Linda Wells, Allure magazine's editor in chief, has a perfectly fine wardrobe--for everywhere, that is, but the world's most enigmatic fashion zone.
"I'm completely stumped every time I go to L.A. 'Now, what do I do? I don't own any beige,' " she says. "I sometimes feel I've popped in from a different planet."
If Wells, a high-profile insider, feels alien anxiety, just imagine the average insider landing in what Michael Collins, senior vice president of the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau, chauvinistically calls "the capital of American invention."
"Whatever anyone thinks about Los Angeles fashion is true," Collins says, "because it gives real meaning to the word \o7 eclectic.\f7 One can make any comment on fashion in L.A. and probably find evidence to support it. I defy you to say that about Cleveland."
And that's the problem. Influenced by a rebellious frontier spirit, ethnic diversity, a sunny climate, a pervasive entertainment industry and the car culture, the Southern California look is all over the board: from button-down in Newport Beach's Newport Center and proper in Pasadena, to hip in Hollywood, haute in Beverly Hills, embellished in Encino and buff-beyond-belief in Malibu.
Of course, Wells has a real need to know where she stands. She comes here on business--the beauty and fashion business. So far, she has eased some of her \o7 Angst \f7 with a pantsuit by Giorgio Armani and another by Jil Sander.
She has a bit of navy now and even "one beige thing," she admits. "But I can't wear it every day. My uniform is a New York one. It's 99% black with heavy black tights, black suede high heels, black bag--and white skin. So, the times I've taken my New York wardrobe to L.A., I've felt really odd. You don't wear as much black, tights and high heels on a daily basis. I'm not talking Oscars--just going out to lunch."
New Yorkers have a problem with black in Southern California, which might surprise locals who often feel they are swimming in a sea of fashion ink. But it's just one of many perceptions and misconceptions. And it ranks right up there with the notion that this is a bad-taste land of glitz, sunglasses, stilettos, bleached blondes and incredible bodies in skimpy, inappropriate clothing.
While color sells better here than in other parts of the country, says Saks Fifth Avenue President Rose Marie Bravo, black is never far behind. Another mistake is packing too many sleeveless linen dresses, a style and fabric better left to New York and Chicago, Bravo says, "where they go through three months of a hot and humid summer."
Glitz "is definitely a misconception," she insists. "I guess it comes after seeing years of the Academy Awards. But so many people understand low-key elegance. We also find Los Angeles is one of the most fashion-forward markets. Anything new out of Europe sells best in L.A."
Sami Dinar, owner of the eponymous Beverly Hills menswear store, agrees. The Southern California look "is more daring, more creative," he says. "There is some casualness, some easiness. It's a look that's making L.A. more and more of a shopping mecca. People from Florida, New York, Chicago come here just for a day to shop and to go to a restaurant."
The unisex uniform of jeans, white shirt and blazer is a Southern California creation "that is copied all over the world," Dinar says.
But incorrectly by unsophisticated outsiders, observes Herbert Fink, owner of Theodore in Beverly Hills, who explains that the look "is more of an attitude than the clothing. Their attitude should be easy, not uptight. They try to do the same thing we do, but they don't really understand it. Rather than wear a casual pant, chances are they're wearing a suit pant with a navy jacket with perhaps a print shirt underneath.
"People think they're coming to Hawaii when they're coming to L.A. They don't understand what we're doing here. They wear their jeans incorrectly. They press them, put a crease in front."
And they probably didn't pay $200 for them, the going rate at Fred Segal on Melrose Avenue, where owner Ron Herman describes the look as "a perception of a certain Hollywood glamour combined with athletic fitness and health consciousness. It means special. It means unique; it means outgoing; it means not being a wallflower or hidden. It means looking the best you can and not blending in."
It can also mean pressure, as Nancy Miller Lewis discovered six years ago when she moved to L.A. from Cincinnati to cover fashion for the Copley newspapers. She lived in Laguna Beach, worked out of a Torrance office and covered the fashion scene all over the place.