Juma: Exploring contemporary-LAnd

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To many die-hard fashionistas, Los Angeles has always been considered the less sophisticated, dressed-down, in your face, suburban, over-celebrity conscious little sister to New York, which has consistently retained its place amongst the world’s fashion capitals.  However, our visit to L.A. has revealed an interesting mix of local designers and boutiques combined with the glossy global brands along Rodeo Drive. Driven by its native contemporary brands, L.A. is experiencing a fashion renaissance.

Yesterday, I cruised around some upcoming fashion districts here with Jamil Juma, of Juma, which he designs with his sister Alia. Juma’s collections (one fashion forward RTW, one activewear) are carried at more than 30 boutiques around North America, including Fred Segal  in L.A. and Caravan in NY. Both Jamil and I were keen to get a feel for what is going on here, especially in the hot contemporary segment where his brand is positioned.

In the past few years, contemporary brands based out of L.A. (which themselves grew out of the designer denim explosion that also started here) have taken America by storm. While Juicy Couture is the best known of these brands outside the USA, others including Vince, Joie, Corpus and James Perse have built sizeable businesses using an operationally efficient model that combines fast fashion (multiple deliveries, great ease of reordering) with with celebrity-based promotion.

Not surprisingly, all of the major high-end department stores have turned to these contemporary businesses to drive sales growth, particularly with the surge of Zara and H&M in the mass segment. Barney’s Co-op, Bergdorf Goodman’s 5F and Neiman Marcus Cusp are all sub-brands and businesses built for the contemporary market and Bloomingdales revamped its second floor in New York to get in on the action. And, there are entire shopping districts, like Abbot Kinney in Venice Beach and West 3rd in L.A., which seem to be dedicated to these fashionable yet affordable brands, priced in-between designer and mass.

The Abbot Kinney district boasts more than a dozen boutiques, tightly clustered along the edgy boulevard, mixed in with cafes teeming with laptop-toting students and hipsters. There is a strong movement to keep the independent vibe of the street, and a petition to keep chain stores out of the area was highly visible in many of the stores we walked into. The shopping experience therefore feels a lot more authentic than your friendly neighbourhood H&M.

The standout boutique in Abbot Kinney is Heist, an elegant store with an emphasis on French contemporary labels like Vanessa Bruno and Isabelle Marrant. Like most of the best boutiques, the owner is passionate about fashion and does all of the buying herself.

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Jamil and I also spent some time scoping out the cluster of stores around the intersection of 3rd and Fairfax in West L.A. and spoke at length with Eveline Morel, the fashion aficionado behind EM & Co, a women’s boutique on the West 3rd strip. The store had an interesting mix of local labels, international names and Contemporary brands from Vivienne Westwood to Brian Reyes. Seeing Jamil in action reminded me how powerful it can be for young designer to go out and meet with boutique owners and buyers directly, as it is the best way to build confidence in their creative vision, product sense and reliability. It also puts a face to the name on the label.

Eveline told us she works with local emerging designers on product development and collection planning to help grow their businesses. And while she hasn’t bought into the whole celebrity angle for her own store, she said the power of name recognition associated with a Hollywood starlet is undeniable.  She cited the example of Mblem, a business built around the celebrity of Mandy Moore, who while not involved in design, provides input and takes 30% of sales revenue in return.

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The Business of Fashion is here in L.A for the next few days and will continue to explore the nooks and crannies and highs and lows of the city of angels. Stay tuned.