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The Angeleno Aesthetic

Photo by Orah Moore

It was the winter of 1979. There was an unusual cold snap, and everyone in L.A. complained that it was freezing. At night, when the thermometer dipped down to the upper 40s, I stayed in and planned my spring wardrobe. I was in a decided minority. Nine months of the year, the prevalent L.A. costume was a T-shirt and board shorts, with sneakers or flip-flops. Now, in the extreme cold, many people had upgraded to jeans and sweaters. Some went so far as to wear socks. In Hancock Park, Pasadena, and the office towers of lower Wilshire Boulevard, where there was a dress code, written or implied, men wore conservative suits and ties, and so did most women. The female version was almost always navy or beige polyester crepe with an A-line skirt and a feminized tie of some sort, so as to imitate the male uniform as closely as possible without looking too butch. On festive occasions, some men wore Hawaiian shirts, while the women wore girly dresses, flowered cotton garments reminiscent of the Gold Rush days.


Melrose Avenue was a jumble of electronics-supply and auto-parts stores. At one end of the street, across from Fairfax High, Michelle Lamy, a Frenchwoman who would not be insulted by the adjective “eccentric,” opened Too Soon To Know, where she sold sunglasses, T-shirts and unique clothing of her own design to the high school kids. At the other end, a shop called Last Mango sold T-shirts and polka-dotted dancing skirts. In between, there was only Fred Segal, a pared-down version of the current multistore emporium.



(“Style,” May 9, 1980) Rain
smocks, circle skirts and
padded vests with cotton
flannel shirts by Marlene
Stewart.

(Photos by Jules Bates)

L.A. style was an oxymoron. But I was trying to convince Jay Levin, who was both my boss and my boyfriend, that the L.A. Weekly really needed a fashion column. This was a big leap. He was trying to edit a serious alternative newsweekly, which lured readers with the comprehensive entertainment listings I had developed for the center of the paper. Now I was asking him to give space to what must have seemed to him to be the most trivial and decadent of consumer traps.

But I knew I was on to something. Since the fall of the Golden Age of Hollywood, when the great costume designer Adrian started a fashion revolution by dressing Joan Crawford in exaggerated shoulder pads, Los Angeles had had a minimal influence on the way the country dressed. Now young L.A. was developing a style all its own. I saw it in my colleagues, a determinedly hip staff who came to work at the Weekly’s ramshackle offices on eastern Sunset Boulevard in a combination of vintage clothing from the ’40s and ’50s, souvenirs of trips across the border to Mexico, and accessories handmade from unlikely materials — fake fur decorated with satin, plastic adorned with sequins. The women wore cowboy boots with their Donna Reed dresses. The men wore earrings. Someone had to report this. And without putting up too much of a fight, Jay agreed to let me have a shot at it.


(“Style,” January 27, 1984)
Exercise wear from Tickets.
(Photo by Claudia Kunin)

At first I was aided and abetted by Laurel Delp, the Weekly’s first managing editor, and her friend Pavla Partch. But soon I had a page all to myself, which I could fill with anything remotely fashionable. It was the most fun I ever had as writer. I called the column “Style,” defining the term as broadly as possible, and because I had no idea how to be a serious columnist, I wrote a first-person chronicle of the L.A. aesthetic as I saw it unfold and develop week after week.

By the time summer came along, I was beginning to contemplate my fall wardrobe, and Jay agreed to a special fashion supplement. In the issue of August 24–30, 1979, I introduced the section optimistically: “L.A. has created its own fashion aesthetic, and the rest of the world is buying it . . . These clothes are a rejection of elegance — torn
T-shirts, safety-pin necklaces. But they are an affirmation that getting dressed is a fun, un-boring form of artistic self-expression.”

L.A. style was nascent, far from the mature sophistication of Europe or the clean, sporty looks emanating from New York. The way we dressed was playful, demanding attention. “It’s hard to ignore a guy with fuchsia, slicked-back hair, black spandex pants, printed shirt, winged-tipped shoes, sunglasses and earrings,” I wrote.

 

None of the designers featured in that first fashion supplement have become household names. Shirley Karki, Kathy Martin and Flora Kung have not gone on to become Donna Karan, Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren. But their effect is still felt. All three were transplants — from Ohio, Detroit, the Republic of China — who chose L.A. for its unique energy. They captured the spirit of the city in the clothes they designed, opening the door for a stream of dozens of other young designers.

 


(“L.A. Style, Spring ’83”)
Cotton “skort” outfits
by Van-Martin Rowe.
(photo by Orah Moore)

In the next 10 years, Los Angeles would explode into a humming center of creativity, and the whole world would be focused on Melrose Avenue, on the newly reclaimed downtown lofts and on a coterie of fashion designers, decorators, architects and chefs whose influence reached around the globe.

