For a city whose men's fashion image was built on surfers, not stockbrokers, times are certainly changing. Fall collections by Los Angeles designers are strong on clothing meant for offices, not beaches. And while the designers say their creative output reflects the casual Southern California life style, they find that store buyers from far more formal cities--Toronto, New York, London and Paris--are trekking west to stock up on the latest looks.
"Our designers are getting to be known everywhere for their advanced, but very wearable, fashion styles," says Ron Arden, director of men's fashion at the Los Angeles California Mart.
Among the hot tickets are Axis, headed by John Leitch and Marty Weening; Nancy Heller; Leon Max; Pazzo by Michael Lee and Gail Reisman; Emil Rutenberg; Shang-Hai by Sandy Mills and David Timsit; Glenn Williams, and Zylos by George Machado. Richard Tyler, an impressive newcomer, brings another dimension to the list.
Their styles are somewhat diverse but the designers agree that certain elements unite their work and give it a local twist. Softer tailoring, more fluid fabrics, structural details that don't restrict movement and a taste for unconventional colors are the basic underpinnings.
For fall they take an easier approach to the trend-setting looks shared by every major fashion city right now. Of these, the newest element is the return of the matched suit. For day and evening wear, Rutenberg notes, "men will buy an extra pair of pants in a contrasting color, but a matched suit is what looks right. It's the place to start."
Williams describes his favorite suit silhouette: "Strongly defined, with a fitted waistline and fuller trousers." He says men's growing interest in the suit look reflects a growing interest in getting dressed up. Both Williams and Machado are showing '40s-inspired suit styles that Machado describes as elegant.
Jackets for fall are being shown in a surprising variety of new silhouettes. They can be as extreme as Machado's six-button style with its peaked lapels. Or as continental as the single-button, double-breasted blazer that several designers include in their collections. Most often, shoulders are just slightly larger than life and waistlines nip in gently.
L.A.-area designers avoid stiff fabrics and heavy-handed construction. This insistence on ease and comfort still sets the California group apart.
Perhaps the ultimate expression of the local approach can be seen in the fall styles of Rutenberg, a recent arrival here from South Africa, who is showing a complete line of men's sportswear made of lavish silk Charmeuse. The rich, somewhat dressy fabric is one most men have never worn and would best recognize in women's evening gowns or peignoir sets. For his customers, Rutenberg takes away some of the formality of the material by working with a washed version that has a mottled, slightly worn quality.
His color scheme for fall is no less unconventional. It includes royal blue and gold as well as charcoal gray and black. He uses the same colors whether the fabric is linen, rayon or his more unusual silk. "Men are definitely willing to experiment with color right now," he finds.
While he ventures into the world of unfamiliar fabrics for men, most other designers still achieve a soft-edged, fluid quality with rayon, a supple synthetic. Machado of Zylos as well as Mills and Timsit of Shang-Hai use their own versions, in dark pin stripes or two-tone, tree-bark textures. Williams has developed a rayon-gabardine blend for a fuller-bodied, dressier effect.
In another direction, Max and the Axis design team have styled updated classic sportswear in knitted fabrics for a look the Russian-born Max refers to as "gentlemanly and adventuresome." Meanwhile, all-natural Nancy Heller creates softness in her men's '50s-feeling clothes by using cashmere, rich silk and fine wool tweed.
While they have built their reputations on comfortable-to-wear clothing, designers here are taking new risks this season with structure. Most of them agree that the unconstructed jackets of several years ago--the "Miami Vice" look--are a bit sloppy and passe now. Weening of Axis and others have developed an updated alternative in semi-constructed styles, defined and lightly padded at the shoulders, contoured through the body and sometimes fitted at the hips. Theirs is a relaxed version of the international trend toward more structured clothes for men.
Among the rare Los Angeles designers already forging ahead with fully structured styling is Richard Tyler. He has joined the ranks of local ready-to-wear makers after years as a stage costumer and custom designer with a client list topped by Rod Stewart and Diana Ross. Tyler, a native of Australia, calls his body-contoured jacket styles "sculptured." He admits, "close-to-the-body clothing seems radical to most men. It takes courage even to try them on."