Fifty & Absolutely Fabulous

Written by Jenn Thornton

Photos courtesy of South Coast Plaza

An Orange County icon reaches the half-century mark still very much in fashion

The South Coast Plaza Bridge

The South Coast Plaza Bridge

A beacon of luxury retail in Costa Mesa, South Coast Plaza marks its 50th anniversary this year with all the attending ceremony one might hope for from an international shopping destination with annual sales in the $2 billion vicinity and a ballooning portfolio of luxury leaseholders that is equally prolific in philanthropy and arts patronage as it is at staging events and scoring exclusives.

Henry Segerstrom

Henry Segerstrom

And yet, even classy South Coast Plaza—the South Coast Plaza, with its 250 stores and restaurants spread across 128 acres—had to start somewhere. If “somewhere” is on the more modest side, it also indicates good foresight on the part of its owners, the Segerstrom family. In 1898, the Segerstroms landed in Orange County and acquired a parcel of land that, had they not developed it, might have proved just merely promising. But they did, and in time they also built a solid agricultural business. Just as improbable as the idea of a sprawling shopping mall would have seemed in the 19th century, is the fact that South Coast Plaza now sits on land that once grew the humble lima bean. 

South Coast Plaza ribbon-cutting

South Coast Plaza ribbon-cutting

But in 1967, this very land would prove truly priceless, as the same year South Coast Plaza (all two levels of it) officially opened, with a middle-class market May Company, and soon after, a Sears. Singer, Woolworth—all big brands for the times, but not fully indicative of what South Coast Plaza ultimately introduced, which was a new breed of American shopping center: the retail complex. In this case, one that went on to reflect the area’s change in fortune and, by the ‘70s, was paving the way to preeminence, recruiting luxury brands and securing inaugural U.S. locations and regional exclusives, like the first Nordstrom to open outside the Pacific Northwest. 

Success introduced a surge of upscale tenants, services and shoppers. The Plaza became a palace, expanding every era. Architectural extensions produced wing after wing (up went the Jewel Court, the Crystal Court, the Bridge of Gardens) and multi-million interior renovations resulted in grand aesthetic touches—ancient Egyptian motifs, marble as far as the eye could see. The finery knew no end. 

Jewel Court dome

Jewel Court dome

Success on such an unprecedented scale deserves nothing less than a 50th anniversary with the works, and that’s precisely what’s in store for South Coast Plaza in 2017. In addition to welcoming more Orange County exclusives, including Dior Homme and Stella McCartney, as well as the sole West Coast location for Gianvito Rossi and Aquazzura, South Coast Plaza will celebrate its heritage with events, exhibits and exciting collaborations. It has partnered with the likes of Gucci, Brunello Cucinelli, TOD’S and Marni for limited-edition luxury goods exclusive to its boutiques. For fall, expect a flurry of fashion fare and the release of a new collectible retrospective on the complex published by Assouline. South Coast Plaza is, as ever, the center of everything.