Wednesday, November 26, 2008

L.A. International

In Los Angeles, a new, multi-ethnic generation is redefining young American style.
By Bart Bull
(published in Vogue)

I'm looking -- staring actually -- at a handkerchief.
It's more than a handkerchief, though; it's an epiphany.
It is, without a doubt, the single most perfect isosceles triangle in all of Los Angeles tonight. It droops, languid in its linen perfection, from the breast picket of a navy blue blazer worn over a white boat-neck sweater, white linen pants, white silk shirt, and a firmly knotted navy silk tie. The handkerchief itself is a brave ocher-gold, a grand gesture against all that blue and white. But it's the droop that counts, that studied droop, much like one of Dali's soft watches oozing down from the pocket, a profound counterpoint to those precise angles. Frankly, I'm proud to be in the same room with a handkerchief so eloquent.

It's worn by Jose, who is nineteen and standing in the lobby of the Ukrainian Culture Center with his left hand resting lightly -- just so -- in the pocket of his high-waisted baggy trousers, acessorized by his fully achieved air of distraction. Jose is anything but distracted, of course. His attention is no less perfectly ponted than the cheese-slicing edge of his isosceles ocher-gold linen handkerchief. This is war, style war. The Ukrainian is tonight's central stop of the Fashion Crowd circuit and no one is anywhere near as distracted as the poses they're striking would suggest. Reputations will be reupholstered tonight, egos will suffer shattering defeats, and when the smoke clears, style will reign supreme.

What I noticed about the Fashion Crowd was that no one else in Los Angeles seemed to be noticing them -- and how could you miss them? They dress. They wear clothes as if their lives depend upon them. Grammar and syntax and vocabulary skills take time, but clothes are something you can shop for next Saturday morning.

The boys are especially devoted to staying in front of the pack. Ever alert to shifts in style, they are, like Jose of the isosceles droop, master of delicate nuance. These are guys who would rather die than be seen wearing drab socks, who can quite literally identify the designer of a tie at twenty paces. These are teenage boys who can walk around wearing their double-breasted jackets unbuttoned and still manage to look polished.

A great number of them live at home in order to avoid wasting money best spent on clothes. At lunch, they haunt the very best sections of the very best department stores. Their bedrooms are stacked with fashion magazines, and their phones stay busy with updated comparisons of last weekend's triumphs and disasters. Although the open-air alleys and wholesale showrooms of downtown LA's garment district are thick with them every weekend, only the most daringly secure would ever admit to buying anything other than their most playful shoes there. It's not true, of course, but they truly with it were.

The truth is that for many of the Hispanic members of the Fashion Crowd, their peers are still living in an old world of low riders and gangs, of fierce barrio territorialism that leads nowhere more glamorous than jail or a janitor job. There are gangs among the Asians too, as well as the equally terrifying Old World option of fulfilling the role of scrupulously dutiful son or daughter. But the more limiting those older possibilities seem, the more important the distinction becomes between the Fashion Crowd and their less fashionable peers.

The best-dressed guys -- known as "GQs" -- put considerable distance between their looks and anything that smacks of gangster style. Since low riders and gangbangers have been dressing for more than a decade in revisisionist variations on on the '40s zoot suit, the GQs are rapdily moving away from the formality of suits and ties, and on toward something more fanciful, more freewheeling. Last summer's GQ cliche was the omnipresent varsity look, crew sweaters over ties with the hair buzzed almost comically short on the sides in apparent emulation of the Princeton sculling crew of 1926. Currently, though, the GQs prefer long hair tied back or flying free, and the most daring are adopting entire looks built around rough suede cowboy boots or white turtlenecks worn tunic style. "I'm tired of ties," one of the GQ trendsetters told me. "I work at a law firm downtown -- all I see all day long is ties."

The Vogues are evry bit as intent on widening the gap between themselves and their counterparts, who are referred to, in the deepest tones of derision that a teenager can muster, as "Cha-Chas." While the Vogues are inclined toward hats and gloves and Chanel-inspired ensembles, the Cha-Chas (though no one will ever admit to being a Cha-Cha) settle for miniskirts, high heels, and dramatic makeup that is only a small evolutionary step away from the girl-gangsters' "loca" look. The Cha-Chas, less willing to abandon traditional Latin styles, will typically have longer hair, often teased into the high-crowned look the Vogues call "lionhead." Vogues, ever inclined to emphasize the distance from everyting the Cha-Cha represents, are currently acquiring Louise Brooks bobs or dramatically brief pageboys. No cocktail parties exist in thier lives, but should an invitation appear, they're dressed for the occasion.

Given the social mobility available in California, in the West, in this truly New World, it's entirely possible that the elegant cocktail party will be their next accomplishment. Young as they are, these kids dress with more verve and wit and can actually be seen at any contemporary evening affair, and the clubs and dances they attend on the party circuit exist, everyone agrees, essentially for display. They even dance together in large groups, in circles rather than couples, the better to admire each other, and the better to remind the outsider of the supreme uniqueness of their clique. At a time when the ouside world seems fixated on archaic fantasies of hot-blooded Latin style, no one here takes particular pride in their dancing. It's the look, the style, the leaps and flourishes of fashion that count. And for tonight, in their remarkably polyglot beauty and taste, they looke even more stylish than they have ever looked before. Tomorrow night is just an evening in the future, a fashionable instant yet to be invented.

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