L.A. fashion week took center stage this month, with several familiar and some not-so-familiar labels showing collections to buyers and the media. But off the runway, there's a fairly new crop of promising contemporary brands that didn't participate in fashion week events but are worth knowing about because of the way they capture the L.A. lifestyle through their easy, wearable and versatile pieces for women.
Offering wares as varied as menswear-inspired sweaters and ultra-feminine silk dresses, these designers have keen fashion and business sense, creating practical pieces at a mostly palatable price point.
Cozy, soft sweaters aren't the first things that come to mind when thinking about L.A. brands, but New York transplants Lisa Brochu and Lauren Walker have figured out how to make knitwear versatile enough for any climate with a collection of layerable knits, silk dresses, boiled-wool coats and cotton button-downs that make up their 3-year-old line.
The two met five years ago after moving to L.A. from New York. Brochu had previously been the women's knitwear designer for American Eagle, then took a West Coast post as design director for Joie. Walker launched several Los Angeles brands (while living in New York, no less), including Ya Ya and James Perse, where she oversaw sales, merchandising and marketing.
With Brochu Walker they combine their talents. Brochu heads up design (though they do collaborate), and Walker rounds out the business and operations side.
The result is a collection centered on knits such as nubby cardigans, but which also includes soft Ikat print silk dresses. The juxtaposition of the light and heavy pieces creates the contrast in textures and weight that makes the collection not only interesting to look at but also practical to wear in the Los Angeles climate, where layered dressing makes sense year-round.
Brochu and Walker are well aware of this balance of weight and proportion. "We're conscious of where things hit and make sure if the body of a sweater is bigger, then the sleeve is tighter," Brochu says.
"The drape is also important," Walker adds. "Our cardigans are draped — they're cardigans but with dimension."
"The strongest aspect of the collection for us is definitely the sweaters," says Lindsay Johnson, buyer at Arcade Boutique near West Hollywood. "They have really nailed it with details like leather buckles, unique textures and the softest cashmere at a very competitive price point."
Brochu and Walker stick to a muted palette with a couple of pops of color throughout.
The general feeling of coziness in the collection could easily translate into the home décor arena, something the two have their sights set on. Sheets, bedding, towels and candles are items Brochu and Walker envision as a future part of their brand, as well as a retail space that Walker assures "will definitely be in L.A."
Brochu Walker is priced from $60 for a T-shirt, around $265 for a fleece terry jacket to about $585 for sweaters. The line is available at stores including Saks Fifth Avenue, 9634 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills; Fred Segal, 8118 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; and Arcade Boutique, 8473 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood.
Amber Sakai's collection encompasses aspects that include the ultra feminine (delicate lace details on jersey tops) and the super sporty (chunky zippers and body-conscious silhouettes reminiscent of a wetsuit). It's no surprise that Sakai, a Santa Barbara native and former model, got her start in design by making lingerie and, later, wetsuits.
Her eponymous contemporary collection, which debuted in spring 2009, features elements from her former specialties and shows off the technical skills she developed making bras, underwear and wetsuits. For fall, tweeds are cut into angular "pirate" pants that are cropped and have ballooned-out points at the side of the leg. Skirts are folded origami style across the front, and lace is cut into second-skin bodysuits that can be layered under baggy trousers or a tight, asymmetrical-cut leather skirt.
Sakai's jersey T-shirts with lace panel detailing down the front have been top sellers at Church boutique in Hollywood. "There has been a really good response with Amber's line," says Church co-owner David Malvaney. "The lace T-shirts do particularly well."
All of Sakai's garments are made in Los Angeles — the city whose easy, no-fuss dress code inspires her, she says.
Among her offerings is a weekend collection containing basics one might need for a brief getaway or that could come in handy on a longer trip if the airline loses your luggage. "I've been on trips several times when the airline has lost my luggage and the hotel gift shop never has anything I could possibly wear," Sakai says. "I can see this weekend collection being sold as a package in airports and hotel gift shops."
