Forget the pseudo-surfer look. And the neon. And the nylon. This time, Southern California is leading the nation in a fashion trend born in the city, not on the sand.
It's streetwear--a mix of the casual, oversized fashion of hip hop, surfing, skating and especially Southern California's quirky underground nightclub scene. It's a booming Bronx-meets-the-beach look created by growing group of young Southern California-based designers.
Headquartered in garages, cramped apartments and small warehouses, young streetwear designers mock Madison Avenue advertising agencies by mixing their own labels with commercial images.
The first such design was a T-shirt made by streetwear's premier label, Fresh Jive. Made two years ago--and now a club-fashion legend--it superimposed the Jive logo over the orange circles familiar to users of Tide detergent. Jive co-owner Richard M. Klotz calls the design "Jive Resurgent."
Today, streetwear is still defined by oddball images printed on loose, casual clothing. The Clobber label produces T-shirts that recall the graphics of comic books while the Anarchic Adjustment label specializes in spaced-out images. But now the look is turning up in New York and Tokyo, and, increasingly, on the shelves of larger retailers.
Fred Segal carries Slobeck streetwear. Nordstrom carries larger surfwear labels, such as Stussy and Gotcha, which are converting wholesale to the streetwear style.
"Streetwear is something we're very excited about," says Nordstrom spokeswoman Coroline Brown. "It's an important part of our business."
To achieve the look inexpensively, most streetwear companies create computer-graphic designs, then contract with silk-screen T-shirt manufacturers. Bigger companies, such as Fresh Jive, manufacture their own clothing.
Klotz, 24, started Fresh Jive when he converted his computer-generated underground-party flier designs into T-shirt designs.
In the beginning, Klotz could count with both hands the retailers that carried his line. But success struck and he teamed up with his father, a clothing manufacturer, to produce Fresh Jive in-house, full time.
Klotz now runs the most successful streetwear upstart and serves more than 300 retailers worldwide.
After five years of explosive growth, the $1.5-billion youth-lifestyle market has been stalled somewhat by the recession. Yet the streetwear industry is thriving.
Observers say this genre of clothing may bring the same lasting success that surfwear brought to the region's fashion industry in the '80s.
"Streetwear is a big force right now," says Roy Wallack, editor-in-chief of Action Sports Retailer magazine, which charts the West Coast-centered beach-and-street lifestyle industry. "This is the trend that could very well kick start business."
Two years ago there were only a few streetwear companies--actually surfwear firms--such as Newport Beach's multimillion-dollar Stussy and Venice's five-employee Bronze Age. They converted their casual surfwear into an urban look with baseball caps, graphic long-sleeve T-shirts and ultra-baggy jeans.
Small street-inspired companies based in Los Angeles, San Diego and Costa Mesa now number more than 25, not including the larger, more mainstream Stussy, Gotcha and Cross Colours labels and the dozens of upstart designers who are available in only a few specialty shops.
The industry is following the path of the surfwear phenomenon of the '60s, begun by companies such as Gordon & Smith.
Once a garage-based surfboard manufacturer, Gordon & Smith is now a high-profile surfwear maker. In the '80s, surfwear companies such as Stussy, Gotcha and Quiksilver went from T-shirt makers to world-renowned, multimillion-dollar companies.
Now it's the streetwear industry's turn in the spotlight.
"The whole swing in youth culture right now is going through a whole multicultural thing," says Bill McMullen. Last year, the 25-year-old started Jaz clothing in San Diego.
"The surf and the street--people are really fond of both cultures," he says.
But will success spoil streetwear? Some designers say they fear that popularity with a wider audience on a short-term basis could alienate their fashion-conspicuous, core clientele.
"You want a lot of people to wear it," says Klotz, "but not \o7 everyone \f7 to wear it."
No one knows how long the streetwear trend will last. In fact, the makers themselves say their enthusiasm is temporary.
"I plan to get out in two years," says Jaz' McMullen. "I'm doing it mostly for fun."
Irene III, who concocts lace-lined, black hooded tops and dresses that look like Louis XIV-meets-L.A. hipster, says she used to have "a fantasy of being discovered by some Japanese fashion consortium. . . . Then an atmosphere of reality came over me."
Her goal is not to be the next Liz Claiborne. "I would like," she says, "to be a philanthropist. "