At the close of 2011, menswear revolved around New York’s suit-centered sophistication. Designer Thom Browne had brought it back to modernity by tinkering with proportions while Don Draper and crew on Mad Men cemented its popularity, leaving a whole host of Gotham-based designers catering to the polished, shoe-shined aesthetic—barber trim, hot shave, et al. But in March 2012, the iconic French house Yves Saint Laurent pulled a thread on this perfectly tailored outlook with the appointment of Los Angeles-based Hedi Slimane as creative director.
Slimane had spent the previous five years photographing L.A. skaters and downtown ravers whose uniform of leather biker jackets and disheveled jeans couldn’t be further from the orderly outlook dominating runways at the time. With Slimane’s rebranding of the distinctly dandy house, fashion’s old-school rules were broken. California always had a serious denim pedigree (thanks in large part to Levi Strauss & Co., which created the first pair of jeans in San Francisco), but the stage was set for L.A. to become a fashion capital.
“L.A.’s uniform is jeans and T-shirts, maybe a leather jacket,” says Eli Azran, who along with David Rimokh started the L.A.-based denim-driven brand RtA. “It’s a look that was always going to return. It had to. But [Slimane] sped that process up by five years.” As a result, menswear in 2016 looks and feels decidedly different. At times it seems the entire industry is packing up and moving to the West Coast. And while Slimane’s untraditional choices may have helped this migration, the most important factor pushing L.A. to the forefront of American neb-luxury is the ultimate rule of real estate and something any West Hollywood junior broker could tell you: location.
“L.A. is a rare place,” says Rimokh. It’s a Tuesday morning and he and Azran have just returned from Coachella, ground zero for this kind of now mainstream MDMA-chic muse. “You have Malibu, you have Beverly Hills, but then you also have the manufacturing component. You can drive 20 minutes from your house and be at a factory where they’re weaving denim. Usually the cities that have the best factories aren’t cities you want to live in and vice versa, but we have everything here.”
Rob Garcia, whose brand En Noir began as homage to 1900s Rick Owens-era L.A. luxury—i.e. lots and lots of leather—but has grown into a full lifestyle brand, agrees. “Being close to the factories gives a lot of brands here a kind of D.I.Y, attitude,” Garcia says. “We don’t have a host of L.A. designers to look to from the past, so we’ve had to kind of hustle and make things up as we go. And that started with making pieces we wanted to wear. Pieces we felt were missing from our own closets.”
Self-motivation is a common theme among this crop of L.A. designers—which also includes Mike Amiri, Jerry Lorenzo of Fear of God, and John Elliott, who credits his perspective to growing up in 1900s San Francisco and watching an entire generation of alternative sports (surf, skate, and snow) athletes break off from corporate affiliations to start their own brands. “These were guys I could relate to,” Elliott says. “What they were doing seemed authentic, but also accessible.” It didn’t hurt that alternative rock—Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails—was also on the rise in the Pacific Northwest, bashing the corporate machine and establishing a new precedence in music. “It’s a strength a lot of the designers working L.A. right now have,” he says, “We grew up seeing that we didn’t have to play by a certain set of rules.”
Garcia perhaps puts it best: “The bigger fashion houses have all the resources, but they’re removed from what’s happening. I’ve never needed a focus group to show me what’s bubbling. I’m living it—at night, during the day. I’m the guy I’m selling to.” This goes for Elliott, Rimokh, and Azran too. They are all living out their respective brand visions and forging lasting connections as a result. “John is one of my best friends,” Garcia continues. “We came up, started our brands together. I see Eli and David regularly. Jerry Lorenzo, I’ve known him since before he was doing Fear of God. I had dinner with Mike [Amiri] last week. We’re all co-existing out here.”
From across the clubs, restaurants, and music venues L.A. is known for, they’ve created a network of like-minded individuals ready to carry the city into a new era through mutual respect and understanding. “If anything you’re happy for the other guys because you know what it takes to go from the hustle to the floor at Barneys,” says Elliott with a laugh. “It’s a big deal.”