The "total look" takes on another dimension when people start dressing to match their living rooms. And in Santa Monica, that seems to be happening. In recent months, the tonier residents of this seaside city are dressing themselves, as well as their homes, in what aficionados refer to as the Southwestern style.
Two new Santa Monica shops specialize in the design that blends Spanish Colonial and American Indian elements and first took root in a region that includes Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Oklahoma.
One shop is Hemisphere, the other is Federico, and they are a few doors apart on Santa Monica's Montana Avenue. Down the street, the Nonesuch Gallery has been in business for eight years, and it recently expanded to twice its original size to accommodate an increase in customers. A few blocks away, on Wilshire Boulevard, the Wounded Knee Gallery, the honorable ancestor of them all, had a face lift not long ago to keep up with the competition. That was after 26 years in business.
Oddly enough, the stores spurring this new wave of enthusiasm for Southwestern dress don't specialize in clothing. For the most part, they carry home furnishings--Navajo rugs and clay pots, antique Spanish chests and bleached bovine skulls, like those you see in Georgia O'Keeffe paintings.
Clothes and accessories--the conch belts, fringed buckskin jackets, medicine bags and moccasins--seem like afterthoughts to complete a regional theme. But the merchants say customers who start out shopping for home furnishings end up buying clothes as well.
The result--a costume-like total look--has a well-established history in the city shadowed by the Hollywood sign.
"Dressing yourself and your house in the Southwestern style makes people feel as if they're in a movie, reliving the whole life as it was," explains Natalie Kent, who opened the Hemisphere shop with Vicki Berkofsky.
Hemisphere carries antique Spanish furniture as well as a range of new and vintage Indian textiles. It also stocks classic American Indian jewelry and belts, Navajo jackets and suede squaw boots, all newly made by modern crafts people preserving the old traditions.
Several of the artisans live within walking distance of the store. They travel to the New Mexico towns of Taos or Santa Fe to study traditional techniques, then come back home and add a modern flair. You wouldn't mistake their handmade designs for the mass-produced Southwestern wear that was popular a few years ago. Their clothes and accessories are closer to museum authentics.
This time around, fashion followers are likely to cut their Southwestern wear with other styles. The new way is to mix it with European designer clothes for a couture-and-Indian effect. You might see classic Chanel suits worn with denim work shirts and turquoise cuff bracelets on each arm this spring.
The bracelets could be by Adrienne Teeguarden. She learned to make silver jewelry in Taos, but she lives in Westwood, where she invents variations on Southwest classics. Teeguarden came up with a conch-belt bracelet, and she styles bola ties with unmistakably modern clasps shaped like silver cacti and arrowheads.
She describes her slightly funky, unmistakably ethnic designs as " '80s pawn" and sells them through Hemisphere, as well as the Nonesuch Gallery. Museum shops in Taos and Santa Fe also carry her work.
Teeguarden keeps a close watch on the situation and says the Santa Fe-Santa Monica connection came about for several reasons.
Of Santa Monica-area residents she says: "They're the avant-garde with money, and they're imitating the style, because it's very in right now." She adds that the beach community is particularly receptive to the Southwestern style, because life in both places is so informal.
Holly Collins, a weaver who works her tapestries into fringed leather bags that resemble Navajo medicine bags, also makes Southwest-inspired home accessories, sold at Nonesuch Gallery. She says a growing nostalgia for the '60s, when hippies wore turquoise jewelry with their jeans, is encouraging the revival.
But Federico Jiminez, who has specialized in Spanish and Indian antiques for 17 years and owns the Federico shop in Santa Monica, believes it has to do with something else.
"Americans have become ethnocentric," he says. "And the only background to draw on is the Indian root." Along with the museum-quality, American Indian textiles and Southwestern furniture Jiminez sells, he says his conch belts are a hot item. His wealthy young customers are buying investments, he says.
"They want very good textiles and jewelry, and they know what is good," he explains. "I don't hesitate to tell them when something costs $5,000."