An Underdog Fashion City, Los Angeles Is More Stylish Than You Think
An Underdog Fashion City, Los Angeles Is More Stylish Than You Think
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An Underdog Fashion City, Los Angeles Is More Stylish Than You Think

For decades, New York City has sustained itself as America’s fashion nucleus. From the schools (Parsons, FIT) to the PR powerhouses (Karla Otto, KCD) and the European brand outposts (Balenciaga, Saint Laurent, Burberry, to name a few), the city houses a complex network of editors, designers, brands, and the PR managers that build them up. But like most things, fashion isn’t stagnant. The arrival of COVID, a racial reckoning, and bankruptcies of long-standing labels are just a few of the recent events that have completely transformed the status quo. New ways to reach consumers and shifting tastes have also upended the steeped traditions of the current ecosystem. Twenty-twenty taught us that creativity can flourish anywhere, even beyond the four walls of a splashy Madison Avenue building or a warehouse loft in Brooklyn.   

For many, Los Angeles has been the alternative. With unfettered access to the blue waves of the Pacific Ocean and a laid-back way of doing things, the appeal of L.A. is not hard to understand. But despite its proximity to the armored glamour of Hollywood, the perception of L.A. as a second-rate fashion city has been difficult to shake. In the eyes of the movers and shakers, it’s the younger, less self-assured sibling struggling to catch up with the older kids of New York, Paris, Milan, and London. 

A bit of promise peaked in 2017, the year Rachel Comey, Tommy Hilfiger, Dior, and Vetements decided to host major presentations and activations on the West Coast. And when Tom Ford ditched New York in favor of the celebrity red carpet connections of L.A. in 2020, the city seemed poised to enter the proverbial fashion ring as a real contender. But by the next season, the traction ground to a halt. It wasn’t just L.A. trying to find its footing; it was the entire fashion industry. A yearlong absence of in-person runway shows posed the question of whether we need them at all: the ostentatious (and often wasteful) sets and bloated front rows, all in pursuit of a quick viral moment, are just a few of the complaints critics lodge about the traditional format.

 

Photo:

Jacqueline Lee for Who What Wear

With fashion’s modus operandi crumbling in real-time, the need for designers to stay within New York’s nexus of fashion insiders slowly evaporated. For creatives, Los Angeles has become a destination to flex their imaginations without the pressures and expectations that come with the regimented rules of New York. Designer James Flemons is one of them. He spent a year in New York picking up experience as a designer but ultimately decided to pack it up and move back to where he felt most comfortable: his native Los Angeles. “After working at Marc Jacobs and realizing that they were not going to give me a job on the design team, I was like, let me go back to L.A. and just focus my energy on bettering my craft,” he says. 

Designing clothes has always been what he does best—he’s been making his own creations since grade school—and that was always the plan, but it didn’t quite pan out the way he envisioned it. “I had every intention to work for someone else as kind of an assistant designer and to learn the ins and outs with someone else and make errors on someone else’s dime,” he says. “But that just wasn’t my reality. I’ve been working [as a designer] as early as I can remember, but I guess the transition from ‘I’m going to do this for someone else’ to ‘I can do this on my own was probably during my last year living in New York. I became friends with the leather designer Zana Bayne, who I met through mutual friends in New York and said something really special to me: ‘It feels so good to just really go out there and do it on your own and [do] it for yourself.’ That was kind of my thought process coming back to Los Angeles.”

For Flemons, regrouping in L.A. included a stint working at purveyor of cool and downtown darling Opening Ceremony and dabbling in anything creative he could. But when the boutique outsourced his position and laid him off, it was an inflection point in his career. The designer seized the moment to pivot toward establishing his own brand, Phlemuns, full-time.

 

A self-professed child of the internet, Flemons leveraged his connections and internet prowess to fortify his community. “Networking at Opening Ceremony was a big pivotal component of my brand and business. My brand identity today comes from the people I met and got access to,” he says. At the intersection of community, inclusivity, and downtown cool, Flemons himself has always been ahead of the curve, a trait he carried through to his clothing by, for example, adding flesh-baring cutouts and focusing on gender-inclusivity more than five years ago—before everyone else started scrambling to do the same in 2021. Much of what he does now hinges on his own inspirations and interests rather than outside forces. (Although, he cites Aretha Franklin as a current influence.) Phlemuns may feel right in line with the current aesthetic, but it’s always pushed the needle beyond the hive mind of the industry. 

