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South Coast Plaza’s 50th anniversary book is pricey, beautiful—yet surprisingly deep

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Just like the shopping mecca

Shop at South Coast Plaza and feel like royalty— even if you can only afford a croissant.
Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

South Coast Plaza has never had a parochial view of the world, or its place in it,” Kedric Francis writes near the end of South Coast Plaza: 50 Years of Quality, a big, pricey book that tells the history of one of the most lucrative malls in the world.

Most Southern Californians who read Francis’ line will immediately snicker, if not flat-out snort. The Costa Mesa complex of capitalism insists to anyone who’ll listen that it isn’t a “mall”; it’s a “shopping experience.”

Housed within its two buildings, 250 stories and 2.7 million square feet of retail space are the world’s marquee luxury brands—Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Marni, and the like. The global One Percent visit year-round—Saudi royals make it their summer playground, while the Mandarin of China’s nouveau riche is nowadays like a second language there.

South Coast Plaza is a playground for people with money. It is parochialism defined. But as Francis shows in this brisk, beautiful, 166-page read, the Segerstrom family who created, owns, and still runs South Coast Plaza have created a Rodeo Drive for all stations of life.

It’s aspirational living. Whether you can afford a bejeweled Rolex that costs as much as a two-story house in the Inland Empire or only a croissant at the French bakery, the Segerstroms will treat you like a queen for a day.

I don’t go often (I’m a cheapskate whose idea of high fashion is JC Penny’s Stafford undershirts, and the fading department store isn’t located at South Coast Plaza). But I marvel every time I visit.

There isn’t the snobbery of, say, Fashion Island in Newport Beach, or the overwrought production of The Americana at Brand. The Segerstroms use the power of its tenants (which generated almost $2 billion in revenue in 2016 alone) and their family business smarts to create an environment that constantly assures customers that every penny is well-spent on all ends.

Security is present but not overbearing. All the stores gleam, and their clerks are ever-cheerful. Even at its most packed—as it was Christmas weekend, when it seemed every family in the Western U.S. wanted to take a picture with the Shopping Experience Santa—the flow of people at South Coast is smooth, the attitude of everyone chill. In Orange County, no less!

South Coast Plaza: 50 Years of Quality is, then, a rightful ode to its namesake that establishes its pedigree from the start with a forward by longtime The New Yorker California writer Dana Goodyear.

The story that follows is an only-in-America tale: Swedish immigrants start as tenant farmers and slowly amass more than 2,000 acres of land that they tilled into some of the largest lima bean fields in the United States (incredibly, the Segerstroms still grow them, on the last 40 acres of their original farmland located just next to an IKEA store in Costa Mesa off the 405 freeway; they export mostly to England, and the legumes are massive and creamy).

South Coast Plaza in the 1980s.
Courtesy of Orange County Archives

As Orange County boomed after World War II, the Segerstroms (under the leadership of cousins Hal and Henry) began building and leasing office buildings and warehouses. But it took Sears and May Company—looking to open in new places—to give the Segerstroms the idea of creating South Coast Plaza in 1967 and to build on those anchors and create a cultural hub in a county that back then was still a true backwater.

“We have elected to stay and develop our own land,” the family said in a statement at the time from which Francis quotes, “to reinvest in Orange County to help the community to work together and build and develop projects to the best standards of quality for the future good.”

Ah, noblesse oblige—parochialism! Amazingly, the Segerstroms stayed true to their word. The book documents through interviews, blueprints, and photos everything the family grew out of the soil—the stores, yes, but far more important was the complex that eventually surrounded them.

Buildings rose to house South Coast Repertory, the Orange County Performing Arts Center, and the newer Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts. The artists and planners the family hired to execute their vision are all Hall of Famers in their respective fields: architects (Victor Gruen, the actual inventor of the indoor shopping mall, whose firm designed South Coast Plaza and Frank Gehry, for an early department store); artists (Isamu Noguchi, whose California Scenario is hidden behind an office building and remains one of Southern California’s unlikeliest tranquil respites and Richard Serra’s gargantuan steel edifice, Connector); and even restaurateurs (Top Chef runner-up Amar Santana’s Vaca is packed every night across the street from the mothership, connected by a fancy bridge).

The book is also a reminder that rather than staying stodgy, South Coast Plaza always uses the styles of the time to remain relevant, included are Peter Max flyers and pictures of a restaurant designed by Pop Art artivist Sister Corita.

Lest you forget how glorious the Segerstrom family business is, there are pull-quotes throughout by tenants that eventually read like truisms. “South Coast Plaza is the premier center for luxury and quality in Southern California” says the CEO of Hermès of Paris.

The world’s marquee luxury brands are housed at South Coast Plaza.
Donato Sardella/WireImage

It’s times like these when 50 Years of Quality veers dangerously close to self-published boosterism. But Francis—who has covered the privileged set in Orange County for nearly 20 years—knows how to pull it back with deft writing and a bunch of facts. One I didn’t know: 35 percent of South Coast Plaza’s shoppers live farther than 50 miles away.

Priced at $195, the book (published by the Assouline publishing house of oversized art tomes) is only for the most committed Southern California and fashion historians.

Such big productions make South Coast Plaza easy to dismiss as a citadel removed from reality. Gang-infested neighborhoods are just a seven-minute drive up Bristol Street in Santa Ana, and empty industrial parks are even closer. But visit on any weekend, and all of Orange County—the Real Housewives and Vietnamese-American millennials, hijabis and homies—pops in and out of stores to live their version of the good life, if only for an hour.

Is that really so bad? Ultimately, 50 Years of Quality does the impossible: It reveals South Coast Plaza to be downright prole.