L.A.’S LITTLE JEWEL
THE MONTANA AVENUE DISTRICT DRAWS CELEBS WITH LOW-KEY CHIC AND GREAT CLOTHES SHOPS.
Byline: Rose-Marie Turk
SANTA MONICA — To its many fans, Montana Avenue is regarded as the secret retail find of the west side of L.A.
A 10-block mix of quaint and streamlined architecture, it is framed by a white picket-fenced house and a library at one end, palm trees and the Pacific Ocean at the other. In between, sits an upscale mix of boutiques and other businesses frequented by the likes of Tom Hanks, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Meg Ryan and Gwyneth Paltrow.
But despite the celebrity cachet and the surrounding homes valued anywhere from $800,000 to $2.5 million, this is not your typical Tinseltown retail zone.
The dress code, on the street and in the stores, is functional, low-key chic. Polite, friendly people stroll, sip coffee, run errands, shepherd children to and from school, unwind in yoga studios, linger over gourmet meals. And they shop — for everything from tennis and golf balls to vitamins and herbal teas, high-end home furnishings and clothing.
“The top 10 to 12 retailers are doing above that magical $1,000 a square foot,” said James Rosenfield, whose commercial properties here include the single-screen Art Deco Aero Theatre. Lacking in self-promotion (save for three annual events and a Web site), Montana Avenue is “a great street that is virtually unknown to people in L.A. and around the world,” Rosenfield said. “So, when you do share it with someone, it’s like sharing a little jewel.”
Currently, there are 35 shops devoted to women’s apparel and accessories, each with its own personality, its own spin on fashion. A few, such as Sara Sturgeon, ABS and David Dart, are label-related. But the majority, including the following five, are quintessentially Montana Avenue.
The rents on Montana are currently at an average $5 to $6 a square foot, but Jan Brilliot opened her store 27 years ago, when rents were a mere 50 cents a square foot. Along with another women’s clothing store, Brilliot’s early neighbors were a collection of “chiropractors, real estate offices, stationers and a nursery.”
She now occupies 1,500 square feet, double the original size, with large floor-to-ceiling widows and a fresh, minimalist interior accented by pine floors. Sparkling metal tube racks and recessed wooden wall niches are devoted to select European labels, including Dries Van Noten, Martin Margiela,Comme des Garcons Comme des Garcons and Paul Smith, along with 3 Dots and Dosa out of L.A.
There are also what Brilliot considers “Italian basics that a woman can build her wardrobe around,” which include shirts by Lorenzia, Incotex pants, Lorena Antoniazzi knitwear, and handmade bags from Maria La Rosa.
“We carry a lot of what Barneys carries,” Brilliot said, noting that with the arrival of so many retailers in the neighborhood, her concept has moved from “more traditional to more urban sophisticated. I started going to Europe. I saw the need to go further afield. It was born out of the need to have something different.”
After the store was remodeled last August, Brilliot experienced a 20 percent increase in business. Nonetheless, she thinks rents “are higher than they should be. Traffic has dropped over the last two years. Before, Montana was the latest hot area. That’s shifted now to Robertson and places like the new part of Melrose.”
As part of the shift, “There are more local people shopping here now,” Brilliot explained. “What I’m finding is, that with the demographics and the traffic, if consumers can find it closer to home in an easier way, they are going to.
“There is a sense of community and of belonging to a place and the sense that it’s a little bit like a small town,” she added. “I think people long for this now. We’re small businesses, with the owners present, and we care about them.”
Ten years ago, when her rent went up in Century City, Hedda Jason moved Moselle to Montana Avenue. “It’s my canvas. The things I pick can’t have a commercial look,” explained Jason, a graduate of Pratt Institute, who converted 948 square feet into a cozy, feminine space, crammed with appealing merchandise.
“Each of us has a different niche,” she said of her retail neighbors. “I have a varied price point, so a customer isn’t intimidated.” With prices ranging from $30 for a T-shirt to $1,000 for a dress, Jason expects volume to hit $1 million this year.
Glenn Close, Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep have shopped here. “Even Steven Spielberg has walked through,” laughs Jason, whose more devoted following includes Roseanne, Priscilla Presley (who sends Jason birthday cards) and Treat Williams, “who shops for his wife.”
Along with jewelry and accessories, such as one-of-a-kind hats and handbags, the current merchandise mix includes Catherine Malandrino’s retro-inspired purple daytime dresses; Lilith’s pastel linen “young, funky” layered separates, for which the store is known; artistic appliqued silk sweaters and matching long dresses by Maria Grazia Severi, and sophisticated alternative bridal selections, such as Gigi Clark’s champagne-color long silk shantung skirts and beaded corsets.
“We’re trying to educate our customer to mix it up, to be a little kickier, trendier,” Jason explained. “I tell my customer, ‘It’s just a dress, go for it. Don’t take it too seriously.”‘
Brides who buy the corset and skirt get some of Jason’s most detailed instructions: “Take the bustier on your honeymoon and wear it with white linen pants or a short skirt and sexy strappy heels. And wear it on your first anniversary with a leather jacket and jeans.”
