Everyone knows they make movies in Hollywood, and that everybody drives, and nobody walks. It’s also known as the glitz-glam home of the Oscars (on 9 February this year). But there’s a different side to LA that gets less attention. This is where they make things. It is the manufacturing centre of the US, in fact, employing four times more people than the entertainment industry. Increasingly, makers from across America are making their base here. In 2016, a group of locals launched Make it in LA – a volunteer-led organisation that promotes and supports local makers of all shapes and sizes, working in a myriad of mediums. So, why LA? As well as the logistics of having scores of well-trained craftspeople available, and with rents significantly less than in New York or San Francisco, the city offers a never-stopping mood board of inspiration for designers. Or so says Mark Gainor, creative director of sneaker brand No.One.
“I stay off the freeways and like to drive through the streets that wind through the entire city,” he explains. “Inside that endless sprawl of mini malls, liquor stores and fast food lays a lot of inspiration. That’s the real LA to me – the signage on the old karate dojos, the humans, the sounds, the smell of hot dogs and exhausts,” he says. “There’s so much inspiration.”
After being seen as a design backwater for decades – notable mostly for the rise and fall of basics label American Apparel – LA has been casting a spell on directional fashion in recent years. Hedi Slimane based both his previous Saint Laurent and current Celine studios here, while Alessandro Michele’s 2019 resort collection for Gucci was a homage to Chateau Marmont, in all its bohemian glory. But the real heat isn’t radiating off the satellites of European brands, it’s in the small-scale locally founded ateliers creating limited editions and one-offs. It’s something of a no-brainer: there is a constant hunger for luxury, quality and – crucially – exclusivity in a town where how you look defines who you are.
At first glance, you’d categorise Nick Fouquet as typical Venice Beach surfer – all sea-spray blonde locks, sapphire blue eyes and weathered denim. While he’s adjacent to that aforementioned beach, he spends his days inside, shrouded in clouds of steam, shaping hats on wooden blocks. He creates sculptured lines with tools and twine that look like they belong to another time, before tying a bandana around his face and sanding each hat down to a meticulous polished surface. He then engulfs the whole thing in flame to give it a distressed patina.
“I began this business 10 years ago,” he tells me, tucking a trademark matchstick into the ribbon of a freshly made hat. “I started in an underground parking garage basement by myself. I’ve grown the operation to 20 employees, with sales points across the world.”
Fouquet is typical of the more successful artisans in LA right now: a small operation, and as ethical as he is exclusive. Local brands including Rewilder, Reformation and Jean Franklin work with recycled fabrics to create new garments in a breezy, casual, inherently Californian style. COMMUNITYmade was launched by two former sneaker-brand heavyweights – Sean Scott of Nike, ASICS and Vans, and Shannon Scott of ASICS – to create a range of shoes (including the de rigueur vegan models) made by craftsmen in small local factories, with up to 20 per cent of profit from each sale going to the customer’s chosen charity. In an age where we want to know at which farm the eggs for our avocado toast were laid, COMMUNITYmade is, perhaps, the ultimate 2020 indie fashion business.
“Made in LA” might come with certain progressive and green connotations, but it’s still couched in a landscape of overt luxury. Taylor Swift poses for selfies wearing Jennifer Meyer’s diamond heart studs, and Kerry Washington wears the same designer’s pink sapphire cuffs. Diamonds are red-carpet bread and butter, and when a stylist lays out a selection of suggested looks for a client in the suite of their Beverly Hills hotel, it is the sparkles that make the edit stand-out and special. It seals the deal.
“So many of my pieces are one of a kind,” says designer Irene Neuwirth, “and my collectors are, too. They choose what speaks to them.” Neuwirth certainly speaks the right language in LA: Julia Roberts recently wore her $30,440 carved turquoise lily of the valley earrings to the British Fashion Awards, while Scarlett Johansson rocked up to the Toronto International Film Festival in a pair of one-off tropical flower drop earrings in lapis and Mexican fire opal. Crucially, for a city that exists without distinct seasons, you can wear your fine jewellery anywhere, at any time. This isn’t a place to get much wear from a Rick Owens quilted coat. And that’s something that also dictates what’s being made here, and always will. As Mark Gainor says: “The absence of weather informs our product. Every day is blue sky and sunny, perfect sneaker weather.” LA is liberating. The living is easy. And life is good. “There’s a certain freedom that comes with seasonless dressing,” says Irene Neuwirth. “We are enveloped by sunshine and bright colours every day.”
