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Fashionation

Photo by Bonnie Lewis

I was editor during the dog days of fashion — the mid-to-late 1980s — the era of shoulder pads, suit jackets rolled up at the cuff, the “inverted pyramid” silhouette, too much body-hugging Lycra and, perhaps worse, too much of the boxy, “unstructured” look. Remember poor, dear Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink? The ’80s was full of big, bad costume jewelry, tousled hair, air-brushed makeup — blame poster artist Patrick Nagel. Glitter and glam had gone over the top and become glitz. Punk had become cowpunk. Even David Bowie managed to look silly in his “Let’s Dance”–era pantsuits and little boots.

Some defining moments: Cropped black leather jackets worn over T-shirts or bustiers, and crinolines or petticoats, with over-the-knee socks and heavy black boots. Georges Marciano’s resurrection of Brigitte Bardot in Guess? ads that sent consumers scurrying to purchase his skintight stone-washed capri jeans zippered above the ankle. The invention by Jimmy Ganzer, that old bohemian spirit of surfing, of the “E-Z-in E-Z-out” Velcro waistband that provided the adjustability required to sling shorts way down on the hips. And then there was campier stuff: Dale Bozzio of Missing Persons in a clear plastic bikini filled with shampoo and goldfish. Designer John Babcock’s bra tops made of plastic baby doll heads and worn with skintight jeans slit and laced from ankle to hip. Michael Schmidt’s aluminum chain-mail minidresses and vests. Fake fur. Tiaras. Rubber. Gold and silver leather, with fringe.

A friend confided recently she’d finally thrown her cropped black leather jacket in the trash. A day later I saw that jacket featured in an editorial spread in the August Vogue. But it wasn’t until a recent visit to Hot Topic in the Glendale Galleria that I finally understood that ’80s fashion really is back. My 13-year-old daughter chose the fingerless leather gloves worn by Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club (1985), over-the-knee socks, bondage pants by Tripp, and a punkish kilt by Lip Service — both are L.A.-based companies that debuted circa 1985. My daughter and her friends view the ’80s as a treasure trove of fashion and music ripe for plundering. “Oh, Mom,” she protests, dismissing my horror when she tells me this, “the only reason you don’t like the ’80s is because you’ve been there already.” Hmm. Well, I was the same person who wrote in the late ’80s, in a fashion essay entitled “’70s Redux: For Whom the Bells Toll”: “ . . . The ’70s were a taste-free decade when fashion was so bad that . . .” Of course, like it or not, fashion has always been about reinvention.

PHOTOGRAPHED BY BONNIE LEWIS (“Elements of Style,” October 27, 1989) Michael Schmidt’s chain-mail dress.

The ’80s was a fecund time for fashion in Los Angeles, and the Weekly devoted special pages to fashion “In the Stores,” “In the Showroom” and “In the Street,” made space for a column about the industry itself and, of course, spun off an entire publication, L.A. Style, devoted to the subject. Melrose was at its peak, the west end anchored by one of the city’s weightier fashion institutions, Tommy Perse’s Maxfield, in its second incarnation as an echoing, concrete museum in which was hung Yohji Yamamoto, Jean Paul Gaultier, Azzedine Alaia and John Galliano (Perse’s designer son James opened his own Melrose shop last month).

(“Short Stories,” July 25, 1986) Lip Service cotton miniskirt and Komian striped body suit; nylon/Lycra miniskirt by Tripp and a strapless Betsey Johnson (Photo by Moshe Brakha)

At the east end of the avenue — and the extreme other end of the fashion spectrum — brave young entrepreneurs were conducting combustible, short-lived fashion experiments. But, then, longevity wasn’t really the point. Y Que (since sold, and a mere shadow of its former self) was Jimmy and Rae Von Chavira’s modern take on the trading post, stocked with unusual but useful things that could be had for cheap: Amish cotton hose, men’s sock garters, cotton bloomers, suspenders, paddock boots, petticoats, religious supplies, saddle blankets. Across the street was Livestock, Judy Kameon’s showcase for local-yokel “oat” couture, a collection that included mad hats, codpieces and hoop skirts. Around the corner was Modern Objects, a partnership of Cha Cha Cha restaurateur Mario Tamayo and designer Jef Huereque, who created smoldering, Latin-flavored menswear including shirts made of stretchy black lace.

