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Interview with Shaheen Sadeghi

Coast talks to the founder of The LAB and The CAMP about fashion, surf and his latest project: revitalizing downtown Anaheim into a vintage 1940s center.

Listen to Shaheen Sadeghi talk about his life and you might think he’s reached his 90s. The man has had entire careers in the time most of us spend working for a promotion. He’s been in the fashion industry, the apparel industry, the surf industry… and that was all just to prepare him for founding Costa Mesa’s The LAB anti-mall in the 1990s and The CAMP in the early 2000s.

Now he’s set his sights on downtown Anaheim, where he plans to revitalize the area by establishing a “vintage 1940s American downtown,” he says. Picture a blue collar vibe with a down-home feel. Everything from an old-fashioned men’s barber shop to indie coffee shops.
In a society infatuated with the bling of celebrity and anything with a label, it seems like a risky move. But then so does just about every other successful venture Sedeghi has launched. It’s so crazy it just might work.

We spoke to Sadeghi about all the times people told him he was nuts, right up until what he was doing actually worked.

Your first career was in fashion, right?
Yes, I spent the first part of my career as a couture designer in the mid ‘70s in New York City. I worked in the 550 7th Ave. building. Back then this was the iconic building for the most talented American designers. Geoffrey Beene, Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass are some of the people that I used to run into in the elevator. Calvin Klein had his shop around the corner.

It must have been exciting.
My biggest memories were working for American couturier Charles James. He taught me so much about design and how to see things differently. He was quite a colorful character. Bianca Jagger and Elsa Peretti were some of his clients. Richard Avedon stopped by often and was a big fan of Charles’s. Charles introduced me to classical music and opera when I was 21. That is all he played in the studio.

He sounds like an interesting guy.
Charles was quite a colorful character. He lived and worked out of the Chelsea Hotel, which was a real landmark back in the ‘70s. Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, and so many others lived in and out of this place. Chelsea also had a dark side to it. Sid Vicious’s girlfriend was found dead there and a few other funky notable events. I went to work at 7 p.m. and worked until 2 a.m. Those were his working hours. At 2 a.m. I would take the train home to Brooklyn.

Did you realize at the time that it was a significant time in your life?
Yes. The whole time I was working with Charles, I was completely aware that he was a legend and history was being made. I knew that I would look back at it someday and realize how incredible an experience it all was. I was like a sponge.

Why and when did you leave New York and couture?
In 1976, I received the New York Designers award. I was contacted by the house of Emanuel Ungaro in Paris for a job, but decided to stay in the U.S. I realized then that couture was a small segment of the industry; my attraction was sports apparel and my interest grew to move to California and explore the fashion industry on the West Coast.

And you eventually landed in the surf industry, at Quiksilver, during the infancy of the surfwear industry in the ‘70s.
Yes, I went in as the president of Quiksilver after working with Gotcha for many years. Then came the ‘80s, which were magical years for that industry. We grew so fast and had so much fun.
 
Then came the ‘90s.
In ‘92 the surf industry took a real hit. All the popular neon board shorts backed up. On top of this, Orange County went bankrupt in ‘94, we had the first Gulf War and the savings and loan segment got hit hard. And many of our key retailers filed for Chapter 7 or 11. Broadway [department store] filed in ‘91 after being in business since 1896, Macy’s West filed, Buffums filed in 1990 after 86 years in business, Bullocks closed after 89 years in business, etc. All this happened within 24 months.

What inspired the anti-mall concept?
I saw a massive change in the traditional retail segment. The traditional mall format became dated and out of touch with the next generation of consumers. Cool, young people were not hanging out at the mall like they did in the ‘70s or the ‘80s. I recall reading an article in the Wall Street Journal about how the Mall of America kicked kids out and pulled out the benches so that they couldn’t  hang out. I read that malls referred to these kids as “cotton candy-eating, hot-dog-on-a-stick, bubble gum-chewing teeny bops.” I was just blown away by that characterization knowing that we [Quiksilver, Gotcha] had just sold billions of dollars worth of surf goods to this consumer. I knew that this was a sophisticated, emerging new generation of consumer. They were into clean oceans, politics, technology. I also knew that this generation was looking for a place of gathering that was different than what was offered.
 
Where did the name The LAB come from?
The LAB is an acronym for “Little American Business.” This country has always been built on small businesses and this holds true today. The LAB was setting a platform for small businesses to gather and showcase their products and services. For example, when we opened Urban Outfitters at The LAB they were a $50 million dollar company. It’s amazing to see that 20 years later they have grown to over $2 billion in revenue.

Did people get the anti-mall concept at first?
I don’t think anybody really understood it. We had the same challenge with The CAMP. When we first opened that in 2002, people would ask me, “What in the heck is a sustainable building?” I was so disappointed that there was so very little value for “green” architecture or retail.

