There's some thing about L.A.--maybe it's the grit of Downtown, the glamour of the Westside, or the fact that it's been days since the last major catastrophe--that is bringing the New York fashion world back to the Coast in droves.
You could witness it on a recent field trip to Downtown. L.A.-based photographer Melodie McDaniel worked the trigger of her Polaroid 600 SE like a quick-draw artist. A gaggle of models followed her as she walked backward, snapping shots on the fly down the gum-stained sidewalks of Broadway. Smells of tacos and trash filled the air. Shopkeepers in places where polyester skirts go for "$6.99!" did double takes.
Shoots like this one, for distant clients, have become a windfall for locals in the last year. "I'm bringing in New York jobs more," McDaniel says, "and I'm taking them down to these good locations."
McDaniel and other local photographers are booked. Studios are rarely empty. Stylists are at a premium. And models are in demand. But perhaps the biggest nod to L.A.'s fashionable comeback is the invasion this month of Ford Models Inc., the Royal Family of fashion.
The New York modeling agency will have a staff of 10 and a roster of talent, including Sofia Coppola, Sandra Bernhard and Steven Segal. Ford will also inherit the models of top agent Nina Blanchard, who is stepping down after 34 years in the business. (See related story, Page E3.)
"The center of the fashion world is still here," says co-president Katie Ford, on the phone from New York. "But a lot of the important work is there."
That important work includes music videos, television, movies and endorsements. "Today, models want a lot more service than bookings," Ford says. "Bookings are just the first step in the management of their career. They're looking for MTV, VH1, talk shows and, along with that, films and licensing.
"To them," she says, "it's one world."
Another major show of respect for L.A. has come from Vogue, which recently appointed Marin Hopper, formerly senior fashion editor of Elle magazine, as its special projects editor in New York. Hopper, 32, daughter of Dennis Hopper and Brooke Hayward, will use her Hollywood connections to smooth the way for Vogue to get more celebrities on the cover and in its pages.
"Vogue wants to increase its coverage of stars," Hopper says. "And readers want to see what celebrities are wearing."
Other fashion media and advertisers have also taken interest in the beaches of Santa Monica and the back lots of Hollywood. Donna Karan shot its latest print ad campaign--"DKNY Hollywood"--on the set of syndicated television show "Entertainment Tonight." Shot in black-and-white, it features '40s-inspired fashions amid director's chairs.
And one recent week saw the likes of Elle, L'Uomo Vogue (Italy's Vogue for men) and Travel & Leisure magazines conducting fashion shoots, setting up on the sand of Santa Monica and the lunchtime rush of a Downtown coffee shop. European catalogue producers are also frequent fliers to L.A.
The boom has been beneficial for people such as Jordan Kitaen and Mikel Elliott, owners of Quixote, a company that provides RVs specially equipped for fashion shoots. A Quixote camper--complete with clothing racks and makeup table--served as the dressing room for the Travel & Leisure and L'Uomo Vogue shoot. "Our business has doubled in the last year," Elliott says.
Model Tanya O., strutting for photographer McDaniel, is also stoked. "Things are good," the 21-year-old says. "L.A.'s not for models who want to relax."
Business is up by 25% over last year at Visages RPS Inc., a firm that supplies hair, wardrobe and makeup people for shoots. At Legends Inc., which routinely organizes $100,000 photo shoots, the workload has doubled over the last year. And bookings at Smashbox, a Culver City photo studio and styling firm that often hosts the industry's creative elite, are up by 50%. "It's the stylists from L.A. who are setting the trends," says co-owner Dean Factor.
In the last few years, it was the threatening climate in L.A. that turned the industry away. Recession, riots, fires, floods and a very large earthquake scared the fashion world. Miami's South Beach became New York's sunny surrogate.
"The floods, riots and fires chased them all away," says L.A.- and Paris-based photographer Phillip Dixon. "They're slowly coming back because it's the best place to shoot."
Some have also complained that Miami, warm and beautiful as it is, is too crowded, crime-ridden and rain-saturated. Some say Miami is passe. "What's happening in Miami is that in South Beach, there are 30 motor homes trying to line up on the beach," says Yasuko Austin, owner of Legends Inc.
At the same time, the Los Angeles County Entertainment Industry Affairs office has loosened up. Until last year, it required not only a $100 registration fee but also a $100 permit for each location on a shooting schedule. Modeling agent Blanchard complained that the rules, geared toward the movie industry, had sent fashion clients packing to Miami. Mindful of the millions at stake, the county Board of Supervisors responded quickly with an annual $100 permit for fashion photographers. It allows them to roam county property--including popular coastal backdrops--at will.
"They almost regulated themselves out of business," says Quixote's Kitaen of the old guidelines. "It's just as competitive as anywhere else now."
Add to that the current hipness of '40s-era Hollywood looks and the popularity of models-as-stars (Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Vendela and Tatiana are among the bigger names rumored to be in residence here). "A lot of the young celebrity types are based (in L.A.) and they almost create a movement," Ford says.
But the biggest attraction is what always brought people here--beauty. Southern California has Big Bear and the beaches, the funk of Downtown L.A., and the newly deputized hip spots of San Diego and Santa Barbara. There's less rain than Miami, less snow than New York, and more diversity than another newly popular backdrop--the Arizona desert, industry experts say.
"We recently had to produce a summer and winter ad campaign in three days," says Austin of Legends. "So we did Malibu, Santa Monica and then Big Bear for winter.
"Nowhere else in the world can you do that."