“I think customers feel comfortable here. For lack of a better word, we have become ‘home” to them,” explained manager Julie Albert, who has worked with owner Susan Stone for 11 years. “Our customers, for the most part, are repeat customers. We have people who are in here every other day, every week, every month. We get to know their husbands, their children.”
Within 2,500 square feet of elegant, minimalist space, there are as many as 40 to 50 international designers each season. The list includes Jil Sander, Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake, Marni, Etro, Collette Dinnigan and Lucien Pellat-Finet. “We buy entire collections, from the undergarments to the shoes and everything in between. And that’s the Savannah look,” Albert said, “to mix three or four designers, depending on what the customer wants.”
Along with Cathy Waterman’s fine jewelry and Manolo Blahnik shoes, there are handbags from Henry Beguelin, an Italian designer “Susan found 15 years ago,” Albert said.
“Service is a big draw to the store,” she added. Jil Sander devotees, for example, are notified and are often in the room when the latest shipment is unpacked. There are also special considerations for the store’s “large out-of-state clientele. We e-mail them pictures of new merchandise and take it to them, if they want it.”
In addition, the store has its own label, Savannah Studio, a line of special occasion dressing that includes styles for “hard to fit customers, small or large.” Designed by Stone and made in an atelier across the street, “It’s another thing that separates us from any other retailer in the city,” Albert said.
“It’s really a closet,” owner Jill Roberts said of her miniature freestanding stucco building that dates back to the Twenties and was once an Edison Electric payment office.
She might have only 700 square feet, a tiny real closet for storage, minimal counter space and just two small dressing rooms with two mismatched chairs, but she does have “50 feet of windows,” she pointed out. “A lot of people don’t come down this far, but I love this building. We refurbished it and brought back its splendor.”
Roberts is a young mother who stocks her five-year-old store with the kind of clothes she wants to wear. “There’s a certain style you’re going to get here. It’s all about being classic with a little sexiness. The customer is me, but she doesn’t have to be a mother. These are definitely not your typical mother clothes.”
The customer is also “very, very loyal,” with some shopping as often as three times a week. Celebrity clients include Julianna Margulies, Christy Turlington, Kate Capshaw, Reese Witherspoon and Minnie Driver.
Roberts’s spring selections range from a $30 Petit Bateau T-shirt to Katayone Adeli’s $1,200 suede pants. Other labels include Kors (one of her top performers), Chaiken, New York Industry, Anna Sui, Tracy Reese, Paul & Joe, Diane Von Furstenberg, and Sigerson Morrison shoes.
Predicting a 10 to 15 percent increase this year, Roberts said, “I don’t merchandise by designer, I merchandise by color. My customer will buy Kors khaki pants for $198 and she might buy a cashmere sweater for a few hundred dollars, or she’ll go to Savannah and spend $800. She walks out with five or six things, and she hasn’t spent an outrageous amount of money.”
There is also a small collection of Calypso and Tocca perfumes and gift items, all part of Roberts “lifestyle” concept. Her busy customer, dressed in the outfit she just bought for a dinner party, might need a gift for her hostess, she explained. And the fragrance choices are there, she said, because, “This is the perfume you should be wearing when you’re wearing these clothes.”
“This store is extra-high volume and it’s a landmark,” noted Nicole Wachs, a former psychology major who, with her father, bought Sara two years ago.
They kept the name of the venerable 19-year-old business, the clientele and the staff. But they moved to a corner location, increased the highest price point from $300 to $600, and “made the store a little bit more contemporary, because that was my background,” said Wachs. “We do about $1.8 million a year. I think the foremost thing is location. It’s really important to be on a busy street with enough competition to sustain traffic.”
“We’re into volume,” she added, “so we like turnover. Last year, we moved out 40,000 units. We like to mark them at a good price and get them out the door. We’re a widespread shop,” she explained. “You walk in and your eye goes all over. You don’t want to miss a corner.”
While the store gets a celebrity shopper “at least once a week, we didn’t look to do that,” Wachs explained. “We get a lot of young moms from this area. Our customer doesn’t get too sexy. Most of them are really fit, but they’re moms; they don’t have time to enjoy the L.A. nightlife.”
With her emphasis on contemporary sportswear, Wachs fills the 1,800 square feet of selling space with such labels as Earl Jean, Tracy Reese, Maxou, Leopold, Karen Kane, Avalin, Jane Doe, Billy Blues and Melissa M. Shoe sales, which account for around 20 percent of her sales, are generated by Nine West, Seychelles, Yellow Box, Cobian and Next Day.
The store is known for its selection of Michael Star T-shirts, the largest in the country, according to Wachs, and the only product currently offered on the Montana Avenue Web site. But in addition, there is a mind-boggling array of merchandise.
“Everything in the store is for sale,” said Wachs, who does all the buying. The selection goes all the way from trendy reading glasses, jewelry, scarfs and hats, pajamas, lingerie, bath products and smaller home furnishings, to bigger pieces like pine chests (used for displays), carpets (on the floor as part of the decor) and the newest novelty: leopard-pattern shoe-shaped chairs, going for $850 each, available by special order only.