Fashion's high road welcomes low trend

Beverly Hills' Rodeo Drive, renowned for its luxury shops, is ushering in a contingent of ordinary stores


Among the many symbolic moments in the history of Beverly Hills' Rodeo Drive, this was one for the books: This month, bebe, the women's clothing maker known for $36 rhinestone camisoles, opened a mega store on the former site of Frances Klein Estate Jewels, the elegant boutique where Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra shopped for diamonds and sapphires.

It wasn't exactly shocking. For years, Rodeo Drive, the famously intimidating Beverly Hills shopping area, has been steadily and deliberately changing its vibe, welcoming a growing contingent of ordinary shops and even requiring "sensitivity training" for sales clerks at luxury emporiums. Last year's $18 million makeover changed its look to become less billionaire's boulevard, more suburban shopping mall.

Yet to some in the Los Angeles fashion world, when bebe joined the lineup, it marked the end of an era: Gone for good was the fabled time when a glamorous crowd lingered in shops unique in the world. Now Rodeo Drive is yet another place for all of us to pick up designer knockoffs and jeans.

"I don't understand bebe on Rodeo Drive," said Vincent Boucher, a celebrity stylist. "When you can get it at Anywhere Mall, USA, it's kind of like, `Why?' I'm not a snob, I like high and low, but just not there."

The high and the low are peacefully coexisting on famous shopping streets around the world. Like Rodeo Drive, Chicago's Miracle Mile, New York's Madison Avenue, London's Bond Street and Tokyo's Ginza district all have lower-tier retailers along with the expected lineup of global luxury brands, such as Gucci, Prada and Fendi.

"You used to be able to go to Europe and see brands and products that you couldn't see anywhere else," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at market research firm NPD Group. "Now you go over there and see the same brands you see at a mall in Middle America. As the world becomes a smaller place and the online shopping experience expands, we are seeing a dilution of the high-end market. So, for these shopping areas to survive, they must become more diversified."

The high-low development also mirrors shoppers' changing tastes, Cohen said. Now it has become more than acceptable, even fashionable, to pair a designer bag with a bargain pair of pants or a Target cashmere sweater.

"The experience of luxury is changing, and the city has to move with that," said Michael Robinson, spokesman for the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce. "There was a sense in the past of Rodeo Drive being too exclusive. We are finding with this new phase to the street that we can retain luxury not only from an economic standpoint but from an experiential standpoint."

Rodeo Drive once had so much real stardust it didn't need the extra frosting of Baccarat chandeliers. Throughout the 1960s, '70s and '80s, it was the address for excess, home to a who's who of luxury, including Christian Dior, Hermes, Giorgio Armani and Chanel, which opened in Beverly Hills before New York City.

Gucci had a private, second-floor salon for special customers, who needed a key to get in. Bijan catered to kings and presidents with over-the-top items, such as $19,000 ostrich vests and mink-lined jean jackets. In 1978, Merv Griffin even hosted a TV salute to the street, where Saudi princes reportedly used to shop with two limousines in tow -- one for family, the other for purchases.

Back then, it was open season for celebrity spotting on Rodeo Drive. From 1961 until it closed in 1989, Fred Hayman's Giorgio Beverly Hills was practically a clubhouse for Lucille Ball, Ali MacGraw, Elizabeth Taylor and Doris Duke.

Hayman helped establish the street's snob appeal by persuading designers to create exclusive designs for his store and offering such luxuries as an oak bar for noontime pick-me-ups, a pool table and a vintage Rolls-Royce to transport camera-shy clients.

But on a recent afternoon, there was nary a star in sight. The typical shopper's uniform was a track suit and sneakers, Cheesecake Factory doggie bag optional. The new, wider sidewalks, mid-block crosswalks and transplanted palm trees only contributed to the overly manicured feeling you find at modern malls.

"When you haven't shopped here before, you get images of Pretty Woman where they won't let Julia Roberts in the door," said Eleni Langas, a psychologist visiting from Sydney, Australia. "I expected it to be more luxurious."

The turning point for Rodeo came in 1993, when the Western-themed Guess? Ranch opened, selling Guess T-shirts and jeans, postcards and bubble-gum cigars. The store, which had tepees for fitting rooms, was credited with bringing a new kind of customer to the recession-weary thoroughfare.

A steady stream of down-market labels followed. In 1995, BCBG opened its first store, now a 5,600-square-foot flagship. In 1997, Tommy Hilfiger arrived, constructing a 20,000-square-foot white behemoth. (The store closed three years later and is now a Brooks Brothers.) In 1999, the contemporary women's label XOXO opened on the street.

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