Used to be there was never an open parking spot on L.A.’s buzzy Melrose Place. Now there are so many, the valet stands aren’t even operating.
On a recent morning, there was still a line for matcha lattes at Alfred Coffee, but it was mostly Postmates, and a mother-daughter team was taking Instagram glamour shots — in front of a storefront vacated after Bldwn filed for bankruptcy in March.
For years, the walkable leafy thoroughfare has been second only to Rodeo Drive as the epicenter of high-end fashion and retail in Los Angeles. The name Melrose Place has become such a mythic SoCal locale (like Malibu) that it was recently trademarked for a clothing line. But walking it now, seeing what’s open and what’s not, and what’s never going to open again, brings into focus the retail devastation the pandemic has wrought.
“The first three months of shock was everyone trying to figure out what was going on. Now we’re getting into the reality stage where you are going to open back up and for what? It shuts down again? It’s killing the retail world,” said Jay Luchs, a commercial retail broker in L.A. whose Melrose Place deals have been few and far between these last few months.
LoveShackFancy is one exception. On a retail growth spurt, this last week Cosmopolitan magazine editor-turned-designer Rebecca Hessel Cohen opened the sixth and biggest store yet — 2,000 square feet — for her chintz-chic brand of Laura Ashley-on-steroids apparel for adults, tweens and children, complete with a bridal salon inspired by the Cesar suite at the Ritz Paris; vintage furniture sourced from Europe; upcycled tie-dyed slips, quilts and tabletop, and collaboration pieces with Nick Fouquet, I Stole My Boyfriend’s Shirt and more.
So far, it’s only open by appointment.
“Melrose Place was always my dream,” said Cohen, who bought her wedding dress down the street at Monique Lhuillier. “The store is supposed to feel like you are in your home,” she said during a FaceTime tour from her Hamptons home of the pink rose-covered, cottage-y space.
Melrose Place transformed from sleepy antiques row to luxury destination in 2005 with the arrival of Marc Jacobs, who closed down the street for his star-studded opening party. (Despite cutbacks at his business, he’s committed to remaining in his corner spot with billboard overhead, according to a representative.) A flurry of high-end labels followed, including current tenants The Row, Oscar de la Renta, Chloé, Marni, Isabel Marant, Bottega Veneta, Balmain and Golden Goose, driving rents from $120 a square foot annually in the early days to a high of $240 a square foot last year.
Some could no longer justify the expense even before the pandemic shutdown sent retail into free fall. Maria Cornejo left her 2,500-square-foot, $40,000-a-month space at the end of June after 10 years because of the changing vibe of the street, multiple rent hikes and a lack of relief offered during the shutdown.
“It started to become mega-brands like Balmain, and you’d barely see anyone in there, and then Glossier, whose Millennial selfie-taking clientele is not really ours,” said Cornejo’s business partner Marysia Woroniecka, president of Zero + Maria Cornejo. “The rent kept going up and up — [the landlord] insisted on a 5 to 10 percent annual escalation, then pushed the rent up another 30 percent had I wanted to renew. It was impossible. There is no way anyone can do enough business on this street to support those kinds of rents.”
Others have had a different experience. “It’s a jewel box of a street, but you can’t rely on walk-in traffic. It’s really driven by personal shopping and special appointments,” said Tom Bugbee, chief executive officer of Monique Lhuillier, which opened its 4,400-square-foot corner space on Melrose Place in 2007. “If you don’t have that following where you can use a store to service those people, it’s going to be a little more challenging.”
Of rent negotiations with his landlord, he said, “So far it’s been fair, but the second discussion might be more difficult.…We are not sending out a blanket statement like Nordstrom, saying we’re only going to pay half our rent. But there is a balance. To do a month or two months of free rent is 8 percent or 10 percent of [a landlord’s] total gross. I’ll be lucky if I’m only 30 percent down by the time we get through with this. So whatever I’m asking for them is nothing compared to what I’m going to be dealing with.”
Jeff Rudes, creative director of L’Agence, said his Melrose Place landlord has also been generous, offering abatement for four months.
“Rents are coming down slightly — about 20 percent — but it’s still one of the hottest streets in L.A. right now,” said Carine Mamann, a commercial broker for Cushman & Wakefield, which represents several properties on Melrose Place, adding that there’s already interest in the Cornejo space, and multiple offers on the property Bldwn vacated. There’s also open space where resale retailer Rebag recently closed.
The vacancy rate on the street is 10 percent, which compares with 4.9 percent for West Hollywood overall, according to CBRE. But that doesn’t account for stores still closed because of the pandemic, which contribute to the sleepy feeling. Kate Summerville is only doing curbside shopping; Frédéric Malle will not open until August, and Violet Grey will not open until next year, when it will be a private shopping space, not an open-to-the-public store.
Glossier doesn’t yet have a firm reopening date, and Rothy’s is still under construction for its new store, according to representatives, which leaves Nordstrom Local on its own at the northwest corner.
In recent years, a number of contemporary brands have moved in, including Frame, Zimmerman, A.P.C., Veronica Beard, Mansur Gavriel and Sprwmn. Iro is due to open soon. Moschino is also said to be interested in a spot.
Trendy beverage operators Alfred Coffee and Tea and Moon Juice made the area a tourist destination, and a place for influencers to soak up the L.A. lifestyle, so much so that fast-fashion business Boohoo chose to relocate its headquarters there from New York last year. The London-based AllBright women’s social club looked to capitalize on the momentum when it opened its first Stateside location in June 2019, though it’s unclear if it will stick around long-term. And the street’s only full-service restaurant, Fig & Olive, is another bankruptcy casualty.
But throughout it all, independent female designers have kept Melrose Place feeling special, including Lhuillier, fine-jewelry designer Irene Neuwirth and Brooklyn-based Rachel Comey, all of whom are holding steady.
“My landlord is fantastic. We reached out in the beginning, and they gave us some relief, but we are working out a longer-term solution now,” said Comey, who reopened her boutique but is limiting it to two shoppers at a time. “I’m hopeful they see the value in us. We put a lot of money into the property in the first place. It was like five shacks, and we totally demolished it,” said the designer, who has a robust L.A. following, and uses the space to dress celebrities, do costume pulls for shows, and host events. “It’s been such an anchor for our L.A. business.”
“I still think it’s the best block,” added Neuwirth, who has chosen to keep her residential-feeling, Pamela Shamshiri-designed store closed for the safety of her staff, and launch her e-commerce site to sell her tropical flower-inspired sparklers in the meantime. “But we’ve never depended on walk-in traffic. We sometimes have one person coming in a day, and I like how personal it is. People come in and are still wowed.”