South Coast Plaza, the nation’s premiere luxury shopping destination, opened March 15, 1967
South Coast Plaza was a dream of the Segerstrom family, who were successful farmers and developers in the early 1960s when the newly-incorporated City of Costa Mesa was in need of tax revenues to expand community development and services. The Segerstroms concluded that a major retail development would be just the ticket for the city and for the family to further its holdings into the future economy of Orange County.
C.J. Segerstrom & Sons, led by C.J.’s grandsons, Harold, Jr. (Hal) and Henry Segerstrom, knew the success of the venture, however, would depend on a proposed Interstate 405 and where it passed through Orange County on its way to San Diego. To that end, in 1962, Henry lobbied the state highway planner to reroute the southern portion of the freeway through Segerstrom property bean fields and the future retail site the family planned to develop.
At the same time, Henry was approached by Sears and May Company, and the end result was that the Segerstrom family sold store sites to each retailer for $1 apiece on condition that they would each pay to have roads paved and electric and water utilities installed.
Once the two anchor stores were secured, Victor Gruen Associates, a Los Angeles-based architectural firm that pioneered shopping mall design, was hired.
May Company opened in 1966. In March, 1967, South Coast Plaza, with May Company, Sears, a Woolworth store and more than 60 smaller shops, opened–one year before the 405 Freeway was completed in March, 1968.
By 1973, a new wing featuring Bullock’s (later Macy’s) and 60 more stores was opened, and the construction of South Coast Plaza Village brought more shops, restaurants and a cinema complex. With the addition of the Westin South Coast Plaza with a park in 1975, the core was formed and a master-planned South Coast Plaza Town Center was achieved.
The initial growth of South Coast Plaza can be largely attributed to one man, Werner Escher. Hired in 1968, he hit the jackpot in promoting the center when he held an Alaska Festival in 1969, with both the Governor of Alaska Keith Harvey Miller and the Governor of California Ronald Reagan attending. Following that, Escher brought festivals from Great Britain, France, Italy, and many other countries, touting the countries’ fashions and merchandise.
Escher was soon visiting travel bureaus and major tour operators in Japan, China, Canada, Mexico and Europe to encourage putting South Coast Plaza on their tourists’ itineraries. Today, 15-18% of the center’s customers come from outside Southern California.
The Luxury Brands
It was left to Henry to attract the stars of retailing to the center to give it its luxury shopping destination status. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Courrèges, Mark Cross, Halston, I. Magnin, Saks Fifth Avenue and Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche opened their doors. And, in a big coup, Henry brought Seattle-based Nordstrom to the center in its first foray outside the Pacific Northwest.
The Crystal Court wing of South Coast Plaza (across Bear Street) opened in 1986 with new stores anchored by Robinson’s and Broadway department stores (now Crate & Barrel and Macy’s Home). The year 2000 brought The Bridge of Gardens and Garden Terrace, designed by renowned landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson, connecting the two major buildings of South Coast Plaza.
From the 1980s through the 2000s, one luxury specialty retailer after the other was added–Tiffany & Co., Chanel, Cartier, Gucci, Hermès, Bulgari, Louis Vuitton, Van Cleef & Arpels, Bloomingdale’s, Harry Winston, Burberry, Christian Dior, Georgio Armani, Valentino, Ralph Lauren, Montblanc, Bottega Vaneta, Oscar de la Renta, Versace, Max Mara, Céline, Chopard, Montcler, Fendi, Christian Louboutin, Prada–the list goes on and on. South Coast Plaza was rivaling the national and international fashion meccas of Rodeo Drive, Fifth Avenue, Michigan Avenue and Rue Saint-Honore in Paris. Add to those high-end brands such names as Zara, H&M, Apple, the Disney store, GapKids, plus fashionable restaurants at all price points, and you had it all.
The year 2012, South Coast Plaza’s 45th anniversary, brought the Parisian luxury shoe designer Roger Vivier and its first West Coast flagship boutique, followed by luxury watchmakers Vacheron Constantin, IWC Schaffhausen and Jaeger-LeCoultre. The years since have welcomed Brioni, Berluti, the French bespoke men’s shoe store, Diane von Furstenberg, Dolce & Gabbana, Charlotte Olympia, Sandro, Japan-based Uniqlo, French boutiques Sandro and Maje, A. Lange & Söhne, Kate Spade, Williams-Sonoma and Williams-Sonoma Home, Weekend Max Mara, and The Webster, among others. Slated for opening this year is a Dior Homme, a London-based Stella McCartney and Italian shoe designers Gianvito Rossi and Aquazurra.
Performing Arts Venues
Along the way, some very important arts complexes opened across the street from South Coast Plaza on land donated and supported by the Segerstrom family–South Coast Repertory (1978), Orange County Performing Arts Center (1986) (renamed Segerstrom Center for the Arts in 2011) and the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall (2006).
Segerstrom Family Involvement
Family members working for South Coast Plaza include Managing Partners Elizabeth Segerstrom (Henry’s widow) and Sandy Segerstrom Daniels (Harold, Jr.’s daughter), Partner Anton Segerstrom (Henry’s son) and General Manager David Grant (Henry’s son-in-law).
Anton shares growing up in the business:
“I had the unique opportunity of growing up in our family business as South Coast Plaza developed. My father constantly mentored me on the importance of creating a unique destination and providing an exceptional experience. He always challenged me to be creative and innovative. I think that his vision is clearly manifested in South Coast Plaza today.”
50th Anniversary Celebration
With the 50th anniversary date, March 15th, approaching, the center has partnered with Gucci, Brunello Cucinelli, TOD’s and Marni, among others, for special 50th anniversary merchandise, and will debut a collectible retrospective on the center published by Assouline. Plans also include recognizing community organizations and philanthropic groups who have been a part of South Coast Plaza’s history. And, and true to its roots, the center will host must-attend fashion events, including a number of major runway shows.
It is an amazing history. Because of the Segerstrom family, South Coast Plaza has become renowned as an international destination, attracting 22 million visitors annually, to visit its more than 250 retailers representing an unrivaled collection of luxury and fashion brands, its personal shopping services and upscale amenities and its award-winning restaurants. Add to that the family’s arts patronage and philanthropic partnerships, which have made a huge impact in our community, and the 50 years are truly impressive.
As to the future, Anton says:
“After 50 years of innovation, South Coast Plaza has become a heritage brand. This is the time for our family to pause and envision the future. With all the challenges in retail today, we will stay true to our tradition of curating a unique collection of international fashion and luxury boutiques, focusing on customer service, and creating destination appeal. We will continue to evolve and remain relevant in this rapidly-changing world.”