The all-black-and-white line contains leggings, a black skirt, a lace top and lace trench that the designer road-tested herself while traveling. Other than the weekend pieces, she just brought jeans, heels and her Converse high-tops, she says.
Amber Sakai prices go from $80 for a bodysuit or jersey top, $275 for a lace panel T-shirt and $500 for a wool coat. The line is available at Church Boutique, 7277 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood.
The look created by designer Im Jung Jung's debut line Theonne (pronounced Thee-O-nee) is, in a word, slouchy. Not paper-bag-shapeless slouchy, but an easy, effortless slouch inspired by menswear, a genre of fashion Jung references constantly. "I look at men's fashion books and magazines for inspiration," says Jung, who previously held design posts at Tse, Cynthia Rowley and BCBG. "There's just so much attention to detail with the way men's clothes are designed and constructed."
She's managed to tweak traditional ideas of menswear (think suit pants and double-breasted blazers) by cropping, pleating and cinching silhouettes so pieces drape on the body without overwhelming it.
Jung balances proportions so that even though most of her pieces are slouchy, there is always some element cut smaller for contrast. An arm on a knit sweater may be tighter, or a coat shorter than expected, for instance.
From her time at Tse, Jung picked up a knack for knits and has introduced plenty of knitwear into her collection. For this fall (her first collection) she uses an understated palette of gray, ivory, navy and dusty pink to create basic knits with eye-catching details. For example, a single large cable-knit braid embellishes the front of a gray crew-neck sweater, and diagonal lines run through an oatmeal-colored tunic, in both cases adding subtle but effective texture to staple pieces.
"This line is great for our customer because they want something that feels special with interesting details but is also very wearable," says Gail Satin, owner of Magnolia boutique in Calabasas, which will be carrying Theonne starting in November. "Theonne is classic and on trend without being too trendy. The price point is another attractive aspect."
For spring 2012, Jung has reinterpreted her slouchy pants as silk shorts with cummerbund waist detail, and knitwear comes in the form of basic cardigans done in highlighter shades such as bright yellow and purple.
Theonne's draped silhouettes and shapeless pieces that are meant to be tucked or cinched in by the wearer may seem intimidating. But the key is in the layering and pairing different fabric weights together while maintaining proportions. Done right, the result isn't just slouchy, but sexy and slouchy.
Theonne is priced from $108 for a T-shirt, around $268 for sweaters and about $348 for blazers at stores including Magnolia, 23675 Calabasas Road, Calabasas.
Six years ago, while her peers were cramming for tests or out late at raging frat parties, designer Meredith Fisher was fulfilling orders for Barneys and Lane Crawford out of her USC dorm room.
The designer started her first clothing line, Wayf — an acronym for "where are you from" — at just 18, making a couple of styles of silk dresses that retailers around the globe picked up.
"I kept all the sales orders under my bed," says the now-23-year-old of her college design days. Fisher shuttered her Wayf line in 2009, and launched her new label, Charles Henry, in fall 2010.
The line is a girlie and whimsical collection of mostly silk dresses and blouses. Skirts are on the short side, catering to young women around Fisher's age, but the designs and color palette are consistently sophisticated.
"The girl who's buying Charles Henry likes to get dressed up and go to parties," says Kristen Hans, manager of Madison boutique's flagship location on 3rd Street. "And everything is very versatile. We had a long chiffon gown that sold really well. Some women wore it casual with flats, and some wore it to weddings."
Fisher has had a focus on fashion design since she was 12, asking her mother for a sewing machine and sewing lessons in her hometown of Louisville, Ky. "I couldn't find anything I wanted to wear," Fisher says. So she took matters into her own hands and began making her own clothes.
"I think my parents thought [sewing] would be a fleeting thing for me, like tennis or field hockey," she says. They certainly don't think that now. Fisher's Wayf line lasted for three years; her current line is slowly but surely making its way into top retailers, and Charles Henry has deals to make a few exclusive items for Anthropologie and, for the holidays, for Shopbop.com.
Charles Henry ranges from around $250 for a silk blouse to $350 for a silk dress and is available at several retailers including Madison, 8745 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles.