It is flip-flops at business meetings, and sweatpants at fancy restaurants. It is jeans with sneakers, but also with skyscraper stilettos. It is baggy sweaters and little straw hats. It is giant sunglasses and giant purses, big enough to carry a squadron of tiny dogs. It is crazy color: fuchsia, turquoise, neon yellow, baby blue. It is weird. It is sexy. It sucks. It is industry folks in leather jackets. It is schlumpy guys who can't dress and drop-dead-gorgeous girls who show so much skin in their skimpy dresses they might as well be naked.
This is what people tell you when you ask them, "What is L.A. style?" The answers are all over the map. In terms of a definitive Los Angeles look, there seems at first glance to be no there there. But ask the people who live, eat, sleep and breathe fashion — local designers, photographers, stylists, style bloggers — and familiar themes do come up.
First and foremost, Los Angeles is casual. It's a deceptive casualness, though. A deliberate kind of nonconspicuous conspicuous consumption. Casual, in L.A., isn't an accident. It's an aesthetic. "Everyone looks casual, but you know that T-shirt cost $500," says Jonny Cota, founder and lead designer of L.A. cult favorite design house Skingraft. Because he's invested in fashion, Cota can tell if an outfit is expensive or not. The general public, however, usually can't.
It takes substantial care to look like you don't care. The quintessential L.A. it-girl uniform is the epitome of careful not-caring: skinny jeans, blazer, a little top, statement bag, 5-inch platform Brian Atwood heels. "Yes, it's casual. But everything seems so chosen and thought-out. It doesn't quite look ... doesn't quite gel," says Melissa Coker, who designs the clothing line Wren.
Yet strangely, Los Angeles is not a town for high fashion, for $5,000 head-to-toe designer outfits. "We're behind a little," Cota admits. "Or we don't pay attention. Fashion Week in L.A. is not the strongest. It's not a priority."
Peter Gurnz, photographer and founder of the artists collective Boxeight, is the guy who has been trying to turn L.A. Fashion Week around for years, with mixed success. For a while, Gurnz and Boxeight hosted standard runway shows. Those eventually morphed into live photo shoots that are more performance art than anything. Guests watched as the entire theater of a fashion shoot went on display, from makeup to hair to lights to models posing for shots.
"L.A. is not a very fashionable city as far as the percentage of people who spend time every day considering their clothes," Gurnz says by phone from Martha's Vineyard. "Can you order me a lobster roll?" he calls out to someone nearby. "Sorry. People go to business meetings in shorts and flip-flops," he says of Los Angeles. "But that said, there's a unique style [there] that's copied in Asia and that we're starting to see in Paris. There are little camps of people who are thinking L.A. is cool."
He ticks off the distinct styles associated with Los Angeles: the "scarecrow" look — skinny, rich woman in oversized clothes. The avant-garde modely look, epitomized by designer Michel Berandi. "You know, really couture stuff, like sewn-in hair and stuff." Berandi, who'll sew long skeins of goat hair onto, say, a bolero or a shirt collar, is an L.A. local. "We did a fashion show with him and people were crying on the runway."
The Mexican kids doing the Morrissey rockabilly thing with pompadours and slim-cut, dark-wash jeans. The surf bums: "The one thing that does well here is sports fashion and surf apparel companies."
The rocker vampire look. "I'm wearing Endovanera right now. I probably look a little weird," he admits. "Then there's crappy shit like Christian Audigier." Audigier is the king of so-called luxury streetwear: regular T-shirts, hoodies, jeans and such, printed with loud graphics, bedazzled with rhinestones. "Those are all definable L.A. looks. Though not everyone's running around looking like scarecrows or rocker vampires."
L.A. does not influence the global fashion industry, Gurnz says. But then again, L.A.'s sense of style is still young. "We're kids. We don't have an infrastructure to support a real fashion industry. We have great designers, but then they leave. It's simply more profitable to go to other places."
By infrastructure, he means the fashion events, clients, design houses, magazines, photographers and market weeks that fuel the engine of style. "Vegas almost has a better market week than we do because of all their convention centers." He pauses. "A boutique in the East Village is going to do better than a boutique on Melrose. That's just the temperature of the water."
Does L.A. get a bum rap in the fashion world? "No. We deserve it."
But that's going to change soon, Gurnz believes, because of the rise of video-based "fashion films." Instead of sending lookbooks — the industry-standard print catalogs that show off a clothing line — to department store buyers, designers now are shooting short, Internet-based videos to showcase collections. New York–based fashion photographer Steven Klein shot a video starring Brad Pitt beating up Angelina Jolie. "Every camera now has HD video capability, so all the fashion photographers have become fashion videographers," Gurnz says.