European immigrants no longer flooded Ellis Island. Instead, they came to California from China, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. They came from Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala. The restraint of Asia crashed headlong into the exuberance of Latin America, and in L.A. they all met the rock & roll culture left over from the glory days of the Sunset Strip, the Roxy and the Troubadour. They met the dream factory, Hollywoodland, where anything goes. Spandex met kimonos, sequins met serapes. From this glorious mix of wildly divergent cultures, a new breed was born. It was the L.A. aesthetic, fresh and irreverent and so attractive everybody wanted it.

By 1981, the new Melrose Avenue Association had a membership of more than 50 businesses. There were chic restaurants, like Patrick Terrail’s Ma Maison, which served up gourmet hamburgers, and where a young Wolfgang Puck could be found in the kitchen. There were trendy hair salons such as Miso Satu’s Platoon and Henry Abell’s Trampp. And there were the ateliers of L.A.’s young designers. Two years after the Weekly’s first fashion supplement, I could report, “A veritable forest of new stores is springing up in the fertile soil of Melrose Avenue.”

Sometimes reporting something can make it so. The Weekly told the city that Melrose Avenue was the place to go, and the city went there. With the new attention came new stores. Claudia Grau fashioned practical garments from nylon parachutes and sewed her labels on the outside. At Let It Rock, two English partners, Madeline Taylor and Allan Jones, designed a new take on the old zoot suit, launching a Nuevo Latino revival. L.A. Eyeworks, a Melrose Avenue pioneer, opened its doors in 1979, and a year later added a gallery space that showcased a collection of vintage fantasy frames. Just William featured the work of Julie Hewitt and Diana Espaillat, who fashioned high-tech silver-studded black or gray garments for their Darling I Love Your Dress line, while the Latino Rick Castro and his Asian partner, Michi, a quintessentially L.A. pair, made outrageous hats, taking the stylish chapeaux of Hollywood’s Golden Age to a comedic extreme and labeling them “I Love Ricky.”

I began to champion what would become a long list of young L.A. designers. Publicist Janet Orsi, who had started her career selling restaurant ads for the Weekly, catapulted many of these designers from the Weekly’s style pages to the eyes of the world, promoting Leon Max, David Dart, Karl Logan, Electra Casadei, and Robin Piccone’s Body Glove to star status.

At the Weekly, we began to develop a photographic style as modish and diverse as the clothes themselves. In the early years, Jules Bates, the Weekly’s photo editor, shot extraordinary graphic images using a backdrop of angular sets he built and designed himself, working with a team he dubbed Artrouble, which included makeup artist Phyllis Cohen and hair stylist Debbie Kaplan. A perfectionist, he was often unhappy with the quality of his work, produced on short notice with little or no budget. If, in desperation, I was forced to print a photo he didn’t like, he insisted on using a pseudonym. Credits like “Photo by Bermuda Schwartz” and “Patti Melt” appeared on our pages. Bates died tragically in a motorcycle accident, cutting short what should have been a brilliant career.

But by that time the Weekly’s style pages had developed a reputation, and young photographers began to come around with their portfolios. Matthew Rolston and Moshe Brakha shot some of their earliest work for the Weekly, then went on to develop enormous international reputations. The renowned still-life photographer Victoria Pearson came to the paper fresh out of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Always ready to put something together on the spot and incredibly talented, she became my frequent collaborator. Orah Moore, who was finishing a master’s degree in photography at Cal State Fullerton, shot many of the style pages, including an entire special style issue which she photographed while several months pregnant. Today, she is a well-regarded landscape photographer living in Vermont, where she runs Haymaker Press.

 

I became ubiquitous on the scene, which was my job, after all. My sidekick at fashion shows, openings and events was photographer Elsa Braunstein, whose images often accompanied columns that began with a phrase like “Last night, Elsa and I . . .” We would go anywhere for a story, especially if it was an event involving free food and drinks. I teased Elsa, who was model thin, for haunting the buffet tables of every party or opening we attended. We frequented the trendy clubs, where people “got all dressed up to go out and see what everybody else was wearing.” When that monolith of downtown showrooms, the L.A. Fashion Mart, began hosting a semiannual fashion week for buyers and press, Elsa and I were present from start to finish, though we were battle-weary and bleary-eyed by the end, having covered a long parade of fashion shows, free coffee and pastries notwithstanding.

