Only in Los Angeles, birthplace of mall culture, could billionaire mall king Rick Caruso be a front-runner in the mayor’s race.
But with a protracted pandemic recovery, record-high retail vacancies and inflation putting the squeeze on discretionary spending, not to mention the allure of congregating online instead of off, does the mall have the same meaning it once did? Or is it destined to disappear like Beta-max tapes, Polaroids and Tab, only to be referenced in nostalgia pieces like “Stranger Things?”
Analysts have been predicting the death of malls since before the pandemic, before Amazon, before shifting attention to social media, and before the one-two punch of the struggling American Dream in East Rutherford, New Jersey, and Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield’s announcement that it plans to sell all of its 24 U.S. malls in the next two years.
Nationwide, mall visitor metrics have been about as volatile as the stock market of late — up one month and less so the next — but still off compared to pre-pandemic. (Through that lens, June visits to indoor malls were down 9.5 percent, open-air lifestyle visits down 9.4 percent and outlet malls down 14.3 percent compared to three years ago, according to a Placer.ai report.)
But historically, shopping malls have been as much a part of the L.A. fabric as sun, surf and stars.
Town squares amidst the urban sprawl, they have been incubators for fashion trends like feathered hair, Sasson jeans and Juicy Couture tracksuits, where teens could act out their independence, romantic crushes and rebellion.
The Sherman Oaks Galleria was the establishing shot for youth culture in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982) and “Valley Girl” (1983), while Fashion Square was Cher Horowitz’s respite in “Clueless” (1995).
Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza and Slauson Supermall were both in Tupac Shakur’s 1996 “To Live and Die in L.A” video lovefest to his hometown, and getting lost at Del Amo Fashion Center in the South Bay drove Robert De Niro to murder in the 1997 film “Jackie Brown.”
In recent years, however, L.A. has not been immune to the mall’s struggles. In a glaring sign of the dominance of online search and shopping, The Westside Pavilion is now One Westside, a $180 million adaptive reuse project that turned 240,000 square feet of the Hudson Pacific- and Macerich-owned mall’s retail space into a leafy creative office campus for Google, Amazon, Netflix, Square and more.
Still, visiting about a dozen malls in the L.A. area over the last couple of months, I can report that people are still going, though not in droves (there’s plenty of parking), and not always for shopping. The teen scene was bleak, with few teens hanging out — they might rather shop Shein online or get style ideas from TikTok.
But they are going for Din Tai Fung dumplings, to see “Top Gun: Maverick,” and to score at sneaker drops. They are going wearing trendy crop tops and bike shorts, and they are going because there is a need for somewhere to go that’s not home.
“It’s not the mall that’s the problem,” said Alexandra Lange, author of the new book “Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall” (Bloomsbury Publishing). “There are larger issues in retail, some of which are dragging them down. But if you can get the kind of communitarian, experiential, fun social part of shopping working again, people do want to do that. It’s not like that part of humanity has died.”
The Mall as the New Office
There is still community at L.A. malls, from the oldster coffee klatches in multiple languages at the Farmers’ Market at the Grove to the teen sneakerheads high-five-ing each other in line for the latest drop at Foot Locker in the Beverly Center, to the preteen beauty junkies dipping in and out of Sephora at The Americana for try-ons, then sitting outside and posting their photos on social media.
Many come but they don’t stay. Except, at Westfield Century City over the last week, more than one young worker escaped the COVID-19-era work-from-home doldrums by posting up with earbuds and a laptop in the attractive outdoor lounge areas. Which begs the question that instead of building more elitist private clubs, maybe L.A. could use some of its vacant retail acreage to develop a more accessibly-priced coworking space?
Many malls already have gyms as tenants, why not add a quiet room for studying or a conference room that can be reserved for meetings? Mall operators could brand their own membership lifestyle centers, with outdoor, fitness, medical and working spaces — or brands could do it themselves — say, the Universal Studios City and Office Walk, or the Apple or Louis Vuitton Life Work Centers.
Malls have historically played a key role in teen socialization and discovering a sense of style, Lange notes in her book. And the best L.A. malls are meeting teens’ interests by clustering teen retail tenants like Forever 21, Zara and H&M in close proximity, serving up bubble tea and cupcake vending machines, eyebrow threading and K-pop emporiums — and sometimes offering something extra.
