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Modesto mall defies poor economy, is just about full

In this season of biblical analogies, Vintage Faire Mall is the proverbial inn.

There is no room in it this holiday season.

The Modesto mall has filled all its available indoor retail space with a mix of long-term and short-term leases during a year when building owners across the city and Central Valley are experiencing unprecedented vacancy rates.

Vintage Faire added eight long-term leases this year, including the high-profile openings of H&M and Sephora. It also transformed the vacant Gottschalks anchor spot in Center Court to the new, two-story Forever 21.

"We've been able to expand our retail offerings," said Maria Halstead, property manager at the mall. "I am excited we are as healthy as we are. Other shopping centers are not expanding at the level of occupancy and sales that we have."

Last month also marked the first full year for The Village at Vintage Faire, the outdoor expansion with upscale shops such as Apple, Coach and Coldwater Creek.

While there are four available retail spots in The Village, Halstead said the existing stores have had great years and become major draws.

The additions also signal a new chapter in the mall's evolution -- one that straddles the trendy while holding onto its traditional anchors.

The mall is bookended by two of the oldest, most traditional retailers in the industry: Sears and J.C. Penney. But it's what's in the middle that is helping to bring in a wave of young, fashion- forward shoppers.

Along with newest anchor Forever 21, the Center Court area has added Swedish fashion house H&M, Los Angeles-based women's clothing seller Love Culture, surf- skateboard-motocross culture retailer Tilly's and women's boutique Apricot Lane.

Last week, Mariza Quiroz made her way through Center Court loaded with bags from Forever 21, Aeropostale and Express. The 25-year-old Livingston resident said since the expanded Forever 21 opened, she has come to the mall more often to shop and browse.

"I like that there are a lot of options," she said. "I never shopped at Gottschalks; for me, that was for older people."

Now, she comes to the mall at least three times a month, and once or twice a week during the holidays to visit Forever 21, H&M, and makeup and beauty product retailer Sephora. For the latter, she said, she would travel to San Francisco before the Modesto location opened.

While she still goes to established retailers such as Macy's, she said she buys only beauty products and perfume there. For clothing, she prefers many of the center's newest offerings.

Merced resident Ariana Ruiz had bags from Tilly's and Aeropostale sitting by her feet as she ate lunch in the food court with her family. The 18-year-old said she has noticed an influx of new shoppers.

"They draw a lot of younger people, young adults," she said. "It helps that they are more affordable, too."

Fast fashion-forward

Several of the newer shops fall into the "fast fashion" category -- stores that specialize in selling inexpensive, trendy clothes that copy the latest runway looks -- including Forever 21, H&M and Love Culture.

With so many stores catering to the twentysomething and under set, Apricot Lane owner Brandi Trindade moved her boutique to the mall to serve the 30-plus crowd instead. The store, previously in Turlock, opened on the mall's upper level in October.

"I felt like the mall had the young people pretty well covered," she said. "So we went a little older with our demographic."

Inside the store is an assortment of business casual and evening wear, as well as a large selection of jewelry.

While many of the mall's latest additions skew young, longtime Vintage Faire shopper Cherie Flowerdew said she still feels there are options for the more mature shopper.

The Patterson mother of five carried bags from J.C. Penney and Forever 21. The contents of the bright yellow Forever 21 bag were all for her daughters, ages 14 to 34. The signature red and white Penney's bag had gifts for her mother.

"I'm pretty happy with (the mix) the mall has now," Flowerdew said. "There's something for everyone in the family, and when we come we all go to the stores together."

While she said she has not bought herself anything at Forever 21, she has seen "a gray-haired lady come out of the store smiling, talking about how great she looked in her new (Forever 21) outfit."

Forever 21's expansion in Vintage Faire Mall was part of its aggressive expansion in the past year. In May, the Los Angeles-based privately owned company acquired several former Gottschalks locations across the state and turned them into larger department stores.

'Potential in the valley'

The November arrival of H&M, which has 1,800 stores in 34 countries, marks the fashion retailer's 12th location in Northern California and only its second in the Central Valley. Its other valley store is in Roseville, northeast of Sacramento.

H&M spokeswoman Nicole Christie said the Modesto site was attractive to the company for a number of reasons.

"We are an expanding company. There is just so much potential in the valley," she said. "It's about the customer base and demand. We are really happy with the customer reaction so far."

Landing an H&M store was a particular coup for the mall, Halstead said.

"That's no easy task," she said. "H&M is hot, hot, hot, and everyone wants them. So for us, that's pretty exciting."

While the mall's indoor retail space is filled for now, some of those are seasonal leases that will come open after the holidays. But Halstead said while locking in long-term leases is the ultimate goal, the past year's success means the mall doesn't need to rush into anything.

"There is only a finite amount of space, and we really don't have that much available," she said. "So we want to be as choosy as we can. It's all part of our long-term vision and positioning strategy to make Vintage Faire the retail hub for the Modesto area."

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or 578-2284.

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