While Los Angeles has a lot going for it — manufacturing might, the country’s largest retail market, the entertainment juggernaut and a vigorous cultural scene — at the moment, the biggest “thing” about L.A. is its fashion heat.
That’s led to a growing number of designers flocking here to live, work and stage runway extravaganzas; so many, in fact, that the city appears to be claiming a spot as the fifth fashion capital, after New York, Paris, Milan and London.
“There’s an ascendance to L.A.,” said Tom Ford, who staged his fall runway show here in February. He sees Los Angeles as a city aging into interesting, while its current pop cultural relevance beckons young creative types, those priced out of Brooklyn or Paris, to come hither.
“It’s starting to feel like a real place and not just a set,” the designer explained. “It’s developing culturally, physically and metaphorically.”
The anointed catalyst, or perhaps tipping point, is Hedi Slimane, who has lived here for nearly eight years, and chose to stay put after taking the creative reins at Paris-based Saint Laurent, even moving the house’s venerable atelier to Los Angeles. The notoriously press-shy designer declined to comment at press time because he was preparing for his spring show, but has cited the city’s mix of popular culture and subcultures as inspiration for his high-end hipster aesthetic.
Aside from fashion’s emergence here, L.A. nightlife is newly energized, revolving around art and food. The new Broad Museum and the soon-to-open Hauser Wirth and Schimmel Gallery downtown are high-profile additions to an art scene anchored by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art, the Hammer Museum and a slew of galleries in Hollywood. And fashionable foodies are flocking to Faith & Flower downtown, Cassia in Santa Monica and Jon & Vinny’s and Gracias Madre in the middle of town.
Jeremy Scott, a longtime Angeleno who prefers to do his job as creative director of Moschino far from Milan, said, “I’m happy here, that’s the thing. You do your best work where you are happiest.”
The shift in global creativity toward the West Coast has arguably been happening for the past several years — so why does it seem people are just now starting to pay attention?
Designer Brian Wolk, who moved to L.A. a year ago with partner Claude Morais to launch Wolk Morais after a decade designing Ruffian in East Coast hip hub Brooklyn, proposed, “As designers, our job is to understand the zeitgeist of trends and respond to them. It’s important for us to be surrounded by a community that is explosive and making news. New York did not have the undercurrent, subculture and lifestyle that got our juices flowing anymore. It will always be a corporate home for fashion and publishing, but Los Angeles is currently a vortex of relevant culture, fashion and art, and we wanted to be in the eye of the storm.”
Wolk pinpointed the unprecedented influence of digital and social media, combined with the attention-grabbing art scene and entertainment establishment, as key factors of the moment, calling it “a trifecta that brought L.A. to the forefront.”
Photographer and jewelry designer Lisa Eisner, Tom Ford’s longtime muse and the inspiration for his fall collection, said, “I’m not sure if people are loving L.A. because of one thing, or because they are just sick of New York. New York has been so tapped out for inspiration, but there is still so much to discover in L.A. It’s not all about Hollywood. There are museums and galleries and nature, and you can shoot all year-round.”
Lynn Tesoro, cofounder of HL Group, also believes other industries now position the city as more than a one-horse town.
“Over the last 10 years, L.A. has become a cultural mecca that people are finally looking at with a different eye,” she said. “Twenty-five years ago, brands like Calvin Klein understood the celebrity connection, but now it’s also food, architecture, technology and automotive that are capturing the fashion world’s attention.”
According to some, the “moment” has really been a slow simmer that’s finally come to a boil.
“The fashion industry has always been fascinated with Los Angeles,” said Lubov Azria, creative director of BCBG Max Azria, who looked to Venice Beach locals as inspiration for her spring 2016 collection, one of the label’s strongest in recent seasons. “Lots of photographers, models and designers have homes here, and the front row lives here,” she said, referring to the celebrities who drive the fashion marketing machine. Joyce Azria, who oversees the young contemporary line BCBGeneration, said, “Beautiful people naturally flock here, and there’s no shame in having L.A. game. In fact, we’re now on trend.”
The city’s sprawling geography allows for plenty of breathing room, literally and creatively. Designers specializing in intricate eveningwear and high-end fashion are located all over the map: Monique Lhuillier and Tadashi Shoji in downtown; Hervé Léger, part of BCBG Max Azria Group, in Vernon; Laura and Kate Mulleavy of Rodarte, Pasadena; Juan Carlos Obando, Koreatown and Slimane’s studio in West Hollywood. “We are able to keep our own voice and our own point of view because the city is so segmented,” said Lhuillier, who founded her company 19 years ago. “There’s not a sense of being surrounded by people all doing the same thing.”
