Fashion : AN ESSAY : A Top Designer Sums Up the L.A. Look

Just two years ago, Isaac Mizrahi won a place as a bright new light in American fashion. Admirers are charmed by his sense of style that is part clean cut, part come hither and always laced with his own smart sense of humor. Among his eclectic inspirations he includes Hollywood glamour queens and California nature girls. They also supply the essential elements of what he calls the L.A. look. Mizrahi will present his fall collection at Saks, Beverly Hills, on Tuesday.

I like to think glamour was invented in Hollywood. And I don’t agree with people who equate looking glamorous with looking middle-aged. There have always been glamorous women who were quite young. Clara Bow was only 22 when she appeared in “It,” the movie that made her a screen idol. And Madonna, who is to me the essence of glamour now, is just 30 years old. I find that all glamorous women have at least one thing in common: They don’t try to be glamorous. Or at least, they don’t appear to try.

Lately I’ve been fascinated to learn that it was studio executives in the ‘20s-'40s who actually created the image of the glamorous Hollywood woman. Scott Berg writes about it in his new book, “Goldwyn: A Biography.” He describes how the image was painstakingly built. To me, the modern equivalent is the art director who builds images of elegant, contemporary women for the covers of fashion magazines.

Now, of course, there aren’t any board meetings to decide which shade of blond an actress’ eyebrows ought to be dyed. Part of me longs for those days, and those kinds of studio executives who took charge of educating the public about elegance.


It doesn’t come naturally to most people. Yet I can revel in the new breed of movie stars, whose appeal is based on their individuality, for better or worse. They make their own decisions about style-- sometimes brilliantly.

Because it is the home of Hollywood, a lot of people think Los Angeles is a glamour factory and little else. But they’re missing an aspect to the city that I particularly like. It’s a healthy, natural place where life is lived outdoors in the sun. At least, it seems that way to most New Yorkers, who are locked up in high-rise office buildings and subway cars so much of the time.

The California weather is so close to perfect that I sometimes imagine people living here don’t really need clothes at all. That would be a fashion designer’s dream, because it would leave people free to buy what they really like, based on what appeals to their senses.

From what I’ve noticed in my four or five visits, something of that free spirit actually does exist here. I see a lot of very creative dressing in California.


Not all of it works, of course. I have seen that stereotyped Los Angeles look--the bleached-blond shag haircut worn with the extravagantly beaded, far-too-tight-fitting evening dress. And I’ve seen the overly tanned complexion that looks like leather. I’m sure the women who dress that way think they look attractive. But if they asked me, I’d tell them they don’t.

The California image I admire starts with a perfect body--and there seem to be a lot of them here. I suppose it’s because so many people spend so much of their time exercising and eating properly.

An Air of Confidence

It gives them an air of confidence. As if, at any moment, they could strip away all the layers of superfluous glitz, the makeup, the restricting undergarments, the shoulder pads, and live happily ever after without any of it.


When I design a collection, I have that type of woman in mind: The one who wears little if anything underneath her clothes and who wouldn’t wear shoes at all if she could get away with it.

That freedom-loving attitude inspired a recent evening dress of mine. I made it of porous silk crepe, a very luxurious fabric. But I shaped it into the simplest, long cardigan sweater. And I sent it down the runway on a barefoot model.

All of my evening clothes are meant to be that effortless, because I like to see a woman who is going out for the night look as if she just stepped out of her boudoir. Many of my designs are actually inspired by lingerie. I realize it takes a certain confidence to wear your lingerie out to dinner. But I see an awful lot of that type of dressing in California, especially on the streets and in the nightclubs. Madonna’s always wearing her underwear as outerwear.

When I think about it, my kind of evening clothes have always had a home in Los Angeles. So much of night life here is planned around people’s fabulous houses. They entertain within those private confines, where they are free to express their personal style.


I see glamour, and I see effortless dressing here. But there is one other thing about the Los Angeles look that I find attractive. It is the way some women draw from the cultural heritage of the city and blend native fashion elements with the new.

Historically, what made a woman chic was her ability to mix fashion elements from many sources. I am delighted to see a blend of modern clothing with ancient Mexican or American Indian classics.

I think of Millicent Rogers in Taos, N.M., the late art patron who collected Navajo silver jewelry and wore it with her big, white shirts and long, sweeping skirts.

And I think of my Los Angeles friend, Lisa Eisner, who works for Vogue magazine. Her dress style is inspired by the great women of Santa Fe and Mexico.


Lisa is currently passing through an extreme Frida Kahlo period. Kahlo was a Mexican painter with the most incredible style.

In her honor, Lisa wears jeans, a white shirt, braided hair and mountains of Navajo jewelry. With the most elegant evening dress she will mix an authentic Mexican jacket cut like a bolero and richly embroidered with silk floss.

Her look draws directly from the cultural roots of Southern California. I’d like to see more women integrate the local heritage into their personal style.

I find that juxtaposing genuine, historical elements in an unexpected way is far more interesting than anything prepackaged. I feel that way about fashion and about other aspects of style. There is nothing less appetizing than a stuffy meal pre-planned by some pretentious chef in some trendy restaurant.


The common denominator in all of modern style is this: It must represent individuality.