How the Golden State dictates what we wear, from Venice Beach to Silicon Valley.
Everyone’s got a California. Mine starts at birth, in San Diego. It carries into the Bay Area through age 7, after which my family relocated to the suburbs of Boston. That’s where it took on greater force.
California became the site of family vacations just as I was plugging into pop culture. Whereas before it was a place to live, now it became a haze of leisure-distorted observations and fictionalized renderings: Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s spunky, freewheeling antics in the Venice Beach–based Billboard Dad, Marissa Cooper’s unfazed rich-girl style on The O.C. California now came with a soundtrack, and it was by Phantom Planet.
I realized that California didn’t belong to me soon after moving out East. New England’s moody weather and haunted-seeming buildings better suited my inward somewhat macabre sensibilities, and when we finally made the pilgrimage to New York, a place that struck me as commanding and fancy and gross, I knew where I wanted to end up one day.
But when we’d return to San Diego, I felt a loosening around my edges. I’d start to look with envy at those tan, athletic kids with stringy hair dried out from sun and saltwater, who hung out on the beach in clusters or worked at the snack shack by the parking lot. Long before the word “chill” had entered my vocabulary, I knew what it was, and I knew that I didn’t have it like they did.
Everyone has a California because California is a product of Dualstar Entertainment, Fox, Epic Records, and countless other corporate entities. It’s disseminated in film, television, and music, from La La Land to Baywatch to No Doubt.
The easiest way to tap into California from afar is to wear it.
When we talk about California this way, most of us are referring to the southern beach communities radiating up and down the coast from Los Angeles. Inland, the relaxed vibe fundamental to our California ideal evaporates in the dusty heat. Sometimes we’re speaking about the alternately crunchy and techie Northern California, which has its own aesthetic history and modern-day stereotypes.
The easiest way to tap into California from afar is to wear it. In advertisements, apparel companies like PacSun, Hollister, and Brandy Melville have made Southern California fundamental to their identities, even though Hollister’s identity was wholly manufactured in Ohio and Brandy’s in Italy. (PacSun was actually founded in Newport Beach.) The clothing is often simple and always secondary to a lifestyle in which everyone is young, beautiful, and surrounded by friends on the beach.
It was in the course of researching California style that I recently headed back to San Diego, where I began a weeklong trip up the coast. I did so with the understanding that the topic, much like the state, is huge and diverse, and that trying to conduct a thorough anthropological study of Californians’ taste in seven days is, to put it plainly, stupid. But my goal was to investigate the ways in which California style has been distilled and marketed to the rest of the country and the world, and so I did.
This genre of Americana is so ingrained in our consciousness that an advertiser need only present a few photos for us to recognize what’s going on, says Jeff Buchman, an advertising professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. It’s the perfect marketing touchpoint.
“It’s a common language,” says Buchman. “You have images of the ocean, sand, and pretty people smiling and laughing, and that’s universal.”
“You’re trying to appeal to normal kids who would look at the pictures and think, ‘I could be like that.’”
The process of creating these ad campaigns is a blend of real and engineered fun. Rima Vaidila, an LA-based model and stylist, describes shooting for brands like PacSun and Brandy Melville as a matter of “running around, being cute, and pretending to be friends with the other models.” The casting process is just as much about booking models who will be cool to hang out with for a few days as it is about their looks.
“For me, those have always been the most fun jobs. On my first job for PacSun, we did a three-day shoot in Pismo and flew to San Jose and went to Big Sur. I think everyone drinks the Kool-Aid a little bit,” Vaidila says. “You’re supposed to be having fun, and it looks the best when you’re genuinely having a good time. I’m still friends with some of those girls.”
Unlike high-fashion shoots in New York, which trade in fantasy, these campaigns win on a mixture of accessibility and aspiration.
“You’re trying to appeal to normal kids,” Vaidila says, “who would look at the pictures and think, ‘I could be like that.’”
Jeff Buchman cites the teen surfing films of the ’60s, like Beach Party starring Frankie Avalon, as central to the creation of California style. They came on the heels of 1959’s Gidget, which starred Sandra Dee as the titular surfer girl, and were light-hearted and wholesome, standing in contrast to 1950s juvenile delinquent movies like Rebel Without a Cause. They were, however, quite different from Gidget when it came to substance.
