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Special fall fashion issue

L.A. woman

She Doesn't Follow Trends, Obey Rules or Await the Dictates of Fashion's High Priests--Creating a 'Look' All Her Own

August 17, 2003|Peter McQuaid | Peter McQuaid last wrote for the magazine about the architectural team Marmol & Radziner.

Go ahead, say the words "L.A." and "style" together without smirking just a little. The implied regionalism of the term gives the game away. It's so "Me, too!" In Milan, the term is bella figura; in Paris, it's simply "chic"; in London, it's a "look." Our sister to the East, New York, has a million hegemonic expressions for it--one "works" a fashion mood, one "serves [up]" a designer outfit, one "feels" a costumey dress. And whatever "look" is in is guaranteed to be identified, dissected and priced within 30 seconds of its presentation.

L.A. women don't go for that. Sure, they covet, but L.A. style-setters don't get as fixated about "must haves" as women in other cities. "Fashion here is digested in a totally different way," says stylist and costume designer Arianne Phillips, who dresses Madonna, contributes to Italian Vogue, Pop and Harper's Bazaar and costumed actors in films including "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," "Identity" and "Girl, Interrupted." Phillips attributes part of this digestive process to good old California culture: the beach, the mountains, the desert, the climate, the sunshine.

"There really is a casual aesthetic, and it reflects the ease--or perceived ease--of life here," Phillips says. "People aren't quite as fashion literal here. I don't know people who go out and buy, say, the new fall collection. You walk into Fred Segal or Barneys, and that approach is just not there."

L.A. women are "more likely to throw together a Birkin bag, Juicy pants and a Chanel jacket. That's what I see," says boutique owner Tracey Ross. Designer Magda Berliner, whose whimsical dresses are a favorite of fashion editors and connoisseurs, and who counts Chanel among her influences, adds, "We don't have the 'That's last year's Balenciaga' thing. Here it's 'That looks great.' People are not really hung up on what's current right now."

L.A.-born model and style icon Peggy Moffitt, who with designer Rudi Gernreich helped create some of the most enduring fashion of this epoch, says fashion "is predicated on the idea that every six months it's going to change. When you look at something, you have to ask yourself, 'Do I want that because everyone does? Or do I want that because it serves my purposes?' I think people with style might have things 30 or 40 years."

Even in conventionally luxurious Beverly Hills, where designer goods are more likely to be merchandised as "outfits" (and where, it should be noted, a large percentage of the shoppers don't live), "people notice that whole 'editor look,' " says Berliner, of the standard-issue somber wear that New York's fashion set favors. "We have fashion editors here, but they don't dress like that. And they're probably critiqued for it by their New York counterparts."

"You really have to do your own thing out here," says longtime Angeleno Lisa Eisner, who worked as an editor in the New York offices of Vogue before coming to L.A. She consulted for big-name American and European designers and then started a publishing house, Greybull Press, with business partner and fashion-industry veteran Roman Alonso. Eisner is renowned for her ability to pair seemingly disparate elements.

"A lot of it comes from feeling," she says. "It's much more about what's comfortable, and how it functions here. The environment really rules whatever city you're in [and] that's why everyone's so casual. You'd look ridiculous walking around in giant heels except at night." New York and Paris have rules, she says. "There are no rules here."

Options are like mother's milk to true Californians, regardless of whether they're native or newly rooted. People come here to make their own rules. The world watches, because, for better or worse, L.A. is the place where ideas meet the market.

"They try to dress like L.A. girls in London," reports Ross. "But they're definitely more coiffed than we are, and more colorful."

Physicality has always been part of L.A.'s fashion picture. It's where the dialogue between women's bodies and fashion finally changed. Looking back to Gernreich's most famous innovation, the topless bathing suit in 1964, it was here, in the '50s, that he began removing boning and linings from his clothes, and banned bras and girdles to create a new sense of physical freedom for women. His clothes were bold, graphic and completely unexpected to women accustomed to being trussed up like turkeys. His nudity was less lascivious than matter-of-fact. "This is a woman's body," his clothes seemed to say. "This is what they really look like."

Elsewhere in Southern California, at the time, other fashion pioneers were reinventing the basics to work for a more adventurous audience. Orange County model and TV host Marie Gray was at work on a loom in her living room, re-creating the structured, proper, ladylike suit in knit that would form the foundation of the Irvine-based St. John Knits empire.

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