N.Y. designers look to L.A.


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.

A New York native, Miller is increasingly bicoastal. “I love visiting L.A., but I don’t get all the embellished denim and crazy graphics,” she says. But she says she is now selling to more stores in L.A. than in New York, in part because of boutiques here like Confederacy, Creatures of Comfort and Filth Mart. “I wish there were more stores like that in New York,” she says.

In L.A.’s moderate climate, customers embrace Miller’s casual rocker-evocative aesthetic year-round. But for some designers, survival in a new landscape requires reshuffling.

Sixteen years ago, before Gerard Maione and Seth Weisser officially founded their posh SoHo vintage mecca What Goes Around Comes Around (WGACA), they stashed vintage gems at a friend’s house in Los Angeles between regular visits to the Rose Bowl Flea Market. Even back then, they mused about eventually opening a West Coast store. So, when Urban Outfitters offered them a permanent spot at Space 15 Twenty’s complex last fall, they jumped at the chance.

“So many people are bicoastal, so we felt an L.A. presence would expand our market,” Maione says. But Southern California shopping habits have proved challenging, as has the down economy. Maione’s new contemporary line thrives here, but the high-end vintage clothing so successful in New York has been harder to move.

In an attempt to attract and make an impression on potential new customers, Maione creates elaborate displays that tell stories about the brand. “Recently, we created a turn-of-the-century saloon-meets-bordello, Victorian ‘80s punk-rock environment,” Maione says, which seemed to intrigue L.A. shoppers.

What works on this coast: less formal merchandise, such as low heels at TenOverSix, and proactive “clientelling” (informal personal shopping, regularly contacting and actively wooing regulars back to the boutique) at Foley + Corinna. Loomstate’s sustainable outdoorsy-angle works too, says Mackinlay Hahn. “We consider factors from raw materials to the waste paradigm, which is very California and definitely represents an ‘aspirational’ quality of life for a design duo from New York.”

Many fashion émigrés, including Europeans as well as New Yorkers, describe L.A. shopping impulses with terms like “casual” and “car culture,” agreeing that Southern California retail is simply a different beast.

“When I discovered L.A.’s different lifestyle and rhythm, as a Parisian, it was like discovering the South of France,” says designer Catherine Malandrino (who pioneered a Sunset shop in 2002 and recently built an elaborate 6,000-square-foot maison with café off Melrose Place). “In New York, shopping is quicker and more impulsive. In L.A., it’s about a great experience.” Malandrino compares L.A. to Cannes, because demands are equal for casual wear and couture.

Anna Corinna and Dana Foley of Foley + Corinna have also found an event niche. “This is where media photographs ‘it’ girls,” Corinna notes. When the partners opened their Melrose store in 2008 (an endeavor inexpensive enough to weather economic storms), they figured that, at the very least, it could serve as a showroom for celebrity, film and TV stylists. Their willingness to adapt has proved invaluable. “At one point,” Foley says with a laugh, “I gave my West Coast people license to shorten any of the dresses as much as they felt they needed, and they sold!”

L.A. has a long-standing reputation for bleached, implanted and botoxed blonds in bedazzled magenta tanks (Ed Hardy be damned), but an innovative new group of local designers and artists is seemingly an antidote. “The design communities in areas like Abbot Kinney and Silver Lake are pushing back against that reputation,” says Mackinlay Hahn. “People are more thoughtful about what they present, which resonates in fashion, music and art.” Designers from elsewhere visit, experience the credibility firsthand and “spread the love.”

Thus, L.A.’s style presence is felt globally. Foley raves, “L.A. is driving fashion with casualness: Boyfriend jeans and jackets to me are so L.A.” Malandrino agrees, “This cool easiness in clothes, now accepted throughout the world, started from L.A.”

Another European designer, Jérôme Dreyfuss (known for his beyond-extraordinary bags) is currently carving out his niche, planning to open his first store in February. He sees L.A. as an important future step. “The City of Angels is the town where anything is possible,” he says. “L.A. is a concentration of all fantasies.”