Whenever I think of Los Angeles and fashion, a scene from Annie Hall springs to mind. Annie and Alvy are at a party at Paul Simon’s cocaine-hued bungalow (Simon plays a sleazebag record producer), a young, gum-chewing Jeff Goldblum is on the phone frantically talking to his guru and everybody is wearing the hell out of high-waisted white pants.
Today, as I wander around the city’s Silverlake neighbourhood, I feel I might be in Annie Hall’s Los Angeles. Here, bougainvillea swathes hillsides and avocado-toast-fed locals, with their beards and high-waisted jeans, all look like millennial versions of Alvy’s best friend, played by actor Tony Roberts.
I’m on my way to meet designer Clare Vivier at her company’s headquarters in L.A’.s Frogtown, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it riverside neighbourhood surrounded by citrus tree-scented bike paths, the kind of artist lofts destined for features in Dwell, an outpost of New York’s La Colombe coffee, where regulars nurse nitro cold brew spiked with oat milk. Vivier, who debuted her handbag collection 10 years ago with a vegetable-tanned leather tote called La Tropezienne, is among an ever-growing community of local designers propelling the city’s fashion renaissance and exalting it to fashion-capital status. The company now has seven stores, employs about 55 people, counts Christy Turlington, Rashida Jones and Keri Russell as devotees and continues to seduce with an eminently charming menage of French refinement and California cool.
Vivier’s handbags and apparel – all fresh enough to inspire envy in a Breton stripe – channel a utopian version of Paris without the grisaille. The company, much like the L.A. fashion scene in general, is enjoying its moment in the sun. “Cities have ebbs and flows. And now L.A. is having a really beautiful burgeoning moment,” says Vivier, who speaks with a disarming softness. “The Annie Hall period was a really cool time to be in L.A. And today, Los Angeles fashion hearkens back to that seventies glamour. There’s a simplicity, an earthiness and an appreciation of natural materials.”
If the 1970s was a golden age, the city’s fashion scene took an unfortunate turn in subsequent decades when L.A. “style” became associated with trucker hats, Ugg boots and Juicy Couture velour tracksuits. Now, there’s a buoyancy and an easeful elegance defining the city’s most beloved labels, change Vivier chalks up to something of a creative migration. “An easy thing to point out is that a lot of people from New York are moving to Los Angeles,” she says. Designers such as Marysia Reeves, whose scalloped-edged bathers are the maillots of the moment, have moved from Manhattan to Venice Beach, and even cultish indie boutiques are also looking west. Bird, which operates four locations in Brooklyn, opened a 5,000-square-foot space in Los Angeles county’s Culver City last year. New York brand Apiece Apart just opened its second shop on Venice’s Lincoln Boulevard.
But Los Angelenos have more than New Yorkers to thank for the city’s sartorial rehab and rebirth – it’s largely due to a new generation of designers committed to local production and craftsmanship and taking a grassroots approach to brand-building.
Vivier, who is originally from St. Paul, Minn., arrived in Los Angeles in 2001 with her husband, Thierry Vivier. “I think what’s interesting about L.A. is that artists are always the first people to go into uncharted territory and it’s usually about space. L.A. has space and light – two things the design world wants.” In the same way that Matisse sojourned to Morocco and architect Frank Lloyd Wright settled in Arizona, designers are adopting Los Angeles as their blue-skied atelier because there is, literally, room to be creative and grow.
“Being in Los Angeles is more about what you’re not inspired by,” says Justin Kern, who co-helms luxury brand Co with his wife, Stephanie Danan. The couple started the company in 2011 after years of working in the film industry (she was a producer; he was a screenwriter), and their signature 1940s-inspired, waist-whittling, full-skirted silhouettes are long on golden-age Hollywood glamour. The alienating sprawl of L.A., Kern suggests, is both artistic and psychological boon, affording them the freedom from creative comparison. “What’s so great about this scene is that nobody is doing the same thing as anyone else and that’s very specific to Los Angeles. You can self-seclude yourself in the world you want to create without overlapping with anyone,” Kern says.
“There’s more room for individuality, here,” Danan says. “We design in our own little bubble.” That bubble is an industrial loft downtown. It’s surrounded by gardens lush with silvery olive trees and a forest of bamboo. A resident cat, Lala, reclines in sunlit grasses greener than Vivien Leigh’s drapery dress in Gone with the Wind. It’s all a bit preposterously idyllic to the point that I occasionally have trouble hearing Danan and Kern speak over the symphony of birds chirping.
“There is space here, and also space for a lot of different points of view,” says Emily Current, who creates the ready-to-wear line The Great with Meritt Elliott. When I meet them at a café in Beverly Hills, the duo explain that the paradox of L.A.’s vastness, in fashion at least, is that it nourishes a real camaraderie among designers.
Current and Elliott are best friends who met at as students at UCLA. Both from Northern California, they grew up reading the Boxcar Children’s series and shopping for work boots and Levis 501s at the local tractor supply stores. “We are West Coast people, but our aesthetic doesn’t reference beach culture. It’s about looking towards the mountains, the big pastures,” Elliott says. “We grew up with all of that outside our windows.”
The Great’s clothes – gauzy, embroidered and meant for gamboling through poppy-flecked meadows under denim blue skies – conjure a certain Gold Rush-chic. Their nostalgic, barn-to-Barney’s designs are almost entirely handmade, garment-died or knit in Los Angeles, and keeping production local keeps them close to the city’s fashion community. “It’s not a competitive landscape here,” Current says. “We talk to each other and support each other. Things are working in a softer easier way.”
After a few days, it’s time for me to return to my own bubble. But, spoiled with space and sunshine, I’m reluctant. Maybe I need to call my guru.