“Living in New York is not easy on a person, especially if you’re trying to be creative,” observed Kevin Carney, owner and buyer of Mohawk General Store in Silver Lake. “Designers are starting to realize that they can design from anywhere and have a certain quality of life, as opposed to living in a city that drains them.”
Many designers concur that Los Angeles provides respite from the rat race of other fashion cities. “I love to come after shows, especially at the end of January because it allows for me to literally get some fresh air and get off to a new start,” said Dior Homme creative director Kris Van Assche, who visits up to four times a year. “Between having palm trees and blue skies and good bookstores and nice galleries, it’s a good place to think over what just happened in Paris and get away from that narrow fashion crowd.”
Joseph Altuzarra, who like Van Assche was in town last month to mingle with local stylists and celebrities, agreed. “The weather is obviously fantastic, but it’s also such a different-looking city, which I find very relaxing. It’s always hard after fashion week because it’s like a never-ending cycle, so you find your breaks where you can.”
While a number of designers unwind by spending a few days at swanky hotels like Chateau Marmont, others such as Christopher Kane prefer to immerse themselves in local life. Kane rented a house near Larchmont Village last spring; while Tommy Hilfiger was visiting his children here over the summer, he toyed with the idea of Airbnb-ing a house in Malibu.
For transplants, a cross-country move isn’t easy, but Sharleen Ernster, who came to Southern California almost three years ago with her husband and two young daughters, wouldn’t change a thing. After 13 years at Victoria’s Secret, she moved here to take on the post of chief design officer at Guess. While she lasted only 18 months at the quintessential L.A. denim brand, her love affair for the city continues. She is launching Hot As Hell, her first solo fashion brand, with swim and lingerie for this resort season and sportswear for the following spring.
“The culture of L.A. is open and supportive, not just [to run] a start-up but to commercialize new ideas,” Ernster said. “I feel the whole city supports everyone doing something.”
For manufacturers and retailers, there are many good reasons — besides the hip factor — to go west. As of August, Los Angeles County employed 131,800 people working in apparel manufacturing, textile mills, clothing and accessories stores, and the wholesale business for apparel and piece goods.
Eric Gunther, director of business development at Capify, a New York-based financing company that works primarily with small- and medium-sized businesses, cites abundant talent, cost-effective commercial space, local manufacturing and a wholesale market as draws. “There is a tremendous value to operating a fashion company from Los Angeles,” he said. “From a finance side, it’s highly attractive.” To gain access to more potential clients, Capify is sponsoring the Coeur trade show to be held at the Alexandria Ballrooms from Oct. 12 to 14.
Retailers from mass market to luxury consistently rank L.A. as a top-performing city, one where foreign brands often will open their first U.S. door or unveil a new retail concept. Rick Owens, who was a longtime Angeleno before moving to Paris, will open his first flagship in L.A. this fall, which will coincide with an exhibition of his work at MOCA. Owens also has American stores in New York and Miami. Foreign brands that chose to open their first American outposts in L.A. include Moschino, Dsquared2, The Kooples, Zimmermann and Seafolly.
And new retail outposts continue to spring up. While established stretches like Robertson Boulevard, Melrose Avenue, Melrose Place and Abbot Kinney Boulevard are still must-sees for brands, up-and-coming areas include Main Street in Santa Monica, Lincoln Boulevard in Venice, Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake and Broadway in downtown L.A.
The digital front continues to grow as well. Sarah Rutson, vice president of global buying for Net-a-porter, said that the e-commerce retailer has seen year-on-year growth of more than 31 percent from L.A.
“It’s our second-largest city in the U.S. for sales,” she said.
Rutson explained that L.A. used to have a reputation for being a casual denim city, but now brands like Saint Laurent and Chloé perform just as strongly there as they do in every other market. L.A.’s homegrown brands such as APL sneakers and Jennifer Meyer are also top-of-mind. “There’s something important here to scratch below the surface to find talent.”
Since opening TenOverSix’s Melrose Avenue store in 2008, cofounder and buyer Kristen Cole said L.A.’s ready-to-wear offering has only gotten better, and now about 50 percent of TenOverSix’s assortment is local designers. “We carry a lot of apparel that is Made in L.A. and it’s beautiful — French seams and nice finishings,” Cole said. “The more people coming in and producing, the better the production becomes. There are so many lines that people are writing out of L.A. right now.”
