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The Globe and Mail

Dressed up but laid back: How I mastered West Coast style

Christine Rösch/The Globe and Mail

Last spring, I headed to Los Angeles from Toronto to take a job at an accessories company. It was as generally nerve-racking as moving across the continent can be, but I was most apprehensive about ditching my cashmere sweaters and starched shirts for a more casual wardrobe.

Although my job required me to interact with corporate executives on a daily basis, I would be working out of Venice Beach, an area where young professionals such as myself wear flip-flops and board shorts to the office after catching a morning wave.

On my first night in L. A., a friend invited me to a party at The Standard hotel in Hollywood. Thinking I should loosen up my look a bit, I showed up wearing a black Joe Fresh V-neck sweater, black APC jeans and Tod's loafers. Within seconds of seeing the neon and chino-wearing crowd, it was clear that I wasn't wearing nearly enough colour – and that I was still way overdressed.

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West Coast style is a perplexing concept for someone who's used to operating in the more buttoned-up east. Whereas the go-to look for fashion-conscious guys in places like New York and Montreal now leans heavily on a preppy combination of sharp suiting, oxford shirts, brogues and collegiate ties, the nonchalant mix of clothing and accessories sported in California rarely boils down to a uniform.

Seeking to fit into the laid-back vibe of L. A., I began to shed the layers of cardigans and shirts I had brought with me in favour of a more relaxed look. I started googling One Direction and Joe Jonas for outfit inspiration. In the same way that aging actresses in Hollywood use Botox to reclaim their youth, I suddenly found myself wearing graphic tees and distressed denim, thinking the key to mastering the look was a more juvenile approach.

The first time I went shopping in Santa Monica, I came back with a pair of grey slub sweatpants from Club Monaco and blue sneakers from Vans. Eager to show off my new purchases, I threw on a denim jacket and wore the dressed-down getup to work the next day. My boss immediately pulled me aside and scolded me for dressing too casually.

I was perplexed. Where exactly was the line between too casual and just casual enough? The answer started to become clearer when I ventured out to the gritty neighbourhood of Echo Park one night to see rapper Iggy Azalea perform at the Echoplex.

The audience was a mix of young hipsters and club kids, interspersed with nerdish, music journalist types and Lauren Conrad look-alikes.

Though there was definitely a preference for cut-up denim and printed shirts in the crowd, what stood out most was an overall sense of personal style that suggested everyone was dressing for themselves rather than for their friends or the occasion. They looked casual, sure, but what's most alluring about the West Coast wardrobe turns out to be its air of independence. The key to finding my own take was going to be seeking a happy medium between my closets past and present.

My new wardrobe now looks a lot like what I wore in Toronto. Taking cues from guys like Adam Levine and Justin Timberlake, the layering is back, though I've swapped my sweaters for sweatshirts and the cashmere for camouflage prints. T-shirts fit a little looser, and the jeans are rolled up a few extra times.

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The boots and dress shoes that carried me through all four seasons back home have been replaced by a great pair of huaraches, woven-leather sandals that are L. A.' s answer to dock shoes. I've gotten to know local designers as well, wearing selvage jeans from The Stronghold and shirts from Hotel 1171. And for nostalgia's sake – and because L. A. is colder than I expected – the Beaver Canoe hoodie I brought down from Canada is now always folded up on the back seat of my car, ready for those chilly nights when I need an extra layer.

When we got a sudden burst of cooler weather the other week, I threw on a Patrik Ervell army jacket, red sweatshirt from J. Crew and Clarks desert boots to meet up with an old high-school friend at Intelligentsia Coffee. We got to reminiscing about hanging out at the Eaton Centre. As we huddled in the booth, cold hands wrapped around our lattes, we could have easily been back home in Toronto – except that the beach was only a five-minute walk away and we both obviously worried a little less about what we were wearing.

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