Meet the makers
Nick Fouquet: the milliner
What Millinery is a niche industry in 2020, dominated by a few big names in each fashion capital. In LA, Nick Fouquet is the name. “I call my style ‘luxury bohemian’,” he says. “It is steeped in classical craftsmanship, but with a Californian twist.”
Tell me more His work has a rough luxe style, with premium materials frequently hand distressed, and embroidered whip stitching. The location of his studio, by Venice Beach, sets the tone for his aesthetic: “There is a grittiness here,” he explains. “The laid-back beachside vibes bleed into a lot of the creations. There is a sort of white-collar-meets-blue-collar aspect which resonates.” A Fouquet hat is pure rock and roll.
He says “I think hats are very LA. They are worn by musicians and cowboys, which have so much to do with the history of the city, at least to me.” The half-French hatmaker has created pieces for Madonna and Pharrell Williams, but he says his clientele varies wildly: “Our customers are diverse, from actors to athletes, stockbrokers to surfers. I think what appeals to them most is the craftsmanship – the hats aren’t just accessories, they are an art piece and a memento.”
Irene Neuwirth: the jewellery designer
What A-list jewellery designer Irene Neuwirth grew up in LA, and started her business 17 years ago. She hit the ground running: her first account was Barneys. “I grew the business carefully and organically,” she says. “In 2014 we opened a boutique on [design district] Melrose Place. That really felt like a big choice, to open here in LA. It’s so much fun for me because I can pop in all the time with jewellery, meet clients for lunch, and have fun with it.”
Tell me more Everything is designed by Neuwirth at her studio in Culver City, while her home is on the Venice Canals. Apart from the obvious commercial appeal of having movie stars and moguls on her doorstep, and her production team with her, LA remains her favourite place in the world.
She says “I love the ocean, the outdoors and the mix of people. I like the casual nature of it all, how you can do almost anything in jeans and a T-shirt. I can go horse riding in the morning, and still be at the studio first thing. There is a really cool bubbling energy to LA right now that’s very exciting.”
The Elder Statesman: the cashmere shapeshifter
What Greg Chait’s cashmere brand, The Elder Statesman, has become an international phenomenon, sold in more than 75 stores worldwide. The brand runs the gamut from tie-dye swirls and bright palm tree graphics to classic navy and grey. The common denominator is the wow factor: when you touch a sweater, the softness is genuinely revelatory.
Tell me more Each design is made in a maximum of 50 units. “I often think about how I got here,” says Chait. “I launched it in 2007, and I’ve worked hard and haven’t skipped any steps. It’s always been about doing something real, but also having fun along the way.” The business has grown to a workforce of over 50, entirely based in LA.
He says “We pride ourselves on process,” says Chait. “We use the renewable resource of the sun to dry our goods, and almost all of the knits are handmade.” The sunshine and colours of LA have inspired every collection to date: “You have the nature, the city, the art and the food here, but also the space to jump into or out of it at any time.”
No.One: the sneakerheads
What Each pair of No.One sneakers is hand-crafted by skilled artisans using the best materials available, many are limited in number, and some sell out by word of mouth before making it to the brand’s website. The Bravo – in speckled pony hair – has become a cult shoe for sneakerheads.
Tell me more No.One is a world away from contemporary fast fashion and mainstream sportswear. “We make understated but luxurious, classic, casual sneaker silhouettes that are best experienced with no socks on,” explains creative director Mark Gainor (pictured). “It is a quintessentially LA product.” The No.One story began somewhere on a flight between the US and China, while Gainor was working for a major shoe brand.
He says “I decided if I was going to design my own footwear, I was going to need the production close to home. I think there are two kinds of luxury shoppers, the ones who spend a thousand dollars on shoes to look just like everyone else and the ones who spend a thousand with the intent of standing out from the crowd. We are here for the second group. The first group can keep going to the mall.”
Weiss: the watchmaker
What There is a small but growing industry of elite watchmaking in California, and Weiss is one of its frontrunners. Everything bearing the Weiss brand is built by hand in LA. “This city is the world capital of the aerospace industry,” says founder Cameron Weiss. “I feel that’s reflected every day in our brand and our engineering ethos.”
Tell me more He believes his definitive design, to date, is the Standard Issue Field Watch, inspired by naval gauges and aviation, and the construction of all of his designs makes it unique. “Details like using different hand brushing and mirror polishing techniques are among my favourite ways to add a beautiful contrast to metal parts.” For Weiss, LA is more than just about his business, it is an emotional attachment.
He says “I began my journey in LA as a student before attending watchmaking school,” Weiss says. “This job brought me back here and I’ve fallen back in love with everything I had missed, including a morning surf.”