Could Los Angeles Be the Next Fashion Capital?

The past few years have seen the rise of an unlikely new fashion capital in Los Angeles. Labels like Rodarte and Band of Outsiders bucked the trend
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Hayley Phelan
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The past few years have seen the rise of an unlikely new fashion capital in Los Angeles. Labels like Rodarte and Band of Outsiders bucked the trend
Photo: Harpers Bazaar

Photo: Harpers Bazaar

The past few years have seen the rise of an unlikely new fashion capital in Los Angeles.

Labels like Rodarte and Band of Outsiders bucked the trend of going New York-centric a few years ago, their studios (and their aesthetics) firmly grounded in Cali culture. Hedi Slimane has decided to stay in Los Angeles (where he's been working as a photographer), despite the fact that his new gig is at a newly rebranded (at his impetus) Saint Laurent Paris. Even John Galliano has been spotted in LA and is rumored to be considering a move out west. And that got us thinking...Could Los Angeles be the next big fashion capital to emerge in the global scene?

After speaking with industry bigwigs and experts, one thing has become increasingly clear: The City of Angels is definitely having a "moment" in fashion right now.

"I think for so long LA was the land of t-shirts and jeans but designers like Rodarte and Band of Outsiders definitely changed that perception and it's really upped the momentum of the LA fashion scene," said Elle Creative Director Joe Zee.

"If you think about all the successful new fashion labels to come out in the past five, seven years--all the companies that were purchased--they were all California companies: Lucky, Seven for All Mankind, Vince, Juicy Couture," Ilse Metchek, Executive Director of the California Fashion Association, told me.

Metchek is also quick to point out that it's not exactly groundbreaking news that LA's fashion scene is hopping.

"I think it's worth pointing out that we already have a tremendous amount of talent here," agreed Who What Wear co-founder and editorial director (and former New Yorker) Hillary Kerr. "In addition to Hedi Slimane and John Galliano moving here—which is unquestionably exciting—we already have a number of LA-based design visionaries (like Kate and Laura Mulleavy, George Esquivel, and Tom Binns, to name a few), in addition to some of the world's most noteworthy photographers, makeup artists, stylists, and hair stylists."

It's true, L.A.'s fashion scene has been growing steadily over the past ten years, but everyone agrees it's reached a new pinnacle--particularly in the high fashion department. Now, Los Angeles fashion is about so much more than just surfer girl flip flops, and cheesy Paris Hilton-types. Though, of course, those haven't gone away entirely.

"The fashion scene is interesting because it varies so tremendously, as you'd expect with such a large, sprawling city!" Kerr said. "It includes everything from the classic, relaxed Malibu girls to the vintage mavens of Silverlake and everything in between. I think that diversity—which also certainly includes some very questionable looks too—is refreshing."

Questionable looks aside, there's no question that, thanks to designers like Rodarte, Band of Outsiders and now, Hedi Slimane and (possibly) John Galliano, as well as publications like Who What Wear, the city's fashion scene is not just about glossy celeb style anymore--it's become a destination for high-level designers and a hotbed of creativity.

Photo: Harper's Bazaar

Photo: Harper's Bazaar

So why are all these amazing designers moving there? Well, it's not just the weather.

"The LA art scene has exploded in the last few years as well [as the fashion scene], with Michael Govan leading the way there at LACMA," Zee said. "The drive to showcase something unique and out of the box is becoming more apparent all the time in all creative fields in LA."

In fact many feel that Los Angeles offers designers and artists more creative freedom precisely because it isn't the epicenter of either of those industries. Whereas in New York there is a already a cemented infrastructure and hierarchy, in a newer city like L.A., emerging and established artists alike have the chance to make it up as they go along.

"If you look at the people choosing to design in LA—Scott Sternberg, the Mulleavy sisters, Hedi Slimane—there's a reason those particular people are in California," another New York transplant, Who What Wear's Beauty Direcotr, Britt Aboutaleb said. "I can't help but think, based on their totally individual aesthetics and their personalities, that they get off on being sort of isolated. There's something very freeing about living in a city in which not everyone does what you do; I imagine it really fuels your creativity as a designer."

Indeed, Scott Sternberg once told the Wall Street Jounral, "If I was here in New York in this mix influenced by the same thing all these people are influenced by, the edge would be gone. This [L.A.] bubble is vital to being able to do something that is not informed by fashion."

Of course, it also doesn't hurt that L.A. just happens to be on top of one of the key trend-driving forces--whether designers like it or not--in fashion: Hollywood.

