Jun 2, 2009
Frugality turns fashionable as recession hits the wealthyBy Martha GrovesLATimes.com

Months before financial markets collapsed in fall 2008, boutique proprietor Lee-Lee Sprenger noticed that her usually free-spending customers were flinching at $900 price tags on sweaters fresh from Italy. Sales at Mélange on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica have been sinking ever since.

“We’re barely making it here on Montana,” she said. “Most of the businesses have had a 60% drop in sales.”

Sprenger is holding on, barely, but dozens of empty storefronts and “going out of business” signs along the tony shopping street attest to the pervasive misery afflicting merchants.

The rarefied Westside — that repository of riches old and nouveau, that bastion of Bimmers and Benzes, Vikings and Valentinos — is showing some recession-induced fraying around its relatively prosperous edges.

Signs of distress abound on once-hot retailing strips like Los Angeles’ Melrose Avenue and West 3rd Street, which increasingly resemble no man’s lands.

A recession for Bel-Air and Brentwood, to be sure, looks different from a recession in Detroit or Riverside, where manufacturing and warehousing jobs and purchasing power have been shredded.

“The Westside of Los Angeles may be feeling depressed and in the dumps and a little insecure, but it is nothing compared to other parts of the country,” said Peter Dunham, a Los Angeles interior designer.

In good economic times, Westside shops, party planners, galleries and decorators tend to thrive, catering as many do to the wealthy and the wealthy wannabes. The area has long been a mecca for those seeking unique, trendy or deluxe items that people don’t need but must have.

In the recent bad times, however, even big spenders have found themselves embracing a new frugality that requires forgoing that new pair of $500 stilettos or $250 jeans.

Some spending cutbacks are the sort only a multimillionaire could appreciate, like canceling one of multiple private club memberships or sharing a private jet with another family. But the malaise has also hit middle-income Westsiders who in flush times helped keep cash registers ringing.

Along Montana, where home-grown businesses have lent the street an aura of charm and uniqueness, more than 30 storefronts sit vacant. Among the departed are fixtures such as KidsBizz, rug merchant Effandi and Ames Apparel. Babystyle closed after a quick liquidation. Shabby Chic, a once unstoppable force in home furnishings, also went under. Women’s clothier Darylle B reduced its space, and Subtle Tones is seeking smaller quarters for its clothing and home items.

Deep discounts drew Liz Conroy, 25, to Montana Avenue recently. Just four years out of college, Conroy, a political consultant, said she is “struggling with the job market” and has plenty of company.

“All my friends who graduated with me are going through rounds of layoffs,” she said. “Everything’s blowing up around them.”

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