Los Angeles is in the midst of a rebirth. The City of Angels, once known simply for surf and sun, is now at the center of movements toward sustainability, local manufacturing and cutting-edge fashion.
Sourcing Journal spoke with some of the city’s preeminent men’s wear makers about what makes L.A. the best canvas for creativity, from custom casuals to sophisticated sartorial statements.
Custom men’s wear is on the rise, and Los Angeles-based street-meets-suiting label Sene is capitalizing on the demand for personalization.
“Customers are looking for fresh experiences where they feel known,” Sene founder and CEO Ray Li said. The direct-to-consumer business is 100 percent tailored, Li said, operating out of an outpost at The Row. Shoppers can make appointments to get fitted for custom suits and casual men’s wear at the downtown Los Angeles location, or they can take a simple nine- to 15-question quiz online that calculates their perfect fit.
“We have a complex data science platform called SmartFit,” Li said. “We use it to generate a customer size, no measuring tape needed.”
Li believes diversity differentiates L.A.’s men’s wear scene from the landscape in a place like New York City where design, he said, tends to be safer. The streets of Los Angeles bring out “more grit as well as color,” he added, “which speaks to the city’s roots in entertainment and industrial manufacturing.”
While fashion heavyweights like Off-White’s Virgil Abloh have predicted the end of streetwear, Li isn’t buying it.
“Streetwear is growing up, and the gap between formal and casual will continue to close,” he said. He believes future seasons will blend tailored silhouettes and casual staples like hoodies and joggers.
When asked to define L.A. men’s wear style, John Moore, creative director at sustainable staple brand Outerknown, doesn’t hesitate.
“We’re a T-shirt and jeans culture here,” he told Sourcing Journal. “The blurred lines between work and play in L.A. are like nowhere else in the world, and that definitely translates into the way we dress.”
According to Moore, California has always led the world in environmental thinking and activism. A city surrounded on all sides by nature, Los Angeles sits in close proximity to snow-capped mountains, vast deserts and of course, the Pacific Ocean.
“That makes it impossible to ignore our impact,” Moore said, “So as we design and manufacture clothing, we seek to be the tip of the sustainability arrow.”
Outerknown builds products with preferred fibers and without harmful chemicals, Moore said. “L.A. is a manufacturing hub for fashion, and it brings us joy to see brand peers partake in sustainability,” he added. “We can’t do this alone.”
For now, though, Los Angeles is on coronavirus lockdown, and the pandemic has impacted businesses’ operational capacities as well as consumer confidence. Moore believes the city’s brands and designers will respond with attempts to spread cheer.
“These are some backwards times, and I’m predicting fashion’s response will be brighter, bolder colors with bigger, easier fits in the coming seasons,” Moore said, adding that Outerknown is thinking about experimenting with prints and patterns. “Fashion should make you feel good, and we need a lot more positivity in this world.”
The company’s Blanket Shirts are its most popular, feel-good product, Moore said, featuring an organic cotton twill weave that is “soft and lofty like a blanket, and still durable enough for daily wear.”
“The best part is that we make them the exact way today as we made them when we started,” he said.
Bowie & Co.
Great Britain-born founder Taylor McKinnon characterizes Bowie & Co., his line of ultra-hip, contemporary men’s wear, as “European cuts meet Japanese culture.”
With a background in traditional tailoring, McKinnon said he’s developed an affinity for Japanese shapes and draping throughout his design career. Since moving to the melting pot that is the greater Los Angeles area, though, inspiration abounds.
“When you can apply lots of people and cultures to one of the best hubs to make clothes, you end up creating really great things,” he said.
McKinnon is energized by the support of the local apparel manufacturing community, and by the resources at his disposal.
“There’s no shortage of end-of-line fabrics to use in the city, and we buy them up so that they don’t go to landfill,” he said. All fabrics are sourced and milled in Los Angeles, except denim, which he buys from Italy’s Candiani denim mill.
“I do everything here in Los Angeles,” he said of his manufacturing operations. “When you’re making things overseas, you lose control.”
McKinnon also loves creating opportunity for local sewers. All of the brand’s clothes are crafted downtown, he said, by a collective of just 50 workers.
When asked about forward-looking men’s wear trends in the time of COVID-19, McKinnon said it’s less about aesthetics, and more about attitude.