When all else failed, I thought up wacky ideas for the column. I was made over and made under more times than I can count, and I shared my most unattractive moments with my readers. I had my best colors defined for me half a dozen times, my makeup application improved over and over again. I had my body measured and analyzed, potbelly and all. The current rash of TV makeover shows are but a pale reflection of the self-improvement I endured in the name of fashion, often with Elsa Braunstein in tow.

Elsa and I shot a story featuring clothes I bought at a supermarket in Koreatown and modeled myself — including a dog collar I wore as a necklace. To commemorate the opening of the Marciano brothers’ MGA store — the precursor to the Guess? empire — I did a story with the photographer Orah Moore in which I was encouraged by a salesperson to try a pair of jeans in a size I hoped to someday diet down to. “When I tried to put them on,” I wrote, “the two rows of zipper teeth stared longingly at each other across an imposing expanse of belly, and I feared that never the twain should meet.” But I was determined to get into those jeans “even if I broke every fingernail trying.” Finally I lay down flat on my back, sucked in my stomach with all my might . . . “and lo, the zipper crept slowly up.” I looked like I’d lost 10 pounds but I feared a medical problem might arise if I wore them for any length of time.

My friend Jean Johnson and her then-teenage daughter, Holly Krassner, posed for Victoria Pearson tarted up in fashions I pulled from an Army-Navy surplus store on Hollywood Boulevard, making evening looks from men’s pajamas and raincoat liners decorated with “strategically placed jewels.” When the L.A. Times began a feature called “Closet of the Week,” touting the luxurious and impeccably organized closets of the stars, I countered with “Closet of the Weekly,” displaying my own disastrous sagging clothes rod, shoes piled on the floor.

The Weekly’s style supplement for spring 1981 celebrated a coming of age with a feature called “L.A.’s Bad Kids Make Good,” which included a series of portraits of designers and their models shot by Pearson. I chose four designers whom I had written about when they were just getting started, all of whom had gone on to design respected lines.

When I first encountered Elke Lesso, she was making loose, rough-edged tunics, pants and sashes from T-shirt jersey. Richard Tyler was designing outrageous costumes for musicians like Rod Stewart and Diana Ross; I met Marlene Stewart when she was making paper jumpsuits doctored up with shoulder pads and snaps and decorated with rubber stamps and Xeroxed images; and when I first profiled Gregory Poe, he was making clear-vinyl wallets, neckties and purses filled with sawdust, confetti and plastic fish.

So where are they now? Elke Lesso, who once designed all the clothes in her Melrose Avenue shop, Zoe, continues to produce whimsical printed dresses and separates under the Zoe label, sold in stores nationwide. Richard Tyler’s immaculate tailoring and elegant designs became the toast of New York and Europe. His fashions sell at stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue, and he has maintained an atelier on Beverly Boulevard for many years.

Marlene Stewart created costumes for Madonna before establishing a career as a costume designer for films, including To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar, Oliver Stone’s JFK and The Doors, even Terminator 2, The X-Files and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. Her newest film is Tears of the Sun, out this year.

 

Gregory Poe was discovered by the Tokyo mega-manufacturer Wacoal, and became a star with 17 boutiques across Japan. Now back in his native L.A., he has begun to design funeral urns. He says he is finally embracing the legacy of his ancestor, Edgar Allan Poe. “My friend, the late Lance Loud, is in a wooden shoe box on his mother’s shelf,” he explains. “Something just had to be done. Besides, they are beautiful objets d’art, which could be used for non-death things.” Cookie jars?

The L.A. look and the California craze faded away sometime in the ’90s. New York experienced a resurgence, and the fickle eye of fashion turned its gaze elsewhere. Melrose Avenue is still a destination, with tourist shops to the east and high-end designer labels such as Miu Miu and Costume National to the west. But Melrose is no longer the only place to find the new and interesting. Beverly Boulevard, Third Street, Vermont Avenue, Hillhurst Avenue, Silver Lake Boulevard and Pasadena’s Raymond Avenue have their share of trendy boutiques. L.A. is far from a fashion wasteland.

The city continues to produce world-class designers. And as celebrities have become the new fashion icons, actors who shop locally, such as Cameron Diaz, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston and Meg Ryan, have given their favorites a boost. The August issue of Bazaar magazine featured the work of Richard Tyler, along with L.A. labels that boast celebrity followings — Imitation of Christ, Tree, Magda Berliner, Michelle Mason, David Cardona and Cornell Collins. The descendants of the Melrose Avenue pioneers, they create a distinctive blend of glamour and funk that is the hallmark of L.A. style in the new millennium.

Joie Davidow, a founder of L.A. Weekly, developed its listings and edited its style pages from 1979 to 1986. She went on to found L.A. Style and magazines. She has published four books, including a memoir, Marked for Life (Harmony, 2003).


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