And in between were a host of great stores. Going or gone were the earliest Melrose pioneers like Black Salad, Paul Glynn’s Cowboys and Poodles, and Alice Wolf’s vast, fluorescent-lit supermarket of secondhand clothing called Flip. But still flourishing were the Soap Plant, Let It Rock, Flash Feet, Neo 80, Retail Slut, Michael Morrison, Roppongi, Claudia Grau, and, of course, Fred Segal, that enduring emporium of what the industry called “forward fashion” and which has provided 1,001 local designers with their first break. And on La Cienega was Saville Row–trained Michael Anderson’s Clacton and Frinton men’s store, while Montreal-based architect Harry Parnass’ Parachute and Mark Werts’ American Rag were turning La Brea into a fashionable address.

(“Hoopla! In the Showroom,” November 27, 1987) Lycra “crown” dress with tulle by Bruno Duluc.(Photo by Jenafer Grace Gillingham)

Les Deux Café’s Michelle Lamy was renowned then not as a restaurateur but as a designer who previewed her line on lip-synching drag queens vamping down the runway at a steamy transvestite bar in Hollywood. Designer Hillary Beane held Tupperware parties to get rid of leftover pieces of her extraordinary jewelry. There were memorable fashion shows debuting ensembles that converted into beach chairs or picnic blankets with a basket and dishes. And the best and most extravagant fashion was being born and bred, as it always is, in the nightclubs, where local bon vivants such as Jennifer Bruce — costuming ‰ then-boyfriend Anthony Kiedis, George Clinton and Bootsy Collins as well as all the caged go-go dancers at the nightclub Power Tools — worked fashion’s far frontier. Most memorable was Ms. Bruce’s vivid the-Flintstones-go-to-the-nightclub look: Her multicolored bangs plastered straight up in the air and her long, neon-yellow ponytail bouncing down to her rump, she was robed in fake fur over skintight Lycra in neon colors and stripes, her makeup applied as if it were war paint.

These antics were all lovingly chronicled in the Weekly, the styles modeled by the bands and scenesters who made them famous. There were fashion spreads on vogueing at Christian Farrow and April La Rue’s club the Apartment; we got in for an up-close look at the tats and piercings shown off to best advantage when worn with G-strings and leather underwear at the post-punk/death-rock/S&M Club Fuck; the Weekly was there when the pre-rave Cat-in-the-Hat-meets-Pippi-Longstocking look evolved at Sit and Spin and Dirtbox.

The vim and vigor of the ’80s was such that even local commercial designers were getting noticed: Richard Tyler, Katayone Adeli, Leon Max and Monah Li got some of their earliest press coverage in the Weekly, as did David Dart, Tom Mark, James Tarantino, Karl Logan, Glenn Williams, Pepito Albert. There were so many new designers and showrooms that they spilled out of the California Mart and filled up a nearby building called the New Mart. The fashion biz was so busy that a club catering to it was opened in the monumental old Stock Exchange building downtown on Spring Street, which unlocked its mighty bronze doors for fashion shows and parties several nights a week.

Meantime, in a faraway land at the beach, Paul and Nancy Kauffman’s Na Na, a punk/goth store and design collective, had expanded into three buildings on the brand-new Third Street Promenade. Their venture was briefly funded by an exclusive and highly lucrative contract to sell Doc Martens in the U.S., which permitted them to make a brilliant run at clothing and especially shoe design. Remember their popular Pole Climber, a boot that made all the appointments of the blue-collar work boot — steel toes and oversized eyes, double-stitched lasts and lug soles — an essential part of the design idiom? And the Kauffmans copied and updated vintage styles, adding Doc Marten or English golfing-shoe-style soles or platforms or King Louis heels. It was a pity they lost that contract to Skechers, and you’ve seen the sad result.