“While Gidget was a teenage drama that narrated a comparatively sophisticated coming-of-age story, Beach Party reduced the beach film to its essentials: a group of semi-clad, attractive teenagers, dancing in the sand to cheerful musical numbers, a vicious yet hilariously stupid biker gang serving as token adversary, plenty of surfing footage, and negligible plot of romantic misunderstandings,” writes Pablo Dominguez Andersen in an academic journal article titled “The Hollywood Beach Party Genre and the Exotification of Youthful White Masculinity in Early 1960s America.”
The Beach Boys, formed in 1961, captured that same spirit and projected it far and wide. Thanks to these influences, Buchman says, “we began to see a beach culture wardrobe that was very casual, very cool, and laid-back.”
California came to represent youth and energy and outdoorsiness. This depiction of California was also decidedly white.
“Surf music and the beach bands that played it, together with the California, surfing and corporate promoters, enshrined the image that, in large measure, has defined Southern California in the popular imagination, a freewheeling paradise of young, golden-bronzed bodies with sun-bleached blonde manes, a place where whiteness was taken for granted,” writes John J. Bukowczyk in an article titled “California Dreamin’, Whiteness, and the American Dream.”
California, an endpoint of westward expansion in the continental US and an enduring symbol of the possibility of personal transformation, was experiencing a net population increase of roughly 1,600 people a day in the early ’60s. This included a great deal of racial diversity, yet “the culture industries of California — film, television, records — amplified these elements of mobility, opportunity, and rootlessness to celebrate an image of Southern California as a symbol of a homogenized Anglo-American identity and unmarked whiteness,” writes Bukowczyk. Nonwhite people, by contrast, were relegated to the role of “local color.”
This reverberates today. Think of Hollister’s early-aughts advertising, and you probably envision white, blond-haired beach dwellers with golden tans. At a time when brands have become more cognizant of showing diversity of age, size, and color in their casting, Brandy Melville’s Instagram account heavily favors the teenaged, leggy, and white.
This is by no means a problem limited to West Coast clothing brands, but these pictures gloss over the fact that in 2015, just 38 percent of California residents identified as white, versus a national average of 61.6 percent, according to the US Census Bureau. Asians accounted for 14.7 percent of California’s population, compared with 5.6 percent across the country; the percentage of black residents grew from 6.2 to 6.5 percent between 2010 and 2015. Three years ago, Latinos surpassed whites as the largest ethnic group in the state at 38.8 percent.
Nor does this revised reality exist only in fashion. In a profile of the hip, healthy-ish LA restaurant Sqirl for Eater, Marian Bull writes, “Much of the conversation around ‘California food’ — at least as presented in glossy magazines and on Pinterest boards and Instagram — whitewashes California’s culinary identity, particularly in Los Angeles, where Korean food and Mexican food are far more integral to the city's restaurant culture than cold-pressed green juices and quirky grain salads, especially for the longstanding immigrant communities that have settled there, whose traditions so frequently ‘inspire’ famous chefs and and fashionable establishments.”
When I bring this up, Buchman admits that food culture might be the most important influence coming out of LA right now.
California came to represent youth and energy and outdoorsiness. This depiction of California was also decidedly white.
“There’s absolutely no doubt that all the different influences of California fashion and movies and icons have had a major influence on the American psyche. You can be from Alabama, Maine, or Texas, and you have the same associations,” he says. “But if you think of how important it was in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and what it is now, I think it’s more in the past.”
Capturing the region’s appeal is a moving target: PacSun filed for bankruptcy in April, and changes have come to Hollister in the course of a wider rebranding at its parent company, Abercrombie & Fitch. American Apparel, an LA mainstay, filed for bankruptcy in November for the second time since 2015, and in January it was purchased by Canada’s Gildan Activewear.
The vehicle for marketing California may have changed, but what hasn’t necessarily ebbed is the disconnect between California’s true demography and its image-making.
Paige Mycoskie decided she was going to move to California when she was in high school in Arlington, Texas, though she didn’t get there until she graduated from college. She wanted to live somewhere she could snowboard and surf, and the fictionalized California she saw on screen let her know that there was a place where that was possible.
