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STAGE PRESENCE

Looks That Rock

L.A.'s indie-music queens are ripping and reconstructing their way beyond fashion convention.

September 23, 2007|Emili Vesilind | Times Staff Writer

Inara GEORGE, the singer for the Los Angeles indie-pop duo the Bird and the Bee, is a clotheshorse who refuses to set foot inside a clothing store.

"It's the whole dressing room, trying-on-clothes thing," says George, a pixie-pretty 33-year-old, whose halcyon voice helped make the Bird and the Bee's debut album one of the biggest success stories in alternative music this year. A follow-up EP, "Please Clap Your Hands," comes out Tuesday.

Despite her shopping aversion, George has one of the most distinctive styles in the music world, whether she's wearing a neat, empire-waist minidress and go-go boots or a ruffle-neck column gown with Mary Janes. Her kitschy signature style, onstage and off, riffs on iconic looks from the '60s, be it Twiggy mod, Courrèges futurist or rich hippie. The look is in perfect harmony with the band's '60s-derived sound.

"The music is already really heightened" stylistically, she says, "so I knew we could get away with really fun fashion."

George is the most accomplished in a growing coterie of female musicians in Los Angeles who are forging distinct, offbeat fashion personas -- in an era when mainstream artists often look as prepackaged as they sound. Collectively, their do-it-yourself aesthetics recall the fierce individualism of rockers Janis Joplin, Grace Jones, Patti Smith and, more recently, Karen O.

But their self-styling is also part of a general resurgence in DIY fashion that bubbles up from the street, as opposed to trickling down from the runways -- a phenomenon last seen on a significant scale in 1990s New York, when the notorious club kids spent their days sewing together oddball costumes to wear each night.

Dance club culture has resurfaced in the last few years too, with Boombox in London, Check Yo' Ponytail in Los Angeles and, until recently, the Misshapes in New York. And with it has come the return of highly personalized fashion, which is globally broadcast on websites by night-crawler photographers including the Cobrasnake and Shadowscene.

The musicians in L.A.'s new guard are more interested in making music than in the local club scene, but all have fashioned a personal aesthetic that's both intrinsically linked to their music and defiant of runway trends. The majority live in Echo Park, because of its comparatively affordable rents, low-key vibe and easy access to the city's most interesting music venues, including Spaceland, the Silverlake Lounge and The Echo.

Rebecca Stark, lead singer and co-songwriter for indie-folk band Lavender Diamond, which also released its debut full-length album early this year, is almost always dressed in ladylike vintage dresses, in the vein of country legends Loretta Lynn, June Carter Cash and Patsy Cline. The nostalgic (but slightly out-there) looks jibe perfectly with Lavender Diamond's romantic, country-flecked music, which harks back to the Carpenters and Linda Ronstadt.

"I use the idea of glamour in my life and on stage because I feel fashion can really change your energy," said Stark, who collaborates with George and fellow local songstress Eleni Mandell on an acoustic side project called the Living Sisters.

George, who grew up in Topanga Canyon and is the daughter of the late Little Feat member Lowell George, says she does most of her shopping on EBay. "My favorite trick is finding something really good, then hitting the 'search similar items' key," she says. "It brings you to all these great things."

She also works with local costumer and designer Valerj Pobega, who reworks vintage pieces and creates custom dresses for onstage looks. "I got so tired trying to outfit the whole band," including three female backup singers, George says. "And I was spending so much money."

Pobega, who also designs for her own Los Angles-based label, Kg 363, approached George after a show, having been inspired by the band's music and what George was aiming for stylistically. "At the time, I was designing this really Edie Sedgwick-looking collection," Pobega says, "and I knew it would be great for Inara."

Unlike George, Stark enjoys the process of assembling her Laura Ingalls-meets-Alice in Wonderland ensembles. "Dressing up is a way to celebrate where you are and who you're with," she says. Her apparel is, on principle, exclusively vintage.

"I don't buy new clothes because I think the manufacturing industry is so bad for the world," says Stark, 30, who studied literature at Brown University. "Fashion is an energetic art," she adds. "It's a very basic kind of practical magic. When you dress, it's like you're drawing yourself."

Stark's favorite vintage haunts are in or around her neighborhood, Echo Park, and include BBC Vintage, Flounce, Bird of Paradise and the pioneering boutique, Show Pony, which sells under-the-radar designer garb and reworked, secondhand pieces.

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