Building a label from scratch outside of New York is slow, but Flemons is fully aware it’s not a rocket launch to CFDA Awards, grandiose runway shows, and mass-market deals. He plots his path step by step, relishing and appreciating the process along the way. “I got to a point many years ago, where I was like, I’m just going to let go of the wheel, and I’m just gonna ride it out and follow the wave of natural progression and growth. Sometimes I feel like it’s great to have a plan, but other times it can be so restricting or damaging to you and your trajectory as a person or to your hopes and dreams,” he says.

 

Photo:

Jacqueline Lee for Who What Wear

Flemons also represents the salient struggles and successes that come from being a self-funded designer. Unlike the influx of vanity fashion labels that crash-land on the scene, Flemons couldn’t rely on generational wealth to supply a workforce and churn out expansive collections in the beginning. “Every paycheck, it was really just like recycling—making money to make money,” he recalls. “One of the first distressed denim jackets I made in 2015, I was just selling those in order to go out and buy yards of fabric.” He’s also done it all to make his dream become a reality, from working as a stylist to being an on-set tailor for photoshoots. “I’ve worked in all different aspects of the fashion industry. I’ve also been in a couple of commercials as a background model,” says Flemons.

With no billionaire investor or conglomerate like LVMH to keep a steady cash flow when things get tight and shirts don’t sell, Flemons sometimes finds himself caught between creative freedom and paying the bills. In addition to selling at retailers such as Ssense and Fred Segal, which recently picked up his label, Flemons supports his growing business through custom designs. Lil Nas X and Kelsey Lu are a couple of the artists who Flemons has publicly collaborated, although the designer makes it clear he’s “ghost-designed” for several more figures in the industry—he just doesn’t always get acknowledged for it. While it’s an exciting opportunity to let his creativity run wild, designing couture can also be a thankless job when collaborators don’t credit the brand on social media. After all, going viral has become the most pungent form of publicity. “I think that my brand would be on a completely different level of notoriety if I got mentioned. And you know, it’s a form of currency today,” says Flemons. “There’s that element that I really enjoy about it; it takes me outside of my perspective and puts me in different lanes as a designer to make different things that I wouldn’t necessarily do on my own. I love dresses and suits, but with the audience that buys my clothes and the amount of money it takes to produce them, it’s not always justified financially.”

But in the years since branching out on his own with Phlemuns, the designer has expanded his company with a business partner, a growing team, a continuous collection of self-referencing drops, and a dedicated work studio near L.A.’s Echo Park neighborhood. Staying put in his hometown while almost everyone flocked to New York has put Flemons in the position to be a leader in the local fashion space, especially when it comes to supporting marginalized groups and hiring local artisans rather than outsourcing labor in other parts of the world.

 

Photo:

Jacqueline Lee for Who What Wear

Perhaps in the ultimate example of L.A.’s tight-knit design scene, Flemons and Autumn Randolph—one half of fashion collective No Sesso—were classmates at Fairfax High School. I was only made aware of this after interviewing each of them for this article, but the connection in itself represents the familial feeling that seems to pervade the densely populated city. 

Just south of Flemons’s Echo Park studio, in a storefront nestled in Downtown L.A.’s fashion district, lie the remnants of big ideas in progress. Colored feathers and diamanté trim litter the floor. Images of Black fashion icons and specific visual references are meticulously pinned on a board hung in between standing dress forms and airy white curtains. Pierre Davis and Randolph, along with their assistant, Kelsey, are hard at work editing and re-editing looks for what’s shaping up to be their latest collection. “When runway season is close, we live here 22 hours out of the day, go home to shower and come back. We definitely spent a lot of time here,” Randolph says. When I ask them if it’s in anticipation of New York Fashion Week, Davis coyly tells me, “Maybe—we’re not sure yet.” In 2014, Davis, then a 26-year-old South Carolina native, landed in L.A. after a brief period in Seattle. Armed with the idea of an inclusive fashion label, she started designing pieces under the moniker No Sesso—a Latin phrase for no sex/no gender—for years before coming to widespread prominence and prior to Randolph joining. “It first started off as more of an art concept. There were gallery shows, and all the clothes were installed on other objects, like wood or just hanging, but not really on a body,” says Davis.