 

I had lobbied for the job of fashion editor when Joie Davidow left to begin L.A. Style, not only because I was a dedicated follower of fashion — which I am — but because I love what fashion can be in a publication like the Weekly. Fashion can celebrate invention, it is theater and tribal identification, and more often than not it’s an expression of defiance. And fashion can provide intimations of immortality: At least you can strike a pose and have a laugh in the face of death — or unemployment or a lovers’ breakup or boredom on a Saturday night. And I love fashion because it can’t ever take itself too seriously — it’s just clothes, after all, so get over it or become a mockery of yourself — and because it’s non-linear, non-intellectual, nonverbal, and mostly for fun.

I loved the transformative ritual of the photo shoot, a carefully choreographed mini-production involving a cast of a dozen characters. The models would walk in off the street looking ordinary in jeans and no makeup. The music would be turned up. Pots and tubes of makeup would be spread out and racks of clothing rolled in, and the hair and makeup artists would get to work. Cameras and lenses and film would be assembled, and the photographer’s assistant would arrange backdrops and lights. And then it was showtime, and the models would become larger than life in their dialogue with the camera, unleashed from reality and given license to project an idea of self.

It was a harrowing experience borrowing designer clothes from stores knowing full well they were going to be modeled by sweaty skate punks or by grungy punk rockers (one hilarious spread pitted Melrose punks against Westwood coeds à la West Side Story). But the most heart-stopping experience of all was the time we borrowed several haute couture dresses for a fashion shoot with pre–Kurt Cobain and pre–nose job Courtney Love, who disappeared with the dresses after the shoot.

Shooting models in expensive clothing is the fashion editor’s stock-in-trade, but what I loved best was covering “Fashion in the Streets,” which is always the real source. The people who are setting the styles rarely shop at Maxfield or at Fred Segal, and the Weekly would set up photo booths at local hangouts to prove that point. Take one shoot on DJs, circa 1985: “Matt Dike (DJ at Power Tools, Seventh Grade, Red Square and A.A.) is playing ‘Christine Sixteen’ and ‘Rock Bottom’ and ‘Cold Gin’ by Kiss. This very kissable guy is wearing a Jean Michel Basquiat silk-screened T-shirt under his mom’s blouse, Levi’s 501s, a gold chain given to him by Beastie Boy Mike D, and a hat from Sway’s Discount Army and Navy. He likes to shop at Big & Tall.” Or from another photo shoot of about the same vintage, done at a club called Vertigo: “Kim Jones, the Weekly’s L.A. Dee Da columnist, borrowed her dress from a friend, got her bodysuit at Fiorucci in London, and her socks at Pic ’n’ Save.”

But I’ve always hated writing about fashion — what, really, is there to write? — and the Weekly put me out of my misery with the decision, as L.A. entered the economic downturn of the early ’90s, to end all fashion coverage. I was exiled to Siberia — assigned to cover the transportation beat, a segue that still makes my head spin but caused me to discover a new métier. I work for a nonprofit transportation and land-use policy think tank called Reconnecting America, where I focus on the design of cities and their transportation systems instead of clothing, and where I’m currently promoting the very latest fashion in city building — a real estate product that is the antithesis of the auto-oriented suburb and is called “transit-oriented development.” This style is subscribed to by two of this era’s great architects, New Urbanists Stephanos Polyzoides and Liz Moule, whose designs will soon be modeled by developments under construction at the Gold Line’s Del Mar station in Pasadena and at another development at the Mission Street station in South Pas.

Design is design is design — from the clothes we wear to the houses and cities we live in to the public policies that shape our environment. It was Harry Parnass, the Montreal-based architect and proprietor of the store named Parachute, who first told me this when I asked him why he’d strayed so far from the work for which he’d been trained. “Clothing is the second skin,” he replied. “Architecture is the third. The urban environment is fourth, and public policy is the fifth.” I’ve become comfortable in all these skins.

Gloria Ohland was the Weekly’s style editor during the latter half of the 1980s. She co-edited the book The New Transit Town: Best Practices in Transit-Oriented Development (Island Press), which is coming out December 2003.