As apparel retailers gradually come out of hibernation (in March, the apparel sector posted a same-store sales increase of 12.8 percent, according to ICSC), they face competition from a little known start-up that has been capitalizing on consumers' new love for value. Mall landlords across the country are starting to rave about Love Culture, a Los Angeles-based fast fashion seller that caters to price-conscious women aged 14 through 40.

Launched in 2007 by Jai Rhee and Benett Koo, former employees of fast fashion behemoth Forever 21, Love Culture has grown right through the downturn, creating a fleet of 23 stores in 11 states. The stores sell seasonal, cutting edge clothes, shoes and accessories at affordable prices and are proving to be a big hit with young women, according to Graham Downes, whose firm, San Diego-based Graham Downes Architecture, has been designing Love Culture's spaces.

“It just gets mobbed,” Downes says. “It has feverish activity, a lot of excitement, a very upbeat vibe.”

Six out of nine reviews on the Internet site Yelp gave the Love Culture store at Plaza Bonita Mall in Chula Vista, Calif. four to five stars. Shoppers commended the chain for its reasonable prices (generally set under $30 per item), wide assortment and hip fashion sense. “It's similar to Forever 21, but with a nicer package,” says John Bemis, executive vice president and director of leasing with Jones Lang LaSalle Retail, an Atlanta-based third party property manager that's currently negotiating several leases with the retailer.

Love Culture's concept has proved so successful, the chain plans to add 25 locations to its portfolio by the end of 2010, including stores at the Queens Center in Queens, N.Y. and at the recently opened Legacy Place lifestyle center in Dedham, Mass. So far, most Love Culture stores have ranged between 7,500 square feet and 14,000 square feet, but the retailer has been looking at bigger spaces, including stores that are as large as 20,000 square feet, according to Downes.

The stores' design aesthetic tends to be closer to that of an upscale boutique than a typical mall tenant, with a clean, red and white color scheme; lots of mirrors; red drape curtains and crystal chandeliers in the fitting rooms and a fleur-de-lis symbol on floor-to-ceiling windows. Contrary to tradition, the name Love Culture is not featured prominently on the storefronts, as the chain hopes its stores will be recognizable enough for customers to know them from the décor.

“The whole idea is very feminine,” says Downes. “It's very light; it's full of color and whimsy. It's everything that would imply a happy, positive mind set.”

Love Culture's long-term plan involves opening approximately 10 to 15 stores a year with a goal of operating a total of 100 locations nationwide in three years' time. The retailer prefers to locate in class-A and class-B regional malls and is particularly keen on doing repeat business with big landlords, according to Downes.

Love Culture's roll-out plan does not target specific geographic regions, as is often the case when new retailers are expanding. Instead, the chain is happy to go “wherever the good deals are happening,” he notes.

Love Culture has already signed leases with some of the bigger regional mall REITs in the country, including Macerich Co., Simon Property Group and General Growth Properties.

Fast Facts

Origin: Los Angeles

Focus: Fast fashion

First store: 2007

Current stores: 23

Goal: 100 stores by 2014