With the shuttering of beloved Los Angeles boutique Aero & Co., what will become of the Third Street neighborhood?
Yellow sale tags dangled not only from the clothes and accessories but also from the register counter itself. Aero & Co. boutique co-founder Alisa Loftin chatted with customers as usual, but this sunny March day in Los Angeles was far from typical: Loftin and her business partner, Twelfth Street by Cynthia Vincent fashion designer Cynthia Vincent, were shuttering their shop—for good. “People discuss the closing like it’s the end of their own personal era,” nearby store owner Hillary Rush says. Indeed, the closing of the decade-old Aero & Co., which championed burgeoning L.A. designers and gave rise to Third Street’s indie-fashion reputation, signals a shift in the neighborhood’s identity.
“It was 10 years. We had a good run,” Loftin says. “I’m sad, but I’m excited and optimistic too.”
In 1999, Vincent and Loftin (who was once Vincent’s publicist), opened a boutique on an undeveloped Los Feliz side street, a few miles away from their shop’s eventual Third Street location. “The store was a creative vehicle to explore retail in a unique way and to showcase great artists in L.A.,” Vincent says. “We set up one of the first lifestyle stores.” The women, who socialized largely with the area’s up-and-coming artists and designers, stocked their friends’ work. “We let people show more of themselves instead of being subject to buyers,” Loftin says. “It was almost unheard of. Curve, American Rag, and Fred Segal were the only options, and those were limited.”
Aero & Co. soon became an underground success, but needed a more visible location. When it came to moving, Third Street was the only place Loftin would consider. She liked the neighborhood’s funky and authentic character, which she had experienced in the mid-90s working as a buyer for Joy Wear, a little-known British street-wear shop on the stretch that introduced designers such as Patricia Field and Ben Sherman to L.A. Back then, the store’s only neighbors were mom-and-pop shops, a punk store called Funk Essentials, and the café Quality. (The restaurant is the only one of the businesses that remains today.) Still, Joy Wear attracted fashion types such as designer John Galliano and stylists for bands including Stone Temple Pilots. More than a decade later, Loftin was drawn to Third Street once again: “It was 2002. Only Ethel, Noodle Stories, and a new Sigerson Morrison were here. I felt it could be a cool destination for specialized boutiques.”
Hillary Rush agrees. “Third Street was the closest you could get to, like, old-school Nolita,” she says. Rush helped open a now closed Lulu Guinness store on Third Street the same year; the location was inspired by a 2001 New York Times article by actress and musician Moon Unit Zappa, who wrote about her secret “favorite street.” “It’s still one of L.A.’s only real walking streets, though now it’s in guidebooks,” Rush continues. She opened her own store there in 2005.
On Third Street, Aero & Co. developed a reputation for inspirational trunk shows, showcasing inaugural collections—accompanied by installation art and crafts—by unknowns like pre–Project RunwayRami Kashou, Magda Berliner, and Jasmin Shokrian. “Rami would call and say, ‘I woke up at six a.m. and made this dress. Can I bring it in?’” Loftin laughs. “Often, the dress would sell the same day.”
The Third Street scene quickly became more and more saturated and competitive as boutiques such as Satine, Hillary Rush, Built by Wendy, Milk, South Willard, Filly, and Scout moved in and participated in energetic block parties with gratis taco stands, gelato, and cocktails. Homeless people no longer celebrated happy hour on the bus-stop bench outside Aero & Co., and crisp “West Third Street Business Association” flags lined light posts. As proprietors began to vie for Aero & Co.’s designers, Loftin noticed another issue: “When designers grew their lines, they often outgrew my customer in aesthetic and price point.”
Loftin was already beginning to struggle in 2007, but when the bubble burst, the weakening economy became particularly damaging for Aero & Co.’s bottom line, as recession shoppers gravitated toward brand-name basics. By mid-2009, empty storefronts and sidewalks quieted Third Street. The exodus of stores such as Zipper and Filly had a huge impact on the vivacious energy of the neighborhood. After almost 10 years in business, Loftin decided it was time to pack it in.
She and Vincent will officially part ways, though Vincent’s role has been less pronounced for a while now. Loftin plans to launch Aero & Co.’s online shop and also an appointment-only space for stylists and dedicated customers. She’ll also likely represent and encourage young designers, such as Maxine Dillon, who are trying to get their legs and may not know a lot about marketing, merchandising, or distribution. Meanwhile, Vincent boasts a new handbag line and a Target capsule shoe collection, launched this week.
Some Third Street stores, however, weathered the recession: Satine recently expanded, Hillary Rush thrives, Plastica—next to the resilient New Stone Age—is growing into Aero’s space. Old-school stores such as Polkadots & Moonbeams and Jacob the Jeweler (not to be confused with his celebrity namesake) are hanging on, too. “There are fewer businesses, but I do think Third Street will retain flavor,” Rush says. “Big-box stores eyed the street but got scared because of the economy. Maybe that’s good. There still hasn’t been one Starbucks.”
A mysterious block-long development does rise in the midst, and Deborah Walsh, the owner of Ethel and co-creator of the local business association, is worried. “Their spaces will be very expensive, so renters won’t be stores like Aero, me, or O.K.”
In the meantime, though, new independent shops such as Reformation and Elaine Kim have opened doors. The strip is now an established destination, sandwiched between the Beverly Center and the Grove. “Third Street has really strong eateries now like Joan’s on Third, Toast, reopened Doughboys, and Little Next Door, which bring energy,” Loftin says. Standards such as Mishima, Izakaya by Katsuya, and A.O.C. also draw visitors. The vibe has become more mainstream.
Loftin does hope to once again see what she calls “the time of the edgy designer,” but she recognizes that survival in this new marketplace requires adaptation. “There’s a part of me that’s completely devastated that my vision for working with young designers wasn’t enough to sustain a business,” Loftin says. “I really worked hard to help young designers develop and bring their lines to Los Angeles via Third Street, and I’m proud of that. But I’m also happy looking to the future.”