The two women circled each other on the L.A. nightlife scene—Davis as a longtime designer and artist and Randolph as a stylist and dancer who would pull Davis’s creations. The relationship slowly evolved into a formal partnership, with the two now the primary minds behind No Sesso. “We just think that clothing should be for whoever wants to wear it,” says Davis. Although it was familiar to those in the L.A. fashion community, No Sesso appeared like a dark horse when the brand debuted at NYFW in 2019.

For those who’ve never witnessed a No Sesso show, it’s unlike anything you’re likely to witness on a fashion week schedule. The models—most of them Black or people of color—are not sample size nor 6 feet tall, and that’s precisely what has fueled its buzz, specifically among fashion people of color. “When everyone put the black square on their Instagram last year and started working with models of color a little bit more, that was always in our DNA since the very beginning. And I think people recognize it; they see that’s just something that we’ve been doing forever. It’s very important for us to represent our community and show faces with skin tones that look like us. We just made that platform available for people to recognize and see it,” says Davis. 

 

As I sit in their plant-filled storefront studio with eclectic R&B sounds blaring in a speaker and the sound of cars whizzing just outside, Davis and Randolph tell me about the work that goes into putting together their famed runway productions. After a few seasons presenting in New York, the collective decided to bring the show back home to L.A. at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. It opened with a booming soundtrack of Lil‘ Kim and Alice Coltrane, and the models walked however they wanted to, adding a wave or a wink here and there in a routine choreographed by Chris Emile, a friend of the designers. “It was like everything that Autumn and I were going through at the time. Autumn is really into jazz, and I’m really big on Lil‘ Kim, so we melded all of those energies together,” says Davis.

The lack of buttoned-up precision was disarming; the atmosphere felt less like a presentation and more like a party. After the show’s conclusion, attendees stood and yelled their approval. Clapping alone is too stiff of an end for a No Sesso show; expressive hoots and finger snaps seem to be the proper way to convey the moment. The positive environment felt true to No Sesso’s inclusive and uplifting brand DNA. Supporting the brand feels like supporting a sister, brother, or cousin—you simply want to. Of their February 2020 show, Randolph says, “That show was a new era for us.”

Other than the symbolism of returning to the West, the duo’s last offering served as a commentary on the much-debated issue of sustainability. In a unique move for a runway collection, each piece was crafted from existing materials. “It was like the first season where Autumn and I both designed everything together and styled everything together. We also recycled a lot of our own things. Autumn was a stylist for years and also just really fab at thrifting and putting things together. So between her archive and my archive, we had just lots of fabric and leathers, so many different trims,” Davis elaborates.

 

Photo:

Jacqueline Lee for Who What Wear

Back in their studio, I’m looking over a silk ball gown the duo completed over the past year. It’s the type of divisive glam that only an imagination like Davis and Randolph’s could dream up. The dress, covered in large silky pockets, was one of the pieces from their previous collection. “I personally wouldn’t put anything in those pockets, but it just gives a person that option. You can put a lip gloss in there for sure,” Davis proclaims. Like their upcycled fall 2020 collection, most of what No Sesso creates relies on bold ideas. It’s not the type of clothing you wear to run errands. (Although, some of my Telfar-toting friends in Brooklyn probably would). “Most of our shows are at museums or galleries, you know? So we very much consider ourselves artists,” Davis says. “There’s a little bit more than just straight off the runways to a retail store. What we make is couture. And that’s what we want to be known for—really elaborate clothing that makes you think a lot.”

Right now, the two are working full speed on a new collection—their favorite one yet. While there’s no guarantee that they’ll make an appearance in New York, they’ve managed to successfully inject some creative legitimacy in the face of Los Angeles fashion. Like their conceptually minded predecessors Martin Margiela and Jean Paul Gaultier did in Paris, No Sesso is building up a West Coast community of its own kind, in its own way, on its own time. “We’re not putting it out until everything is perfect instead of just having to because everyone else is doing something,” says Davis. “If it’s not ready, then it’s not right.”

 

Photo:

Jacqueline Lee for Who What Wear

While the increased profile of presenting in New York has been beneficial to West Coast-based emerging brands like No Sesso, others have opted to pull out of it entirely in favor of creating their own visual narrative. A recent cross-country move to Studio City was a much-needed creative reboot for Chelsea Hansford and brand Simon Miller, where Hansford is creative director. Before it was known for quirky, wearable oddities like electric-blue platform clogs and kitschy campaigns, Simon Miller only made streamlined collections of men’s denim. 

