When shoe designer Salvatore Ferragamo was inducted into the Rodeo Drive Walk of Style recently, a performance by edgy hip-hop artist Kanye West, replete with back-up singers and an electric violinist, capped the party.
"That never would have happened 10 years ago," said Radha Arora, general manager of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
A subtle snootiness has for decades been a part of the mystique and allure of Rodeo Drive, one of the world's most famous and luxurious shopping strips. But that is changing.
An infusion of shops that appeal to younger shoppers including Bebe, Coach, Dolce & Gabbana, Michael Kors, Omega, Roberto Cavalli and Stuart Weitzman have opened on Rodeo Drive in the last five years. That, coupled with a more welcoming attitude on the part of the merchants, has drawn an influx of not only youthful shoppers but more mainstream buyers that have the registers ringing at a record clip.
"Fifteen years ago, if a kid wearing blue jeans walked into the Ferrari dealership, he'd probably be shooed out the door," said Beverly Hills Mayor Steve Webb. "Now they'd probably have three salesmen heading for him."
Three of the family-owned stores that helped bring Rodeo Drive to prominence in the 1950s remain. However, 20 stores have moved in over the last five years. The majority of them are corporate-owned. And while their products still are expensive, they aren't out of reach for typical upper-end customers.
At Bebe and Coach, for example, a woman can stroll in and pick an outfit for $200 or a handbag for $250. At Bijon, a Rodeo stalwart, appoints are required and men's suits start at about $6,500.
Merchants are making concerted efforts to be more welcoming to the masses, including putting on gasp! promotional events. Publicizing TV and movie celebrities who visited was once considered gauche, but today it's celebrated.
The different approach is paying off. Rodeo Drive retailers grossed $380 million in 2005, a 30 percent increase from 2003, a sharper increase than Century City, Beverly Center or the Grove, according to Beverly Hills city records.
It all started with an awful slump. High-end retail and luxury goods were among the sectors hit hardest by the fallout after 9/11. The terrorist attacks also led to a temporary decrease in international tourism, a key component of Rodeo's business.
That's when a number of family-owned businesses that had occupied Rodeo storefronts for decades, such as Francis Klein Estate Jewels, moved to more affordable streets nearby.
"With the turnover, some real estate became available and new retailers have come in," said Richard Giss of Deloitte & Touche LLP. "It's a good place to open a flagship store."
Corporations were more able to afford the street's rising rents. The David Yurman luxury jewelry outlet, scheduled to open this week, has leased its 1,000-square-foot location for $39,000 a month, a Rodeo Drive record.
Chuck Dembo, whose firm handles leases in the area, says that the typical Rodeo Drive rent is between $30 and $39 per square foot today, as opposed to around $20 five years ago, or $12 per square foot a decade ago.
"They wouldn't pay that in rent if they didn't believe Rodeo was the premier location for luxury in Southern California," said Mayor Webb.
An attitude adjustment was also important. Some merchants, anxious to connect with a broader market, knew they had to stem the tendency of some of their colleagues to look down their noses at all but the most high-end customers. Rodeo Drive had developed a haughty image that spread worldwide.
"They literally called it the 'Pretty Woman' Syndrome, where stores were accused of taking the elite, snob appeal and alienating people who could legitimately shop there," said Scott Huver, author of "Inside Rodeo Drive," a historical account of the street's rise to prominence. To combat it, the Chamber of Commerce held seminars on how to treat customers.
"It was emphasized to store employees that anyone who walked in the store might have the bank account to buy their most expensive item," said Huver.
The Rodeo Drive Committee, a group of merchants determined to promote the street, has also started holding events like the Walk of Style and packing them with celebrities. Young movie stars like Katie Holmes and Lindsey Lohan are courted to pump up store profile, something that simply would not have been done in the past.
Hotel gets hip
The Beverly Wilshire, a Four Seasons Hotels Inc. property, embraced the new policy enthusiastically, dropping "Regent" from its name and making a number of changes.
It has renovated its historic lobby bar and created The Blvd. restaurant to encourage walk-in customers. When the hotel applied for a permit to add outdoor seating, city officials were initially stunned, according to Arora, the general manager.
"Outdoor seating? You can't possibly informalize it in such a way," Arora recalls being told. Eventually, however, the permit was granted, and the seating now overlooks the end of Rodeo Drive.
The hotel also opened CUT, a Wolfgang Puck restaurant, last summer. The restaurant has gotten rave reviews and has become a celebrity magnet. A refurbished spa, a rooftop pool deck and the addition of flat-screen TVs and wireless Internet in every room were other changes designed to appeal to younger, moneyed tourists.
Additionally, the Beverly Wilshire has been holding press junkets for movies, which bring in more celebrities, entertainment executives and media to the hotel. Arora said the hotel creates a martini with a special theme for each movie.
"What's happening at the Beverly Wilshire has been radical and almost revolutionary for a hotel that, for many years, preserved the status quo and specifically avoided hipness to project a more timeless quality," Huver said, noting that it has been a real shot in the arm for the hotel and the area in general.
The benefit "spills over when you're in walking distance of Rodeo Drive," he said.
Rodeo Drive is also trying to do a better job of attracting shoppers who live in the area, as well as the wealthy international tourists who are a big part of the market.
Thomas White, chairman of the Municipal League of Beverly Hills, said there has been a perception among local residents that the city takes care of Rodeo Drive first, and the city's broken street lights and potholes sometime later.
"The big challenge on Rodeo Drive is not only assuring the continuation of tourism, which is what was the driving instrument for the city, but getting Beverly Hills people to shop there as well," said resident Rudy Cole. "They need to do a better job."
Despite the changes, visitors anxious for a shopping experience designed for the upper crust will not be disappointed, either by the pricey offerings in the shops or the classic airs of some merchants. Twenty-somethings in jeans will feel more comfortable at Dolce & Gabbana than they will at Harry Winston, said Mayor Webb.
There are, after all, standards.
"Not everyone is a Rodeo Drive shopper," Dembo said.
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