Fashion Diary: It’s L.A. designers’ time to shine

In New York, Los Angeles fashion has come of age.

New York Fashion Week, which kicked off Wednesday with more than 300 fashion shows and presentations scheduled to take place in the coming days, is not just a platform for New York designers to gain media attention and retail orders. It’s a showcase for designers from all over the world — and, notably this year, Los Angeles, which now has a breadth of talent to rival any major fashion city.

Twenty years ago, Los Angeles had a reputation for producing clothing that was casual, comfortable and wearable, but not necessarily innovative or runway-worthy. Jeans, T-shirts and swimwear were the main exports, and “sunny,” “surf” and “street” the catch-word clichés used to describe them.


Then, in the early 2000s, Los Angeles started nurturing a more avant-garde set of designers, who traveled to New York Fashion Week to show their work. Designers Magda Berliner, Jared Gold and Alicia Lawhon made waves as artsy deconstructionists, repurposing vintage garments to create one-of-a-kind pieces that challenged L.A.'s identity as a capital of mass-produced sportswear, but their efforts were ultimately more artistic expression than workable business model.

Today, the hometown talent showing at New York Fashion Week is more polished. In the pantheon of American fashion, Los Angeles designers are no longer a curiosity or lumped together into one sun-and-surf soaked category. They’re celebrated and appreciated for their own distinctive points of view in the pages of Vogue magazine, on the red carpet and beyond.

There’s Barbara Tfank, whose ladylike designs and exquisite textiles have made fans of First Lady Michelle Obama and singer Adele, and Rodarte’s Kate and Laura Mulleavy, whose artisanal clothing has been exhibited in museums around the world and worn by the likes of Taylor Swift, Kirsten Dunst and the first lady.

Also showing here this week is Scott Sternberg, who is breathing new life into the preppy aesthetic with his men’s line Band of Outsiders and his women’s line Boy by Band of Outsiders. (Sternberg, a former agent with the Creative Artists Agency, has Hollywood and art world connections that run so deep he was able to persuade Oscar nominee Michelle Williams and artist Ed Ruscha to model for his spring-summer 2012 lookbooks.)

There’s also Juan Carlos Obando, whose romantic red carpet dresses, like the fluttery fuchsia silk halter dress Viola Davis wore to the recent Oscar nominees luncheon in L.A., have found favor with Hollywood.

Even Pamela Skaist-Levy and Gela Nash-Taylor, who brought the world one powerful image of L.A. fashion with the Juicy Couture velour tracksuit, have upped the fashion ante. After departing Juicy, which never showed at New York Fashion Week, they’re debuting a new collection here called Skaist-Taylor, which they describe as “California eccentric.”

“Back in the day, Rick Owens was our high-end, and Alicia Lawhon was doing recycled and rough and homespun. It was very raw,” says Kim Friday, senior fashion editor at Women’s Wear Daily, who has been covering fashion for the trade publication for 11 years (three in Los Angeles and eight in New York). “That was a moment, but now everything is much more tailored. Rachel Zoe has had a big influence on getting everyone to dress up and be glamorous.”

Zoe, the celebrity stylist who parlayed her fashion sense into a career as a reality show star, would-be media mogul and now designer, is showing her collection here too. Other L.A. names and brands on the docket include Libertine, Jenni Kayne and Jeremy Scott, who designed some of the Adidas Originals track suits and winged sneakers worn by the backup dancers during Madonna’s Super Bowl halftime show.

Retailers are turning to L.A. talent to help them raise their fashion cachet. Gregory Parkinson, who will show his flair for mixing prints and textiles in New York this week, has been tapped by Anthropologie to design a special collection that will debut at the chain in April. And QVC, the home shopping channel, is collaborating with Karen Zambos, Cynthia Vincent and Geren Ford on several pieces featured in the first QVC fashion show during New York Fashion Week.

All this success is becoming a proven path.

“Now that L.A. designers are feeling more recognized and accepted, it’s more comfortable to show here,” says Corey Lynn Calter. The designer presented her collection in New York for the first time Wednesday, after showing it on and off for years during various incarnations of L.A.'s own beleaguered fashion week, which has never managed to attract as much media or retail attention as the fashion weeks in New York, London, Milan and Paris.

Still, Calter, like others working in fashion who make their homes on the West Coast, is sensitive to being defined by geography.

“It’s true my vibe is more mellow, but I’m not a laid-back L.A. line,” says the designer, whose fall collection included tailored jackets and pants, tie-front silk blouses, sequin stripe mini-dresses and printed palazzo pants.

“It is really American designers on the runway, and void of knowing where a designer is from, I don’t think it would matter to most people,” says Steven Kolb, chief executive of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, an industry trade group.

So they’re not Los Angeles designers, they’re designers from Los Angeles. And they have arrived.