With headquarters originally in New York, the label expanded to later include a women’s collection—an area in which Hansford took the creative lead.

For many seasons, Simon Miller existed as a name on the New York fashion calendar most buyers and editors would make a point not to miss, but when Hansford took complete creative control over the company two years ago, it was an endeavor she was happy to get rid of altogether. “We were doing all of our marketing around the collection when we were showing it to the buyers. And I just had this moment where I’m like, why are we speaking to a small group of industry rather than speaking to our end consumer? It doesn’t make any sense,” she says. It’s been years since Simon Miller has formally shown at NYFW (though it still regularly releases seasonal lookbooks on Vogue). Eventually, Hansford, looking for a new start, moved to the West Coast in the middle of the pandemic, taking Simon Miller’s operations with her. Many of the brand’s eccentric lookbooks are now shot in her colorful space-age home in Los Angeles. While using pictures alone can sometimes fall short of storytelling, Hansford fully leans in to the L.A. Hollywood connection, inserting a score of film references and themes into Simon Miller’s imagery. “I’ve always loved shooting actresses and personalities more than traditional models,” she says.

 

Photo:

Jacqueline Lee for Who What Wear

In close proximity, just a few houses away, are the brand’s main creative headquarters. For Hansford, transitioning to L.A. has shifted not only her energy but also Simon Miller’s core aesthetic. “I got out of the mindset of ‘I need to be in New York—I need to be doing four seasons a year,’ and just started to speak to the end consumer in L.A., which has become our community. What’s happening here is culture. Fashion can be super powerful because there are a lot of eyes on it. There are amazing people, amazing tastes, amazing style,” she says, while also noting its perceived differences. “It’s different from New York. It’s different from Paris and different from Milan, but there’s still really cool stuff happening here. It doesn’t make sense for me to travel and chase something else when this is my home base.”

 When scanning Simon Miller’s most recent collection—filled with audacious tropical colors, graphic retro florals, and easygoing separates—it’s difficult to imagine a place that bears the hallmarks of its signature aesthetic more than sunny, carefree Los Angeles. “When I moved to L.A., I felt like I really got to open up in terms of colors and prints. I’ve always had this idea of playful luxury. New York is very luxurious, but it doesn’t have that playfulness,” she says. Hansford has also tapped into her list of famous friends and young Hollywood It girls to bring her renewed creative vision to life. Despite the abundance of famous faces that flock to Simon Miller, Hansford admits it was a slow and deliberate move to build up her local circle via organic relationships and genuine love for the brand. “I started shooting campaigns at my house with personalities, and I would bond with some of those girls, and then they would come and hang out.”

With playfulness at the forefront of the Simon Miller aesthetic, Hansford lives to inject offbeat themes into her work, like the Resort 2022 Jetsons-inspired lookbook, which features colorful platform boots and a futuristic palette of blue and green. For Hansford, playing up the thematic aspect can be traced to her mother’s influence as an event planner in Palm Beach, Florida. “She was a theme girl. My sister’s and my bedrooms would be themed, and every year or two, we’d change them. One year I’d have a cork floor, the next I’d have an astrology theme with a sun-and-moon comforter, and then I’d have a cheetah carpet. So I’ve always grown up with that. There’s a through-line into Simon Miller,” she says. 

A recurring figure is the toucan—stemming from her childhood preoccupation with birds—and not just in the prints on the clothes. Toucan objects also take space in Hansford’s carefully curated home, which showcases more of her idiosyncrasies and interests. The Casa, as it’s known among Hansford’s group of friends and fans of the brand, is partly inspired by furniture designer Pierre Paulin and retro Porsche cars among a bevy of midcentury influences. It’s also the center from which all things Simon Miller radiate in the brand’s universe. In addition to shooting content, Hansford has built a reputation for hosting memorable parties with famous guests such as Haim and Dakota Fanning. It’s a format she prefers rather than shuffling to meet the calendars and demands of showing up to fashion week. And it’s clear that’s working. In addition to maintaining relationships with retailers including Nordstrom, Shopbop, and Revolve, the brand has been able to position itself as somewhat of a cult brand. The Simon Miller look (e.g., fuzzy sandals and orange knit separates, or as Hansford calls them, “bold, clean statement staples”) is a unique identity and language of its own. “It’s about people who like to be cool and who like to experiment. They’re confident.”



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