-square-foot monolithic shopping center known as The Gardens on El Paseo opened its doors with a 50,000-square-foot Saks Fifth Avenue as its anchor. Mom-and-pop shops have seen traffic increase and families have been easy to spot.
“We have been pleasantly surprised with family use at The Gardens,” said general manager Tammy Perezchica. “Everyone thought it would be more of an elderly clientele. But they come in for martinis and steak dinners at Sullivan’s, or they go to Tommy Bahama’s for lifestyle dining. It’s part of the shopping experience.”
Perezchica declined to reveal overall revenue figures for The Gardens, but noted business was up 15 percent in the last year. Overall 1999 sales for the El Paseo district were $139.4 million, according to Ruth Anne Moore, business support manager for the City of Palm Desert.
Home to 42 retailers, The Gardens has the advantage of being the only location within 60 miles where locals can shop national chains such as Pottery Barn, Ann Taylor and Brooks Bros.
Like all retailers on the block, The Gardens caters to “snowbirds,” residents who spend winters in the Palm Springs area and escape the punishing heat of desert summers by jetting off to cooler climes. The center calculates that an average shopper there spends $315 during an hourlong visit.
At the entrance of El Paseo is a newly expanded two-story, 6,000-square-foot St. John flagship that opened last month. The store sits diagonally across from the BCBG door slated to open this spring. The arrival of Max Azria’s contemporary line epitomizes the trend among El Paseo retailers to target a younger clientele.
“It’s certainly going to cater to the younger, more fashion-minded. As the desert has gotten younger and more fashion-forward, so have our stores,” said David Fletcher, vice president of Churchill Management, owner of six prime locations on El Paseo including BCBG, St. John and Nicole Miller.
To better serve this new wave, Daniel Foxx, a 14- year El Paseo veteran, has broadened its designer offerings since 1997.
“Retail has changed. You have the young-minded customers looking for casual luxury. You have the black-tie galas, and the slower summers. So you have to cater to lots of different kinds of people,” said Rhannon Sellam, partner in Daniel Foxx and the adjacent Baccarat unit with her husband, Jacques Sellam. The two-story, canopied Daniel Foxx store carries a mix of European and domestic eveningwear and daywear collections, including Roberto Cavalli, Max Mara, Debra McGuire, Ralph Lauren and Ungaro.
French skin-care line Darphin has its own beauty bar and cosmetics services on the main floor and the store’s designer presentation highlights Dior, Valentino, Halston and Lacroix.
“This is a seasonal business from November through April. After that, many people return to their homes in Seattle, Portland, New Jersey or New York,” said Sellam. The store does not accept merchandise deliveries past March 31.
The block will continue to develop, believes Sellam, as the desert population swells from 300,000 to 500,000 as expected by 2014.
“You have to grow with the realities,” he said, noting that families are driving the two-hour commute from jobs in Los Angeles, and the construction of a full-service casino in nearby Rancho Mirage is scheduled to employ upwards of 10,000, contributing to further regional expansion.
Across the street at Caroldean, owner Caroldean Ross said she left Los Angeles in 1994 to manage a now-defunct store up the block from her present location. She was immediately hooked on Palm Desert. Her own shop opened that same year and, six years later, she considers herself a permanent resident.
“In January, the weather never drops below 70 degrees during the day. You have tennis tournaments, world-class golf, polo, the International Film Festival. And then things drop off during the summer months,” said Ross, a tall, athletic woman who plays polo for recreation.
“We cater to young, working professionals, but mostly it’s women who are body-conscious — we don’t carry over a size 10,” added Ross, who expected yearend sales for 2000 would come in at $1.2 million.
For Ross, being a specialty store in a close-knit town where retailers and owners get to know one another is another plus. She keeps a file on clients’ sizes, likes and dislikes, as well as a wish list for husbands to peruse at the holidays.
Her buying patterns have changed as locals have become savvier.
“In the last two years, customers are more on top of the trends. There’s not so much resistance,” said Ross, jokingly adding, “I’m not fighting to get them out of pleated pants.”
She stocks Cimarron, Earl, Lolita, Bisou Bisou and Zete at retail prices from $89 to $450.
South on El Paseo, Trio’s white-washed walls, wood floors, hip sportswear resources and shabby chic furnishings attract a contemporary clientele.
Former Angeleno Debra Fenn, who owns the store with partner Courtney Block, has set her sights on creating a “Fred Segal-like” environment.
“The concept is to create the type of shopping experience where you can get everything in one place,” said Fenn, who opened the store in 1997 after moving to the area with her husband and new baby.
Her customer profile: the woman “who wants to preserve herself and stay, healthy and fit,” as well as “the woman who might not live here and travels around a lot.”
Prices range from $20 for a T-shirt to $800 for leather or fur pieces, with average buys under $100 for two items. Hot sellers include Cherry Pie novelty print lingerie, Diesel jackets and leather pants, Lucky sportswear and Diane Von Furstenberg dresses.
Fenn said she prepares for the notably slower summer months by stocking up on basics from resources such as Diesel and Michael Starr. Overall sales are up about 20 percent over last year’s figures, according to Fenn, and she has increased her inventory by 30 percent since opening four years ago. Fenn planned to hit the $500,000 mark by yearend 2000.
Not far from Trio on the southern end of El Paseo, desert ranchers and cowgirls can get their fix of authentic westernwear and accessories at Billy Martin’s. Doug Newton’s legendary source also has doors in New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and the Hamptons.
Among the best-selling items in the Palm Desert location are Shady Brady collapsible straw hats, Aviva leather fringe dusters, Double D. Ranch Tencel bottoms and Detlev Designs bags. Custom-embroidered jackets by Manuel, who worked for western couture icon Nudie Cohn, sell for $6,595.
“People come here expecting to find the unusual piece,” said Kate Wine, store manager. “Today, I’m selling the $7,000 chandelier to a woman who wanted it for her Rancho Sante Fe home.”
The store also caters to a snowbird clientele, with customers well into their 80s, and continues to draw on the Billy Martin’s lifestyle concept, incorporating clothing, accessories, shoes and furnishings.
Wine said business was down by about 30 percent from figures for November 1999, but remained optimistic. She believes a recent shift in location from one end of the street to the other might have slowed traffic, and plans announcements to customers along with news about upcoming trunk shows to boost sales.
Overall, however, Palm Desert’s retail community shows no signs of easing, despite its seasonal nature and recent economic forecasts to the contrary in other parts of the country.
The question is what will become of neighboring Palm Springs?
Churchill Management’s Fletcher proposes: “We see Palm Springs becoming more like Fisherman’s Wharf [in Boston] as far as entertainment and being tourist based, while El Paseo goes more in the direction of San Francisco’s Union Square or Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.”
At that, he stops to point out one major difference between the district in the “Hills” and the one in the “Desert.”
“Rodeo Drive is actually only three blocks,” he said, “and we have eight.”

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