“I remember growing up and watching movies of kids surfing and rollerblading down the road and being like, ‘I want to go there,’” Mycoskie says over the phone. “I know what it’s like to watch California and want to wear California style.”
Today, Mycoskie manufactures California style for a living. Aviator Nation, the clothing brand she founded in 2006, is best known for super-soft hoodies and sweatpants that retail for north of $100 and can surpass $200. The color palette is saturated and ’70s-ish, inspired by the sunset, ocean, and trees. Otherwise basic in design, the clothing is decorated with tie-dye, lightning bolts, multitoned stripes, and vintage-looking surf logos repping Venice Beach, where the company is based. Mycoskie’s brother Blake, the founder of Toms Shoes, has a store down the block.
That aesthetic, sunny and uncomplicated, explodes in the bungalow on Abbot Kinney Boulevard that doubles as Aviator Nation’s flagship store and corporate headquarters. (The company has a full-time staff of eight, including Mycoskie.) Stacks and racks of squishy lounge apparel and worn-in couches give way to an artificial turf–carpeted room with a pingpong table and a small stage the store uses to hold concerts. A swath of rainbow fabric overhead gives the space the feeling of a blanket fort. Aviator Nation seems blithely apathetic toward the hushed minimalism that has come to dominate boutiques in recent years.
“I remember growing up and watching movies of kids surfing and rollerblading down the road and being like, ‘I want to go there.’”
Mycoskie was 26 and working at a local surf shop when she started “messing around” with sewing and dyeing clothes for herself. People asked where the pieces came from, so she made some more and got a booth at the annual Abbot Kinney Festival, bringing in $8,000 in a day. Mycoskie kept at it, working out of her apartment, and picked up accounts with Fred Segal and Planet Blue, both of which are headquartered in nearby Santa Monica. In 2009, she landed the space on Abbot Kinney, after an artist who sold his work in the front and lived in the back garage, now Aviator Nation’s office, moved out.
“What was cool is that people who had bought stuff at the street fair and lived in the neighborhood were immediately excited,” Mycoskie says. She’s sold at the festival every year since her first outing. “By the time I opened in 2009, I had an immediate local following that helped support the business.”
Venice has a lingering reputation as a haven for artists and the homeless, but it was founded as a resort town in 1905 by Abbot Kinney, a tobacco millionaire who wanted to recreate the canals of Venice, Italy in America. Local infrastructure soon lapsed into disrepair, though, and in 1926 Venice was absorbed into LA. The late 1950s brought the creation of the Disneyland-like Pacific Ocean Park, but that too fell prey to the corrosive salt air and weight of upkeep, and it closed for repairs in 1967. It never opened again, but the dangerous waters around the deteriorating pier became fiercely guarded turf among Venice’s surfers, including the Z-Boys, who in the 1970s also emerged as icons of Southern California skate culture.
“There is something faintly threatening about it all, an energetic gutter craziness that no one really claims to have under control. Venice has always been a place where meanness and creativity run too close together for comfort,” writes John Arthur Maynard in Venice West: The Beat Generation in Southern California.
As per one Aviator Nation staffer, Abbot Kinney Boulevard was in not-so-distant memory known as a “ghost town.” Consistent with the hopes of its namesake, the street has become a high-end shopping destination in recent years.
Venice was already feeling the tensions of gentrification when Mycoskie settled into her first store (“Wealth, Poverty, Anger Live Together in Venice,” reads one LA Times headline from 2006), but an influx of tech wealth has kicked the area’s upscale evolution into high gear. In 2013, GQ named it the coolest block in America. Snapchat and Google now have offices less than a 10-minute walk from Abbot Kinney, and the street is dotted with retailers like Rag & Bone, Aesop, Blue Bottle Coffee, and the Butcher’s Daughter, a trendy juice bar–slash–vegetarian café.
In sum, Abbot Kinney looks a lot like any other shopping strip that baits moneyed millennials.
Young direct-to-consumer startups like Cuyana, Kit and Ace, and the mattress company Casper have popped up or put down permanent roots on Abbot Kinney, uniting its up-and-coming spirit with their own narratives. Some brands, capitalizing on Venice’s distinct personality, have created site-specific store concepts. While Toms and Aviator Nation converted beach houses into homey, low-key shops, Warby Parker hired the LA artist Geoff McFetridge to splash a big blue mural across the facade of its “midcentury minimalist” space. The fresh hue matches its logo perfectly.