After not buying in L.A. for several years, Sherri McMullen, founder and owner of McMullen boutique in Piedmont, Calif., is reconsidering a buying trip to Los Angeles. At New York Fashion Week, she discovered Rosetta Getty and was surprised to learn the designer is L.A.-based. “I was immediately drawn to her clean, laid-back, California aesthetic,” she said, adding that she is keen to pick up more L.A. brands.
But there are hurdles in the way of Los Angeles becoming a bona fide fashion capital. The belittled stature of Los Angeles Fashion Week is disproportionate to the city’s importance to the retail and wholesale market and hardly representative of the best local talent — those like Lhuillier, Rodarte, Obando and Getty show at New York Fashion Week for press and buyer exposure. Up until now, what passes for Los Angeles Fashion Week is inconsistent and interspersed across multiple venues, showcasing more designers from foreign countries than home turf. Since the end of the partnership between IMG and Smashbox Studios in 2008, no single organization has effectively served as the lead event. This month, at least three different organizers are competing in venues ranging from a banquet hall in Hollywood to downtown’s Union Station to a big white tent erected in a parking lot near the Fashion District.
“Just putting the words ‘fashion week’ in the same sentence as ‘Los Angeles’ is the first problem. Designers don’t want to be forced to show at the same time, in the same space, one after the other,” said Claude Morais of Wolk Morais. Like Tom Ford and Burberry, Wolk and Morais prefer to stage their L.A. runway presentations on their own schedule, not within the confines of the city’s fashion and market week.
“Comparing L.A. to other fashion capitals, and attempting to emulate other city’s fashion weeks, has always been L.A.’s biggest misstep,” he continued. “Los Angeles has the potential to be a leader, but to do so we need to create our own model, one not based on existing formulas in New York, Paris and Milan.”
Ed Filipowski, cofounder of fashion public relations powerhouse KCD, said, “The industry is in such a state of change that you can’t define ‘fashion capital’ in old-fashioned terms. It’s short-sighted to fall into that trap. I would hope there’d be an innovative way to get the same images and reach as runway shows without creating the same burden for editors and buyers. With our clients, it is a strategy every season — what are we going to do in L.A.? It’s the only market where that’s a fixed consideration.”
Refraining from offering an opinion on L.A. Fashion Week, Steven Kolb, chief executive officer of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, acknowledged that a successful fashion week must have some vision for what it wants to be. For instance, he said, New York’s version revolves around the trade and business of fashion. “There has to be some mission to make sense, not something for the sake of something. There has to be critical mass for that vision.”
Azria suggested taking a cue from itinerant pre-season shows. “If we take a season like resort, where most designers don’t show in their own city, and bring editors and press here, it’ll do great things for the economy,” Azria said.
“That would make sense,” agreed BPCM’s Vanessa Von Bismarck. “So would consumer-driven or private events that feel more organic. You can’t force the issue, and nobody needs another fashion week.”
Politicians are also on a mission to solidify Los Angeles’ status as a creative capital. In an effort to expand the Made in Los Angeles movement, the city extended the business tax holiday that grants a three-year exemption to firms that move to L.A. from other cities. According to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, part of the allure for the fashion industry is the ability to cross-pollinate with other sectors that encourage creativity.
“People will see Made in L.A. as everything from the [manufacturing] community to video games to technology to fashion and the intersection of all these creative industries,” he said. “A fashion company may need the same programmer that Jessica Alba’s Honest Company may need, that a company like Riot Games — which is a top video game company — may need. So it’s really a place where professionals can come and thrive, and Made in L.A., I think, will be a brand across multiple industries, in which fashion will be one of the core ones.”
“L.A. is an incredibly important city,” said Kolb, noting that after New York, it boasts the largest number of CFDA members. “It has such a high reputation and energy around production.” To that end, the CFDA is driving new initiatives that capitalize on Los Angeles’ stature as a manufacturing epicenter. On Oct. 21, the CFDA is collaborating with London-based tech start-up Not Just a Label to welcome 50 guests at Chrome Hearts’ headquarters in Hollywood to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the city’s apparel and accessories production vis-à-vis other cities’ capabilities.
Over the past year, Kolb has been studying L.A.’s manufacturing know-how, for instance, meeting with the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. and visiting a denim laundry used by jeans and sportswear brand Simon Miller as well as the factory operated by Reformation. Specifically, with the event hosted by Chrome Hearts’ Richard and Laurie Lynn Stark, Kolb said he wants to identify whether there is “something that the CFDA as an organization can do to fill that void that is lacking or improve.” By focusing on Los Angeles’ manufacturing might, “this could be the foundation to give us purpose that we can build from.”