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Where to Next : We've dressed up. We've dressed down. : We've led the pack in innovation and, lately, sunk into a state of blandness. : But if history repeats itself, many Big Things in fashion will start here.

CALIFORNIA STYLE: Redefining the Dream for the '90s. First of an occasional series.

August 20, 1993|MARY ROURKE | TIMES FASHION EDITOR

People around the world talk about the "California look." Midwest store owners buy it here, sell it there. Paris fashion designers copy it. Hollywood costumers lift it onto the big and little screen. Kids in the streets make a life of reinventing it.

The one thing people seldom do is define it.

It is called original, informal, witty . . . lightweight in the literal sense. But what, exactly, does that mean?

It means that California style is the sum of its history.

The beginning was a time for dressing down. Swimsuits and blue jeans could pass for a wardrobe when ranchers, farmers and retirees filled the Southland between World Wars.

Dressing up had its moments too. By the 1930s, movies were part of the nation's mainstream, and costume designers capitalized on their fame by launching their own ready-to-wear collections. Having defined American glamour by way of the movie business, they promptly made it available to anyone who had the money to buy it.

From then on, the two worlds, California casual and Hollywood glamour, never parted ways. Resort weather and Hurricane Hollywood still drive the local fashion scene.

A few moments to remember, in recent times:

* Wet suits moved from surfer beaches to "Baywatch" and Chanel's fashion runway.

* The leggings women wore shopping after exercise class ended up on "Beverly Hills, 90210" and in Donna Karan's showroom.

* Baseball caps and falling-down jeans were lifted from inner-city Los Angeles to music videos and Cross Colours' fashion collections.

* The starlet look--with evening gowns and sunglasses one year, diamonds on loan from Cartier another--still launches from here to the ends of the Earth at Emmy, Oscar and Grammy time.

All the attention is likely to continue as long as Californians keep dressing their own way. The question now is: Will they?

Street fashion has suffered from slow growth lately. Basic T-shirts, oversize overalls and those dreary flower-print dresses women wear to ride out recessions are turning a fashion oasis into a desert. Financial belt-tightening and the lingering tensions of post-riot Los Angeles have left people uneasy about calling attention to themselves.

"It's not an exciting time in fashion," says Ellen Mirojnick, a top Hollywood costume designer ("Wall Street," "Fatal Attraction," "Basic Instinct"). "People are trying to figure who they are and where they're going. You see it in fashion on the street."

Blandness pervades.

But the Gap has not been a disservice to fashion. "It's made middle-of-the-road dressers look neater," notes Louise Frogley, who created a personality-packed, thrift-shop inspired wardrobe for Susan Sarandon in "Bull Durham."

Nonetheless, Frogley refers to dress-down basics as "empty clothing." They seem to foster zero personality. "At the moment, I'm disappointed" in Los Angeles style, she concludes.

In a plot twist worthy of a summer beach novel, as street fashion here stalls out, the state's apparel industry--with annual sales of $6 billion and counting--is booming.

Until recently aerospace/high tech was the biggest business in the state. But "while aerospace/high tech is declining, apparel manufacturing is growing," notes Jack Kyser, chief economist for California's Economic Development Corp.

Big business means jobs and money, but it also means watered-down versions of the inventive street fashions that feed it. Designers get their ideas from local sidewalks, just like everybody else. But they have to tone things down for mass-market appeal. If street style is watered down to start with, the future begins to go blank. It takes real people, pumping out new inventions, to inspire the pros.

So will they?

Probably.

What makes anyone think so?

History. It repeats itself, and California fashion has had its share of highs.

*

Once upon a time, there was an ocean. Beside it there was a state where bathing suits by Cole of California appeared in 1925 to join blue jeans by Levi Strauss, which had been around since 1850. Together, they helped identify the state's fashion priorities.

In the 1930s, California fashion was best known for swimsuits, "play wear" and movie costumes. And that's when a unique tradition began--designers crossed over from one world to the other. Among the first to take the plunge was Margit Fellegi, who went from Hollywood costumer to swimwear designer for Cole of California in 1936.

She broadened the range at Cole to include after-swim fashions. "Margit made pool and patio sun dresses women could wear anywhere," recalls Anne Cole, whose father founded the company and who still designs her own signature line for Cole.

Today, swimwear and bodywear account for 21% of California's fashion sales--the largest piece of the apparel industry pie.

The 1930s also ushered in pedal-pusher sets, shorts sets, and full cotton skirts, all born of the hot climate and casual lifestyle. The designers who created many of them, a group called the California Seven, earned a national reputation.

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