"The runway or the red carpet is not where you make your name anymore," Metchek said. "You make your name by having your name on the tushy of a starlet. Like it or not, what Kim Kardashian is wearing is more improtant than what's on the runway at Dior." It sounds like fashion blasphemy, but it probably is true, as much as we hate to say it, that Kim Kardashian drives more actual sales than the luxury garments on the runway. (Whether or not that makes it more important is a different debate).

Perhaps intertwined with the rise of the importance placed on celebrities' off-duty style, is the fact that global fashion is, as a whole, getting more and more casual. "When you look at what is important in fashion these days, what people are buying, it's not couture, not custom, not Yves Saint Laurent, but all of it is casual stuff," Metchek says. We see her point. Most people's wardrobes are filled with jeans and t-shirts not evening gowns and skirt suits. And of course, if you're looking for casual cool, then LA is the place to go. But it goes beyond a mere style.

"California is an item business, not a collection business," Metchek says. In other words, the fashion and retail scene in LA has always focused (and made money) on items--think denim, jersey t-shirts, cocktail dresses, etc. It's not about presenting the customer with a fully-fledged collection and brand identity. It's about filling the holes in their wardrobes. And thanks to a rise in consumerism, and the accessibility of fast fashion, that's precisely the direction the industry, as a whole, is going.

Photo: Harper's Bazaar

Photo: Harper's Bazaar

However, the biggest reason why designers are setting up shop in LA has less to do with the creative process and more to do with practicality. New York and Paris aren't exactly well known for their wide-open spaces and cheap rents. So for a designer looking to start a business--and keep costs to a minimum--the sprawling city of Los Angeles is a much more viable choice. "You can start a business here [in LA] very easily and very quickly," Metchek asserts.

Most important, however, is the proximity to apparel manufacturers and factories. Designers who are based near their manufacturers have a clear advantage--they can communicate directly with the factory supervisor and check in with product. They also save money on transporting and shipping fees as well as taxes and tariffs (in comparison to overseas manufacturers).

And in that respect, Los Angeles is a clear winner. In fact, over 33% of all US apparel manufacturing jobs are now located in LA or Orange County--more than double the amount in New York. Of that percentage, Metchek tells me, denim is the core. The ability to produce denim in a variety of washes and finishes requires massive machinery, which, in turn, requires massive work spaces. It simply wouldn't be possible to house them in the cramped city of New York.

Besides rent, the cost of labor in New York is higher too. "New York's garment workers are unionized which makes the product not competitive," Metchek says. "The New York product would wind up being a high end product, no matter what you do. Because union rules require living wage for every kind of job. [As a business owner] you couldn't do machine work [and pay] living wage. You could do minimum wage, but not living wage." In Los Angeles, the rules are different. There is no union, so manufacturers pay machine workers minimum wage, but, Metchek says that workers who produce more are rewarded with more money. "No garment is made by just one person. It's team work. So you're only producing as much as your slowest sewer and if the team produces more then they make more. It's actually a very democratic process because the team itself weeds out the slow workers."

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So, does this mean LA will eventually overtake New York as the fashion capital of America? Probably not.

For one, Metchek says that the Los Angeles garment industry's growth has been stunted in the past few years, thanks to a crack-down on illegal immigrants working in California. Metchek proposes that the government should implement laws similar to those in the fruit-picking industry, which allows migrant workers to live and work in the United States on a visa basis. "If that were to happen," Metchek says, "I would probably see 5% growth per year."

More than that, though, is that Los Angeles isn't really trying to be the next capital. They're far too cool for that. "I don't think LA will ever be a fashion capital, mostly because I think the people who work in fashion who choose to do their work here wouldn't want it to be," Aboutaleb said.

Kerr agrees. "I don't think LA will ever become the new New York, nor would I want it to! The fact that we LA residents are outsiders gives us a special perspective (and probably makes us happier)."

Asked what the difference was between the New York and LA fashion scene, Kerr responded, "Personally, I think that style is becoming more universal and less city-specific, thanks to the internet, so I'm not sure how relevant this question will be soon!"

She raises a good point. Now that designers, buyers and editors can (and do) zip around the globe with ease and anyone with an internet connection can check out what people are wearing the world-over, is the concept of fashion capitals kind of passe? "Now, in fashion, it's not just about your local market," Metchek says. "Now, we go everywhere. And the everywhere that we're going is only getting bigger. Now you're going to China, Russia, Brazil, the list goes on."

So, at the end of the day, if it no longer matters where you are--then why not be where the you want to be. And where the weather is nice. And there's a beach. "After all [those reasons], you have gorgeous sunny skies 90% of the year [in LA]," Joe Zee says. "Isn't that reason enough to want to move here?"