Some observers blame the weather people aren't as covered up, and all that freedom leads to chaos. Others point to the quandary of trying to dress yourself in a place that's theoretically relaxed but actually obsessed with appearance. Whatever the reason, if, right now, you zoomed in on the men walking the streets of what's considered America's most photogenic city Los Angeles you'd find more questionable fashion choices than you would among the EZ scooters at Epcot.
"L.A. certainly has its own look," says Brian Atwood, the creative director at Bally. "In New York it's about serious fashion. In L.A. it's about play."
That statement suggests that a carefree approach to dressing reigns there. But some of the tortured male archetypes that are the city's stock in trade the guy in appliquéd jeans and an airbrushed T-shirt from Ed Hardy, the tattooed Joel Madden look-alike, and the Silver Lake flea-market shopper, accessorizing simultaneously with a neckerchief, a straw fedora, plastic sunglasses, and dog tags look like the products of a tremendous amount of effort.
"There's an overstudied attempt at informality in the way men in L.A. approach dressing," says Scott Sternberg, founder of the label Band of Outsiders, which is based there. "It's a desperate attempt to look like they're not trying too hard when, in effect, they just look like they're trying too hard."
"When I lived in L.A. I dressed like this," says New York designer Thom Browne, referring to his uniform of a slim-cut suit and tie, "and if I got one more question about what I was so dressed up for . . . " He raises an interesting point. Perversely enough, the guy on the hot seat for his clothing choices here isn't the one with intricately shaved facial hair and a T-shirt with a heart and skull emblazoned on the front it's the one in the custom suit and classic loafers.
Tom Kalenderian, the men's fashion director at Barneys New York, suggests that the very people whose omnipresence in L.A. should put it ahead of most American cities when it comes to fashion are the ones dragging it down: celebrity stylists. "There's so much obsession with the red carpet," he says. "People don't trust their instincts the way they should." But the guys who do trust their instincts enough to stick with the same aesthetic year in and year out aren't doing any better. Take the mid-level talent agent. Rather than allow an immaculately constructed Dries Van Noten suit to telegraph his potential success, he parodies the look of a nineties power agent: roomy-cut suit, fat-knotted tie, pocket square, and silver-rimmed aviators, which he's usually clutching awkwardly in one hand, like a rookie cop trying to get a grip on his gun.
Then there's the other fixture on L.A.'s male-style merry-go-round: He can be found drinking a fruity cocktail on Robertson Boulevard, wearing cargo shorts, a sleeveless T-shirt that says HUNTINGTON BEACH LIFEGUARD, and flip-flops. And maybe the persistence of this particular sartorial stereotype really is abetted by months of 70-degree days. Or maybe it's fed by an atmosphere in which youth is king. Most likely, as with the other L.A. style caricatures, it's a manifestation of the relaxed-versus-vain contradiction that defines the culture the one few will own up to. "It's all an illusion," says Vincent Ehly, the men's buyer for Maxfield in L.A. "'I'm successful. I'm not stressed. And I just happened to find all these clothes and throw them on.'"