Talking to Teens
The Simon-owned Del Amo Fashion Center, for example, has two Soleworld sneaker resale boutiques, as well as a vintage store called Granny Takes a Trip, to appeal to the teen value of thrifting. Which makes one wonder, why not bring in Goodwill to an abandoned anchor store, a clothing swap, or even Etsy as a brick-and-mortar?
Mission-based visits are common, whether to pick up online orders (Nordstrom makes it easiest, putting the desk front and center), to return them (note to retailers: having a separate line for this would gum up the works a lot less), to look for something specific or a gift, perhaps.
At the Madewell store in Century City on a recent morning, a mom and her teenage daughter were on a mission to find work clothes for a tech internship. “It’s hard to know what’s appropriate,” the mom told the salesperson dispensing style advice, bemoaning how it’s difficult to tell online how cropped tops are.
Connecting search to store is an industry imperative. To that end, Simon Property Group recently introduced a Simon Search feature, which allows users to search for goods, but not with enough specificity. At Del Amo Fashion Center, for example, a search for black dresses turned up 182 options from J.C. Penney, J. Crew, Gap and more, but not all of them were black, and a search for Nike Jordans turned up zilch.
Turning Up the Tech
Digital is looming, and in the not-too-distant future, the metaverse could be the new mall, or the old mall could be a hybrid of the metaverse and the physical, where you buy an NFT to pick up the corresponding IRL sneaker.
Until then, it’s a wonder why social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok aren’t making their way to the store floor, with rapid-fire trend spotlights, or as a means of curation and discovery of goods brought from screen to rack.
L.A. is the capital of social media influencers, but they were not evident in malls, as one would expect. It would seem a no-brainer to have a rotating YouTube store curated by the biggest creators, for example, or a TikTok pop-up with influencer-designed or curated product.
One exception to the dearth of tech in the mall is Amazon Style, which chose Caruso’s The Americana at Brand for its first foray into brick-and-mortar apparel retail. Interestingly, the store had some of the best service anywhere, with associates at the door eager to educate would-be shoppers how to scan QR codes for looks curated by trend (Y2K!) or influencer, how to use the app to send items to a fitting room, where they can use a touch screen to browse more options, rate items and request more sizes delivered directly to their room within minutes.
No wonder the 3,000-square-foot space was buzzing with activity and play.
Doubling Down on Shoppingtainment
Malls used to be entertainment hubs with movie theaters and arcades to while away the dog days of summer in air-conditioned splendor. Now people can do that at home or on their phones, with endless streaming content and games.
Malls have tried to adapt by offering VR experiences, selfie museums and escape rooms, not to mention myriad cultural and specialty food offerings that go way beyond Saturday mall court concerts and Hot Dog on a Stick.
South Coast Plaza has a Petrossian at Tiffany caviar bar, the Michelin-starred Knife Pleat restaurant, and the soon-to-be completed Segerstrom Center for the Arts, with the new Thom Mayne-designed Orange County Museum of Art building.
Encompassing performance and visual arts, the center was spearheaded by the late retail pioneer and philanthropist Henry Segerstrom, whose son Anton carries on the retailer-as-civic leader role of James W. Rouse, Victor Gruen and others before him.
On the pop culture end of the spectrum, the “Extra” entertainment news show filmed at The Grove, and then at Universal CityWalk for years, with a built-in audience like NBC’s “Today” show on Rockefeller Plaza in New York. But there could be so much more of an opportunity to use the mall as backdrop.
The industry is already starting to use the space for marketing purposes, including the “NAACP Live” pop-up as part of the NAACP Image Awards in February, and the courtyard kids activation around the premiere of “Minions the Rise of Gru” last week. We’ll see what the new retail looks like, beyond the existing Victoria’s Secret, Pandora, Hot Topic and more. At least it’s got a great view of the Hollywood sign.
