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Fashion Issue 2011: Does L.A. Have a Fashion Identity?

Jonny Cota

PHOTOGRAPHY BY STAR FOREMANJonny Cota

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.

Because of the presence of the film industry and the city's intense celebrity culture, fashion films will drive the big players to L.A., Gurnz suspects. "It's gonna put steroids into our whole structure," he says in his deep, languid voice before slipping back into Martha's Vineyard.

Some trends do start here and spread out across the rest of the fashion world. Wren's Melissa Coker keeps a steady roster of clients stocked with her ready-to-wear line of "preppy but not too prissy" dresses, tops, skirts and slacks. "Feminine with a tomboy's touch," as she describes it.

"L.A. street style tends to be really influential throughout the whole country," she says, curling into a squashy chair in her Atwater Village studio. "People don't realize that." The current ankle-length skirts, voluminous maxi dresses, the cropped tops and button-down shirts knotted at the waist — those looks started here. And, if you believe Coker, so did UGG boots. She takes personal responsibility for the UGG's rise to infamy. She wore them a decade ago to fashion shows, where the stiletto-clad girls would make fun of her ("What are you wearing, Nanook?"). But Coker soon started seeing those girls wearing them, too.

Ilaria Urbinati, co-owner of the store Confederacy in Hollywood, introduced L.A. to Rebecca Minkoff, whose boxy, tasseled leather purses now can be found dangling on the arms of many a reality TV star. But an even more pervasive trend for which Urbinati can take credit is the current wave of young men who are newly discovering suits and ties. It's been said that Urbinati, who styles actors James McAvoy, Bradley Cooper and Giovanni Ribisi, has a talent for making guys look like GQ versions of themselves.

"Men in L.A. are only recently learning how to dress," she says. Guys come to her store for suiting. "They're now more likely to wear a suit to dinner. These are the same guys who before would've worn a hoodie." And they don't just want a suit; they want a tie bar and a pocket square.

The polished, dapper Mad Men man is still a rarity in this city, however. What Urbinati sells most is denim. Los Angeles is a denim culture. Denim is part of the relaxed aesthetic, but there is nothing relaxing about the serious consideration people here give to their jeans. Just the other day, a guy came in to Urbinati's store wondering about raw jeans, made from denim fabric that hasn't been rinsed after the dyeing process. She explained how raw denim is never washed, and how you put the raw jeans in the freezer if they start to smell bad. 

Guys in L.A., she adds, are collectors of exclusive this and limited-edition that. Confederacy's best-selling item is the $300 Wolverine Thousand Mile boot from a company that has been making them since the 1800s. Urbinati can't keep the boots in stock; her waiting list is five pages long. "Guys get into collecting in a way that girls don't," she says. "Girls just want a pretty dress."

Partly that has to do with L.A.'s nightlife. This city isn't about bars so much as clubs, which call for a tight little dress and heels. And the velvet rope goes hand-in-hand with the red carpet, the most visible runway in the world. Compared to New York, girls in L.A. dress safer, more "on the nose." They love cocktail dresses.

"Here, even the women who aren't actresses are surrounded by the industry," Urbinati says. "They want pretty, easy to understand, accessible, as opposed to fashion-forward. The ones who are actresses have to worry about wearing something flattering because they might be photographed. They worry about having their makeup on and extensions in because a director might run into them."

Urbinati's theory is that all the tall pretty girls move to New York to become models and all the short pretty girls move to L.A. to become actresses. Girls in L.A. are tiny. Confederacy's best-selling size is a 0 to 2.

"In New York, you get kudos for wearing a cool outfit," she continues. "Maybe the Sartorialist will photograph you and post your picture on his blog. Here, style is not such a form of expression. In L.A., everyone wants to look good — healthy, sexy, pretty. Everyone hikes and has a dog and eats well." In L.A., having a perfect body and wearing clothes that show it off to best advantage are much more of a priority than wearing outfits that stand out.

Being concerned with style, with proper dressing, she thinks, is more innate on the East Coast. "People in New York look like they walked out of a Ralph Lauren catalog. It's the whole Hamptons thing. It could be a money thing, too. There's more old money there. In L.A., everyone's sort of self-made. It's more nouveau riche." 

Even the color palette is different in L.A. It's wilder, more vibrant, more unstudied. "Everyone has baby-blue nail polish here," Urbinati says. "Not that I'm knocking it. I have baby-blue nail polish on right now."

In some gut way, Los Angeles style is influenced by the beach and the ocean. When gallery owner Heather Taylor worked in New York's art scene, the gallery girls all wore black, so all she wanted to wear was black. Moving to L.A. several years ago, walking its numerous shorelines, living and working close to its warm waters, opened her up to colors and patterns.

Sipping minuscule cappuccinos at Soho House atop a building on Sunset in West Hollywood, Taylor and her friend, artist Jeana Sohn, take in the panoramic views of the city and discuss its fashion rep.

Los Angeles may not be a town for high fashion, but it is a place for contradiction and variety. For every rule, there is an exception. Not every girl in L.A. aspires to skinny jeans, Brian Atwood heels and a statement bag. Not all women go out at night dressed like slutty Sunset strippers. The idea of girls who dress overtly sexy and pretty to please men: "In our world that's intensely not true," Taylor says.

In addition to being a painter, Sohn runs the blog ClosetVisit.com. As the name implies, she takes pictures of women's closets. The blog has been an instant hit, and people often email her asking, "Isn't it hard to do it in L.A.? How do you find all these stylish people? Who are they?"

Sohn shrugs. They are artists, designers, bloggers, chefs, decorators, students, shop girls, store owners, stylists, friends of friends. They'll wear big sleeves, or genielike harem pants, or tops that wrap like a whirlwind around the body, or huge gold earrings. "Both our male counterparts look at us and go, 'Now that is some necklace,' " Taylor says of herself and Sohn with a hearty laugh. "There are looks of confusion." 

"You look like a ninja," the husbands say. Or, "You look like a wizard."

"This is not for you," Taylor will reply.

She drains the rest of her cappuccino now. "Good luck trying to pin down a single L.A. anything," she says. "We are cities within cities within cities."

See the rest of the Fashion Issue on our clickable cover.

OUR FASHION ISSUE STORIES:

Valerj Pobega: Model Student

Simone Legno of tokidoki: Italian-Japanese Fusion

Mildred von Hildegard of Mother of London: Fembot Cuture

Brandon Schoolhouse of Han Cholo: Star Wars in da Hood

Katie Kay of Gather: Slow Fashion

Mito Aviles and ChadMichael Morrisette of CM Squared Designs: Mannequin Men

Satanica Batcakes: Fire Eater to Hat Maker

Brian Lichtenberg: Diva Duds

Brian Kim and Olga Nazarova of Thvm: Jean Genies

Sally Lohan, Trend Forecaster, Finding the Pulse of L.A. Style

Spirit Hoods: The Weirdest Fashion Startup Ever

Six L.A. Neighborhoods With the Most Distinctive Fashion Styles