Walking into Pleasure Swell--the trendy shop at the quirky end of La Brea Avenue--feels a lot like crashing Marcia Brady's wardrobe trailer. Browsing the sharkskin acetates and plastic accessories, you half expect to see the entire gang from "Welcome Back, Kotter" emerge from the dressing room. If Huggy Bear had to go undercover as a pimp, this is where he'd shop for his disguise.
Most of us who lived through the '70s the first time around seem determined not to be doomed to repeat it, but fashion designer Joel Fitzpatrick, Pleasure Swell's 30-year-old owner, uses the "era," if one must deem it such, as the inspiration for what he calls the "Kitsch Americana" wardrobe he peddles to L.A.'s young and relentless. "Just because somebody is growing older doesn't mean that they have become a yuppie," he asserts. "People come to my store and buy my clothing line because they're looking for unique and original designs, and things with a sense of humor."
That's one way to look at it. Another is to grab the Gen-X'ers reviving these horrific styles and shake them till their puka shells fly off. Most of the merchandise hanging from Pleasure Swell's rolling industrial racks looks more like the stuff you had to clean out of your uncle's closet after he died, politely declining your aunt's offer to "take whatever you'd like." It's Chess King meets the Salvation Army, only now at new and improved designer prices (at the high end, $145 for splayed-collared shirts that sold for $12 in their original egregious incarnations).
In the ultra-cool world that is Pleasure Swell, double-bubble sunglasses are hiply arranged on locked plastic-domed cake pedestals. Low-slung inflatable furniture is scattered about as both function and ornament, daring the spry to sample its awkward see-through comfort. Fashion labels such as Nappy Jack, Purrr, Cake, WYT, and Kost-um vie for display space. And, most significantly, a flock of shoes seemingly representing every color in the Crayola box perches like tropical birds on blocks of wood jutting randomly from the walls.
The shoes have proven the key element in Fitzpatrick's success, the revived and reinvented fad that's put him firmly on the fashion map. They are the signature item of that sad-eyed basset hound prevalent in the '60s and '70s: Hush Puppies, somehow deemed groovy all over again. "I called Hush Puppies," Fitzpatrick says, "and they said they wanted to remake their old classics and bring them up to the '90s, and they told me they could make them for me in any color I wanted." (Kitschy colors notwithstanding, at $70 to $80 a pair, these are not your father's leisure shoes.)
Fitzpatrick bet everything he had on a potential Hush Puppies revival, putting his design career aside and trusting his gambler's gut that when reintroduced in a rainbow of flavors, the shoes would be "the next thing." It paid off. Despite the mountain of shoe boxes stacked behind the boutique, Fitzpatrick declares, "We still can't keep enough Hush Puppies in stock. It becomes an obsession for people to have every color Hush Puppy."
Fitzpatrick freely admits he's had no formal training in fashion design. "I was a sculpture and lighting design major at Bennington, and I went to CalArts for my master's degree in lighting design. The next thing you know, I'd printed 10,000 anti-George Bush T-shirts in my backyard, which financed the 20,000 anti-Bush bumper stickers that we put on stop signs across the country." He started Pleasure Swell with $90 and a road trip to Las Vegas, which won him his first and last month's rent. "Gambling and retailing and designing are all very similar," Fitzpatrick notes.
But what about JWB--Just Wear Black--the hard-and-fast dictate of Los Angeles fashion reality? "People always think of California fashion as being so young and hip and colorful," he muses, "but for years California design has been more of an export. In Los Angeles, people were so into neutrals and black that until now I exported more of my clothing than I actually sold in California to New York and across the Midwest." Fitzpatrick recently returned from a business trip to Michigan, where he was "designing new trends for the next generation." Well, Michigan. That explains it.
Although Fitzpatrick claims an 18-to-40-year-old clientele, the only contemporaries in my mid-30s age group who still dress that way are the nerds who never got over it in the first place. But you know how it is with kids today. And what, after all, is more comical than some skinny waif in a "Rhoda"-inspired head scarf teetering across an intersection on 6-inch platform shoes? The punch line, of course, is kids are only now discovering "The Partridge Family" and "The Sonny and Cher Show," and deciding Bob Mackie is really worth reviving. All they need now is a parti-colored bus, and they can drive to nirvana in polyester style.