But that changed.
Yes. The economy started to shift. People went out and bought Priuses (including my wife). When the grocery stores had a strike, people started to discover Trader Joe’s. Whole Foods market took off and it seemed like everyone was now interested in organics, the environment and health. We believe this is not a “trend,” but a whole cultural shift. And we were right there for them, ready to go.

Did people tell you that you were crazy?
Yes, this was my first commercial real-estate venture so I hired a few consultants. They all thought we would fail. We ended up doing exactly what they told us not to do. I’m stoked we did.

And now you’re doing a unique project in Anaheim. What drew you to the project?
Coming from the East Coast, we have a real passion for historic buildings. So the Packing House and the old Packard dealership building hit home with us. In Orange County, we have a real shortage of these buildings. I love and have studied American design, furniture, architecture, auto design.

As much as I appreciate Europe and its magnificent diversification and sophistication of architecture, the simplicity and honesty of American architecture is the best. My wife’s grandfather was a Stickley salesman early in his career. His house was full of Stickley, each piece with a story. I loved this hand-crafted, simple American furniture. Europe built furniture for the elite. In America, at the turn of century, there was a real movement away from the European influence on furniture and architecture that was Victorian or heavily ornate. Simple, practical designs made for the working class was very American.

Is that the inspiration for your vision of a “vintage American downtown?”
The word “downtown” is an American thing. In Europe they have city centers. The term was first used in the 1800s in NYC to describe the southern end of Manhattan. By the 19th century, it was used to describe the historic core of the city. The downtowns became popular as the central area or commercial center of a town. Americans used this to describe the city’s core and the place of gathering.

And you see Anaheim as worthy of that?
Anaheim has a huge history. As a matter of fact, the oldest house in Orange County is a few blocks away from this area. It dates back to 1857. When we looked at archives of Center St., downtown Anaheim, I was blown away about how vibrant and soulful it was. We wanted to bring back the authenticity.

Going “blue collar” is an interesting choice in an era when everybody aspires to upscale. Do you know something every other retailer doesn’t?
In some ways I see the economy driving a cultural shift in America. As our focus redirects us from material goods and consumption to more quality of life and perhaps more spiritual thinking, we are shifting back to things that matter to us. Health services, organic foods, community, family, a simpler way of life. Farming is back, hand-crafted is back, casual food is back. People are looking for content in their lives and not just more stuff. As we are attracted and redirected to simpler ways of life, our goods and services will also need to change.

You mentioned simple casual dining. Explain.
Even if you have the money, $400 dinners are not necessarily a great experience today. A soulful, casual restaurant where conversation can be had with the owners and friends is just as exciting. This is why food trucks and carts have blown up everywhere. A simple cup of quality coffee in an authentic environment is more exciting than a designer, fancy syrup coffee at a national chain for five dollars. Men realize that it’s not about going to a salon for a $100 haircut. It’s about the old fashioned barber that charges $20 for a cut, plus a great experience and conversation. Another way of looking at it is the fact that you can be culturally cool but not have money. Not having money to throw away does not make you uncool or put you in a class of bad taste. As a matter of fact, many people with lots of money have bad taste.

So the vision is more simplicity?
America has always been about simplicity. I believe this is why we have accomplished so much as a young country. Whether it’s technology, design, auto design, furniture design, architecture, Ansel Adams photography, or something as simple as a burger and fries, Americans still love simplicity. Remember we invented rock and roll, jazz and blues. Mozart and Beethoven music were European.

What types of businesses do you hope to attract?
In Anaheim we want simple but high-quality goods and services that everyday people need. Barber shop, coffee shop, a real quality deli, a general store that has good quality products. I would love to see an old-fashioned pie shop.

What’s your vision for the Packing House?
First, thank you to the city of Anaheim and the redevelopment agency for having the foresight to save this beautiful building for future generations to enjoy. This building is an amazing example of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture that happened between 1915 and the 1930s, as well as one of the most successful businesses in Orange County history. Sunkist was a state-of-the-art packing facility when it opened in the 1920s; now it’s a landmark and one of the last citrus packing houses in Southern California that has survived. Our vision is to develop Orange County’s first food hall – a place of gathering for the community and featuring small, local food artisans. We would like to bring together 20 to 30 amazing restaurants that represent authentic recipes from around the world. And local entertainment will help create a heartbeat there.

How do you envision your Anaheim project five or 10 years from now?
Anaheim is impressive in the way it has cultivated and embraced so many different cultures, not only through its world-class facilities such as Disneyland, Angel Stadium, The Honda Center, etc., but its ability to make this historical city into a vibrant melting pot of different cultures and entities. I am fascinated each time I visit countries like Singapore, which has truly a multi-national culture of Malay, Indian, Chinese, and Eurasians all living in harmony. Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, and Hinduism, are all sharing respect. The language is a multitude of dialogs: Malay, Tamil and English. Singapore has one of the lowest unemployment rates among developed countries. I think this is the future: People of all backgrounds living in one community. I think Anaheim is ahead of the curve.


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