L.A.’s mall culture used to be confined to big, bland boxes (which do still have one advantage in a rapidly warming world — they’re cooling centers). But Caruso and Country Mart developer James Rosenfield in particular have made a compelling case for the outdoor mall, with its own throwback Main Street and farmhouse aesthetics, and a culture of stroller pushing, dog walking and star spotting. (It’s almost guaranteed at Brentwood Country Mart, where Julia Garner was browsing on a recent afternoon, and paparazzi are always stationed at a safe distance.)
Critics have decried Caruso’s properties as too Disney-esque and too exclusive, but people from all walks were at them when I visited, taking selfies at The Grove and The Americana at Brand in Glendale, which both have literal fountains and show tunes like “Let’s Go Fly a Kite!” to lift the mood. Nothing ever feels wrong or real at a Caruso property, and it can be intoxicating.
A Place to See and Be Seen
At The Grove, there is a sense of occasion that makes people peacock in their best bags and kicks, even if the fashion retail is a bit lacking, save for Nordstrom, where one can find a big selection of designer shoes, strollers and Skims. The Lido in Newport Beach has the same celebratory feeling, with “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” and women as well-dressed as them, lunching at Nobu and shopping in their heels on the waterfront man-made isle.
The Americana in Glendale is mixed-use retail and residential, and it can be jarring to look up and see a porch hammock above. But these are luxury apartments, and the retail tenants are trending upscale, too, with Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel Beauty opening soon, alongside Tiffany & Co., Tory Burch and Tesla, which must be one of the biggest mall tenants in California, with many of its 58 stores located in shopping centers.
An added bonus is that Americana is across the street from Glendale Galleria, made famous by Billie Eilish in her 2020 “Therefore I Am” video, and there is steady traffic between the two, from multigenerational families, to teenage boys with AntiSocial Social Club T-shirts.
The circa 1976 Brookfield-owned Galleria is a rabbit warren of floors and stores, with a J.C. Penney, Macy’s and a Target, which can make for an awkward walk of shame, carrying a package of toilet paper from Target into a clothing boutique like the Yitty by Lizzo pop-up, depending on where one starts shopping.
Confusingly, the mall has signs for Louis Vuitton and Gucci this way, but follow them and one ends up at Bloomingdale’s shops-in-shop. The luxe brands are a draw, though, as evidenced by a pair of girlfriends shopping for Balenciaga slides on a Tuesday afternoon.
Luxury is playing a big part in keeping L.A. mall culture alive, whether it’s Tesla or Tiffany & Co., which have stores in nearly all the high-end malls in the region, or Hermès, which is taking over the old Sears space at Westfield Topanga, just a stone’s throw from Costco in the center’s neighboring Village property, with a Drybar, Skin Laundry, 24 Hour Fitness and other service-oriented destinations.
Servicing the high-income Canoga Park and Kardashian-Calabasas neighborhoods, Westfield Topanga is a mall in transition, where an anemic Neiman Marcus, a better Nordstrom, velvet-roped Gucci, Versace, Louis Vuitton and Tiffany stores coexist with Zales, Fashion Nova, Panda Express and Cheesecake Factory. The mall is family friendly, with a train ride, play center and an “everything under $10 store,” where parents let kids buy one thing each, teaching them how to be consumers.
By trying to be all things to all shoppers, Westfield Topanga is bucking the trend of smaller, more niche malls, whether they be Caruso’s new Palisades Village, or the beloved Slauson Supermall.
“The most interesting ideas I see out there are more aligned with their specific communities, rather than this idea of a mass American culture,” said Lange. “A smaller mall that you can hold in your head and is a place that maybe you go to more often makes a lot more sense to me.”
Far from the tony West Side and the San Fernando Valley suburbs, the Crenshaw District’s Slauson Supermall has been such a place for more than 40 years.
A destination for street style for Nipsey Hussle, Six Sev and many, many more, it’s a no-frills warehouse full of jewelry stores where you can have gold nameplate necklaces made while you wait, stalls selling $12 platform sandals, Tupac and Kobe T-shirts, Ankara cloth, emerald green men’s suits and loafers, and all manner of lingerie-inspired pieces, like rhinestone mesh halter tops, tube dresses, leggings and hair clips that are the secret weapons of stylists.
I’ve always thought someone should have a fashion show in the aisles, among the airbrush and nail art shops.
It’s the kind of place that Caruso should invest in, whether he’s mayor or not.