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N.Y. designers look to L.A.

More New York City designers are drawn to Los Angeles for the creativity and freedom the city offers.

November 22, 2009|By Nora Zelevansky >>>
  • N.Y. looks to L.A.
N.Y. looks to L.A. (Daniel Krall / For the Times )

In Henri Bendel's new accessory collection, the pièce de résistance is a travel tote dubbed disturbed stripe. The name could be a metaphor for the iconic New York store's recent campaign to increase relevance through reinvention. Accented with snakeskin-embossed Italian leather, the "disturbed" pattern shatters Bendel's familiar brown stripes (seen on hatboxes and shopping bags) like so many Humpty Dumptys and then fits the pieces haphazardly back together again.

Traditionalists may view "corrupting" this classic as blasphemy akin to adorning Tiffany's eggshell blue with pink polka dots. But haywire stripes are just the beginning, in this change-filled era, when evolution is essential to survival. Blair Waldorfs of the world, hold on to your headbands: Shoppers can now peruse Bendel's collections far from the Manhattan mother ship, at signature accessory and gift locations at carefully selected spots around the country, including shops that opened this month at the Beverly Center and South Coast Plaza.

Bendel's cross-country move is made in good company, as Los Angeles is an increasingly important artistic outlet for New York's fashion world, from boutique designers to established houses. The city serves as a kind of Petri dish-meets-escape, where experimentation thrives sans Big Apple intensity (with lower expenses, fewer watchful eyes, mild winter weather, larger spaces).

"Wherever the focus is for fashion, you have to look to the left to find the creativity," notes Dana Foley of the New York City-based line Foley + Corinna. "When less people are looking, designers feel more comfortable experimenting. New York isn't conservative, but it's more rigid." With the promise of creative freedom and fresh audiences, East Coast designers have been mimicking pioneers of California's past, heading west in search of gold.

Kristen Lee's chic L.A. accessory shop TenOverSix -- housed in quaint red brick on Beverly Boulevard -- would have remained a financial pipe dream in New York, a sad thought for anyone who has covetously perused the vibrant bag and shoe walls. Lee, who also designs an eponymous private shoe label, moved her operation to L.A. three years ago. Then, in August 2008, she and two partners opened TenOverSix, pulling in designers from Brooklyn, Manhattan, Stockholm, London, Paris and L.A. (Scout, Society for Rational Dress, Band of Outsiders). "I thought I'd move right back to New York," she says with a sigh. "But I love it here."

Running her own store invaluably informs Lee's designs, since she can observe customers in action, and makes her an ideal California liaison for a "continual flow" of New York artist pals. TenOverSix permanently hosts a West Coast annex to Brooklyn's the Future Perfect in a pop-up room at the front of the store. It also facilitates sales for Brooklyn lighting designer Lindsey Adelman.

For Lee, L.A.'s creative appeal is obvious: "New York has so much pressure, expense and difficulty. Lack of intensity actually helps unleash creativity here. There's more space for trying exciting things. It's just not as serious."

New York's significant and cutthroat fashion milieu can be at once inspirational and constricting, so L.A. becomes a place to bask not only by palm tree-lined swimming pools but also in the freedom of self-expression and more anonymous dabbling. "L.A. is a bit of a clean slate," muses ROGAN and Loomstate co-founder Scott Mackinlay Hahn, who collaborated with Apartment 9 on temporary pop-ups for both lines. "It's not necessarily forgiving from a business perspective, but there's a liberty of personal expression and individuality, which might tie back to the original culture of being a pioneer that's in California's DNA."

Newcomers introduce themselves via carefully curated stores-within-stores, bolstered by the host boutique's established audience. "Our pop-ups communicate our aesthetic and bring the brand to life in a way that doesn't happen when serving your wholesale market," Mackinlay Hahn says. "Migrating designers are all about creating spaces that appeal to existing customers and also opening new eyes."

Space 15 Twenty, sponsored by Urban Outfitters, opened in November 2008 with the specific intention of collaborating and giving new designers temporary areas to call their own. They chose Hollywood for the destination complex (à la Fred Segal), but featured designers have been mostly New York-based, including Samantha Pleet, Mary Ping and, recently, Sophomore's Chrissie Miller.

Miller's shop displayed her Scorpio Rising Urban line, Sophomore signatures such as lace-up leather shorts and skirts and burgeoning New York City creative endeavors, including shoe line Madison Harding, the Virgins CDs and books by her artist boyfriend Leo Fitzpatrick.

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