Newport Beach has long cultivated a sophisticated and swingy sense of style. From couture to cuisine, the area exudes coastal cool. The first 50 years of this journey are being commemorated this summer at the city’s epicenter: Fashion Island.®
While its architecture and storefronts have evolved, Fashion Island still adheres to its original vision: to be a sophisticated open-air hub where Southern California gathers to shop and dine.
On September 9, 1967, Newport Beach’s population was less than half what it is today; and yet some 18,000 locals — more than a quarter of the town — showed up for the opening extravaganza of what was originally called Newport Town Center.
With no direct access to freeways or major thoroughfares, and Pacific Coast Highway a glorified Main Street tracing the coast’s seaside communities, Newport Beach was little more than a field of dreams. The business market was uncharted territory and, for most, impossible to foresee.
Even in the early ’60s, The Irvine Company® seemed to have a crystal ball. The real estate developer, which is largely credited with putting commercial and residential Orange County on the map, identified the needs of future generations by envisioning spaces that would feel simultaneously timeless and avant-garde. Projections of double-digit population growth over the next two decades were spot on. The Irvine Company also predicted, albeit incorrectly, that Fashion Island would lie at the crossroads of two freeway systems. In the end, the Pacific Coast Freeway and Corona del Mar Freeway were “the freeways that never were.” As a result, Fashion Island became one of the only regional retail centers not located along a major freeway system.
Newport Town Center opened with Buffum’s, Broadway-Hale, Penneys and J.W. Robinson’s department stores anchoring 52 specialty shops and two restaurants: Bob Burns and the Velvet Turtle.
Architects William Pereira and Welton Becket designed the four initial buildings, two of which — the Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s structures — still stand. These were enhanced by outdoor spaces that felt innovative and unique, including garden courts showcasing distinctive elements of Southern California’s coastal charm.
The koi pond, one of the last remaining original landscape features, is situated in front of Restoration Hardware where it continues to delight youngsters in need of a shopping break. The serene oasis debuted in 1969 with 80 koi populating 20,000 gallons of water. In the spring, locals still try to spot the vibrant koi that are camouflaged by plantings as they busily lay up to 1,000 eggs and replenish the pond.
Muralist Tom Van Sant’s sculpture arrived in 1967, entering the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest wind chimes. The 300 bells, installed on the south side of Robinson’s (now Macy’s), cascaded down an entire wall of the building. Although they now sit silent, the sculpture is one of the enduring hallmarks of the original Fashion Island.
The Butterfly Court made its debut in 1973. Large, floating white butterfly sculptures attracted visitors to what is now known as the Neiman Marcus-Bloomingdale’s Courtyard. Today, the airy space hosts fashion shows, the Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony and live weekend entertainment. Finally, the 1970s welcomed GARYS, Bullock’s and Neiman Marcus.
The economic boom of the 1980s fueled Fashion Island’s growth. Twenty years after the center’s opening, shopper preferences had changed and The Irvine Company reimagined it as a place where people wanted not just to shop, but to be and be seen. When Penneys closed in 1985, for example, the building it occupied was reconstructed and reopened as Atrium Court, featuring an assortment of smaller shops and a lower-level food court. Penneys’ auto repair shop, located in the space that now houses Fleming’s Steakhouse, True Food Kitchen and Roy’s, became a boutique for Amen Wardy, a well-known couturier who dressed models, movie stars and, it was rumored, first ladies.
In 1988, Fashion Island underwent a renaissance, adding 70,000 square feet of retail space, three outdoor avenues of shopping, the Island Terrace food court, a seven-screen theater and a parking structure. The area was transformed into a pedestrian-scaled village. Winding cobblestone paths, ivy-covered arbors, sidewalk cafes and courtyards with shaded paseos and lush landscaping joined the now-famous koi pond in attracting those looking for an enjoyable place to spend time and relax.
The wildly popular Hard Rock Cafe cut the ribbon on its Fashion Island restaurant in 1992 in front of a crowd of more than 15,000. Feeding the center’s increasingly trendy reputation, the opening featured a concert by the Neville Brothers, a circling blimp and, in an homage to the then-popular film Honeymoon in Vegas, a half-dozen parachuting Elvis impersonators. This splash of glitz, along with coveted media coverage, helped to propel Fashion Island toward its goal of striking a perfect balance between a shopping experience and a lifestyle destination.
The department store landscape shifted and consolidated as well. In a span of just six years Bullock’s Wilshire became I. Magnum, only to return to a Bullock’s for women and finally reopen as Macy’s. Broadway reopened as Bloomingdale’s.
Of Fashion Island’s many renovations and expansions, none was as ambitious as the $100 million facelift it underwent in 2010. The buildings and outdoor spaces were utterly transformed with new architecture, landscaping, fountains and amenities. New stores and restaurants appeared, including Nordstrom, Whole Foods Market, Jonathan Adler and, more recently, Fig & Olive and Cucina Enoteca.
Fashion Island has expanded from its original 20 acres to 75, from two restaurants to 40 and from 52 shops to 150. The landscaping has adopted a breezy, Mediterranean feel as it seamlessly integrates the area’s coastal and ocean themes. Set against this stunning Pacific backdrop and surrounded by an array of multistory office and upscale residential buildings, the center holds a place of distinction in Newport Beach’s business community.
July 29 marks the start of 50 Days of Fashion Island, an anniversary celebration featuring daily in-store
events and promotions. On September 9th, a special thank-you event will be held for loyal longtime customers. With nearly 15 million visitors per year and $765 million in annual sales, there is much to celebrate.
“We are proud of Fashion Island’s legacy as a retail force in the industry,” said Dave Moore, president of Irvine Company Retail Properties, “and we look forward to the next generation of outstanding fashion, dining and entertainment.”