“The biggest trend is going to be collaboration,” he said. “We’re surrounded by so many great brands, and the factories here that are supporting all of us.”
As local labels feel they have “lost their opportunity and their voice,” and consumers are tightening their purse strings, McKinnon believes brands should come together not just to create products, but to envision new and creative ways of doing business and keeping local shoppers engaged.
“The only thing we can do is leverage our strength in numbers and partner with each other,” he said.
When asked about his brand’s biggest hit, he points to the denim Tenchi jacket, a painter’s coat that’s simultaneously tailored and casual enough for every day wear. “We found the original in Tokyo,” McKinnon noted. “It’s one of the simplest things we have, but it’s so credible. People love it, and we’ll never take it out of the line.”
“The SoCal attitude, art and weather all influence local designers much differently than in other places around the world,” said George Esquivel, founder of Esquivel Shoes.
Those influences are infinitely apparent in the custom footwear label’s designs, which blend traditional craftsmanship with avant-garde elements. Most shoes are made to order, and each pair is adorned with eye-catching details like hand-sewn fabric laces, or hand-oiled, distressed uppers.
Collectively, these elements add up to a signature aesthetic. “It’s a SoCal casual, sophisticated attitude,” Esquivel said.
Over the years, the brand has been fortunate to grow its custom business into a full-fledged line of products for men and women. “Over the years we have been able to evolve and really build this process,” Esquivel said. “I think people these days want something special and unique, and our made-to-order service offers our clients just that.”
The smaller production capacity and limited availability of skilled labor in Los Angeles might deter larger brands, but it’s actually a boon to Esquivel’s ultra-specialized business.
“If I have an idea and I want to do a limited run of that item, I can work with my team and just launch it,” he said. “I don’t have to wait for production space from a foreign factory.”
Despite the retail sector falling on hard times this spring, Esquivel is confident in the future of men’s wear. “My personal outlook for trends looks very promising,” he said.
“Men are being more adventurous with the way they dress,” and moving beyond just black and brown shoes and boots, he added.
Pocket Square Clothing
L.A.’s laid-back vibe and temperate climate allow for the mixing of casual and formal attire, said Pocket Square Clothing co-founder Rodolfo Ramirez.
“Sneakers and suits are a prime example of this,” he said, adding that lighter, more colorful options are also go-tos for the city’s men’s wear aficionados.
Pocket Square Clothing (PSC) began with a bow tie in 2011, he said, and grew steadily to include staples like shirts and jackets, a plethora of accessories, and of course, custom suiting.
The label launched its made-to-measure operation at its downtown flagship in 2016, offering 2,000 textile options and hundreds of button styles and thread colors.
“Every brand out there also has their own take on fashion and men’s suiting,” Ramirez said. “You can say that we have great design aesthetics, tailoring, quality, interesting fabrics and prints, and a ‘Made in L.A.’ tag. But put that all aside, and I think you’ll find what actually sets us apart is the unique lifestyle we created that really builds a connection with our consumers.”
Ramirez said PSC has made its own rules when it comes to tailoring and fit, and the brand aims to revolutionize the traditional suit, making it an everyday staple rather than a stuffy, boardroom-ready necessity.
“Our approach is that a custom suit should fit so well and comfortably that it’s like wearing pajamas,” he said.
PSC hopes to “re-contextualize accessories and apparel” through a use of fun materials, patterns and prints. Today’s shopper values a personalized touch, Ramirez said, and is looking for something customized to fit both their body and their personality.
The city’s influencers and collaborators have bolstered the brand’s success, and the collective of creators—like musicians, filmmakers, artists, stylists and bloggers—have provided inspirational fodder.
The label also prides itself on manufacturing locally. “Speed to market is at the top of the list for reasons we love producing in this city,” Ramirez said. “Los Angeles is such a great manufacturing hub with a lot of fabric resources, manufacturers and ports that help with distribution.”
PSC saw so much potential in Los Angeles’ re-animated manufacturing sector that it purchased 50-year-old apparel and accessories producer Top Hand Manufacturing. Fabrics are sourced from vintage goods and deadstock, or they’re locally made and printed. The brand largely favors American-made materials and components.
True to its name, Ramirez said the brand’s pocket squares are its best-selling item, and men are loving florals that punch up their outfits with a pop of color. “We specialize in combining craftsmanship with flair,” he said.