A field guide to L.A. preppies
It’s all but official: Preppy is back. But can Los Angeles — the laid-back land of mañana and margaritas, ever rise to the level of a prep paradise? It may surprise you, but it already has.
You wouldn’t know it from the definitive text on the topic. When “The Official Preppy Handbook” was published in 1980, it didn’t just give the West Coast the short end of the lacrosse stick, it practically smacked the City of Angels upside the head with the milky white sole of a Sperry Top-Sider. The few references to L.A. were more like admonitions. As a ski area, Mammoth Mountain was maligned for being “too close to L.A.,” and the chapter on vacations deemed Los Angeles “strictly slumming material.”
FOR THE RECORD:
L.A. preppies: An April 25 article about the preppy lifestyle in Los Angeles misidentified the Larchmont Boulevard store selling holiday cards and personalized stationery as Landis General Store. It is Landis Gifts and Stationery. —
Which was understandable given what passed for preppy at the time: an insular WASP tribe clustered around New England, with wardrobe and social habits bizarre enough to warrant the satirical field guide that sprang from the minds of the handbook’s Lisa Birnbach and co-authors John Roberts, Carol McD. Wallace and Mason Wiley.
Now with Birnbach soon to publish a sequel, we must recognize that the prep diaspora has continued unabated, and today the full trappings of a prep-centric lifestyle are just as likely to be found on Catalina as on the Cape, and the prototypical prep might just as easily hail from Manhattan Beach as Manhattan.
To that end, we’ve compiled a shortlist of L.A. locales and labels that today’s Binks, Bunnys, Bitsys and Biffs might find worthy of a soft, well-mannered golf clap.
Though Pasadena, San Marino, Palm Springs and La Jolla are well-entrenched prep-appropriate suburbs (and noted as such in the original book), Los Angeles proper also has places where the North American preppy species can be spotted basking in its natural habitat.
The largest cluster can be found around Hancock Park and Larchmont Village — within easy putting distance of the Wilshire Country Club and the Los Angeles Tennis Club (which tend to attract the socially starved flock like dehydrated gazelles to a desert oasis). It’s an area where even the street names seem to come with a historical back story (see Irving, Plymouth and Windsor, et al).
The alpha preps — especially the female of the species — can often be spied around the holidays congregating at Landis General Store on Larchmont Boulevard, where they order personalized holiday and thank you cards.
East Coast boarding schools like Deerfield and Phillips Exeter get all the glory, but if you’re not ready to pack your preppy spawn three time zones away, the co-ed college prep Harvard-Westlake School in Studio City is among the top options, with a history that stretches back more than a century.
Until 1989 it was two schools: Harvard School, which opened its doors in 1900 in a former barley field at the corner of Western Avenue and Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles (with permission to use the name granted by the then-president of Harvard University) and the Westlake School for Girls, which opened at 6th and Alvarado streets four years later. With alumni that include H.R. Haldeman, Candice Bergen and astronaut Sally Ride, what more proof of prep do you need?
Los Angeles may not be the birthplace of the prep aesthetic, but designers and labels based here have managed to give it a unique twist. The standard-bearer of the nouveau prep movement is Scott Sternberg, a former CAA agent who launched his Band of Outsiders label here in 2004 with a handful of skinny ties and has gone on to outfit an entire prep world for men — and women — with updated takes on the classic components; madras shirts are dip-dyed sky blue, pencil skirts are patchworked from suspenders, oxford shirts are slimmed down and graced with shrunken collars and tailored trousers are crafted from terry cloth corduroy.
And that’s even before taking into account Sternberg’s ongoing collaboration with Sperry, which over the last six seasons has managed to turn the iconic Top-Sider boat shoe literally inside out (tags and all) as well as render it in green cotton faille, vulcanized rubber and gray flannel.
CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund-winning Trovata — a label based in a converted Newport Beach boathouse — makes the preppy DNA its own by melding it with a West Coast surf/sand sensibility, including sun-bleached nautical stripes, bold black-and-white gingham, waxed cotton jackets, corduroy shirtdresses and washed-down polos.
Southern California boasts a trust-fund-busting assortment of retailers of the WASP-adjacent wardrobe, with the Ralph Lauren and Brooks Brothers flagship stores on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills capable of emptying that pink-and-green grosgrain wallet on their own, though the “trads and dads” would also do well to check out Carroll & Co. around the corner on Canon Drive, which has been outfitting men for 60 years.
Also in its sixth decade, but a bit more off the beaten path is a pocket of prepdom known as the Brentwood Country Mart, a faux red barn façade housing a collection of high-end shops such as Apartment Number 9 (which stocks men’s brands like the aforementioned Band of Outsiders, Jack Spade, Steven Alan and Billy Reid), British women’s label Jigsaw and an upscale kids clothing boutique called Poppy.
For the women and children only, the J. Crew-at-the-Beach store at the Malibu Lumber Yard stocks the retailer’s resort wear offerings, alongside Globetrotter luggage and other company collaborations.
Though tennis and squash are dear to most preppies with a pulse, the heartiest among them feel truly alive only while rowing crew. Thanks to the Los Angeles Rowing Club — based at Mother’s Beach in Marina del Rey — you can get your feet wet even if you don’t know the Head of the Charles from a head of cabbage. The group offers occasional weekend classes in sweep rowing, which start out on dry land with rowing machines (known as ergometers), and include lessons on lingo and technique before taking the plunge and navigating the nearby waterways. (The next round of classes is slated for September with registration in mid- to late August at the LARC website.)
Named after political cartoon character Brother Jonathan (an early precursor to Uncle Sam), the private Jonathan Club is notorious for being — until recently — an exclusive bastion of white male privilege and prestige. Founded in downtown L.A. in 1895, it has two locations, one on Figueroa Street and the other taking up a pristine swath of Santa Monica’s beachfront real estate. The result is a West Coast preppy perch that offers members Manhattan and Martha’s Vineyard, connected by a stretch of L.A. freeway.
Southern California’s eating and drinking establishments are predominantly prep-friendly, but the Ivy restaurant on Robertson Boulevard (and its Santa Monica counterpart Ivy at the Shore) take it to the level of full immersion, thanks to a New England-worthy brick façade, white picket fence perimeter and a pink shirt- and floral tie-adorned wait staff that could be straight out of the Lilly Pulitzer catalog.
If you end up at the Robertson eatery and want to shop after dessert, Tory Burch is just a key-fob-throw away. Her neo-prep wares will be included in the Birnbach sequel, and her boutique is full of appropriately patterned pieces.
We’re not sure “preppy” and “pop-up” belong in the same sentence, but if they do, what better motivation than a monogram? K. Cooper Ray, the man behind the Social Primer manners and style blog, occasionally sets up shop inside Alpha Gear for Gents in West Hollywood, (he’s currently holding court in a corner of the store through Father’s Day) where he’ll take orders to put initials on a wide range of things, including cotton web belts, drink coasters, playing cards and — la piece de la prep resistance — plastic “to go” cups.
An infinitely more stylish vessel than the red Solo cup commonly found at keg parties from coast to coast, it’s exactly the kind of cup to raise at the high-summer clam bake to toast the preppy resurgence and L.A.'s place at the party.