But as Venice residents grapple with the ramifications of this influx of dining and retail that’s resulted in rising housing prices, many feel that the neighborhood’s bohemian character has been diminished or perhaps lost forever. One LA Times headline from January sounded the death knell: “Snapchat has changed Venice, and the neighborhood isn’t changing back.”
When I speak with Mycoskie, she emphasizes the importance of steeping her brand in an authentic Californian spirit. She feels that customers can tell the difference between California-ness that was engineered in a marketing office somewhere and California-ness that springs from the minds of a team that’s fully engaged with it.
What happens when a maker of $186 hoodies chases proximity to that dream?
“I try to hire people that are really living the lifestyle,” Mycoskie says. “They either skate or surf or hike every weekend. They’re definitely part of the brand and the inspiration behind the brand.”
“Another huge thing that I’m very, very specific about is a positive attitude. The clothes are super-comfortable and the stores are super-inviting. They have this warm feeling,” Mycoskie says, noting that she’ll shift around her employees’ responsibilities if they’re not happy in their jobs. She can do that; Aviator Nation has only five stores, all in-state, with a sixth opening in Aspen this June.
Sure enough, on a quiet weekday afternoon, a few staffers were laughing and folding clothing at the front of the store. They were friendly but not pushy in the slightest, exuding a sort of live-and-let-live attitude toward customers. Insofar as a style of salesmanship can feel very California, this was it.
The California dream needs the perspective of outsiders like Mycoskie. It needs someone to spend his or her youth infatuated with the idea of the place, move out West, and then make a movie or write some music or sell a product that self-consciously, but not necessarily inauthentically, embodies that image and sends it out to other dreamers.
But what happens when a maker of $186 hoodies chases proximity to that dream, and so does a tech darling armed with funny dog-face filters that is about to IPO? What happens when the longtime residents who defined the neighborhood can no longer afford to live there? Does the place itself fade away, with the dream hovering where it was?
Was the reality always a dream?
Unless they’re way into surfing, few tourists will feel the need to visit Ventura, which lies an hour’s drive up the coast from Los Angeles. I made the trip on a sunny Wednesday morning. When the GPS finally instructed me to get off the freeway, I wended my way down a few quiet streets before arriving at what seemed to be my destination, a building with the words “GREAT PACIFIC IRON WORKS” written across its facade in stately all-caps. Below that, in branded lowercase, “Patagonia.”
It took me a few moments to realize that this was the store. My destination, Patagonia headquarters, was actually down the block.
My first impression was that I had stumbled into an upscale version of an environmental education center where kids go to learn about owl pellets. Wood beams framed the white walls, and the metal handrails and air vents had been painted forest green. Sunlight cut through the glass windows facing a vine-wrapped patio, where two men seemed to be taking a meeting at a picnic table.
A wooden plaque hung above the door to the cafeteria bears Patagonia’s mission statement (“Build the best product. Cause no unnecessary harm. Use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”) and just inside, a bulletin board featured the company’s recent press clippings in tidy rows. At that time, two-thirds of it was occupied by a recent New Yorker profile of the company’s founder, Yvon Chouinard.
“As California as we are, if somebody said we’re from Colorado or Wyoming or Montana, I don't think anybody would really put up a fight.”
Where I grew up in suburban Boston, North Face fleeces were the most coveted style of outerwear during the winter months. Soft, plushy zip-ups that came in cotton candy colors and looked a bit like shag rugs experienced a boom in popularity when I was in the sixth grade, though simple black fleece models were the most consistently on-point. Such was the dominance of North Face in the aspirational, heavy-duty winter wear category that I only vaguely knew about Patagonia, much less where it was based.
When the brand did eventually solidify on my radar, I figured it was based in the Patagonia region of South America, which seemed unlikely but didn’t strike me as important enough to investigate. It was only in the last few years that I realized Patagonia is based in Southern California.
The brand doesn’t push its regional heritage. “As California as we are, if somebody said we’re from Colorado or Wyoming or Montana, I don't think anybody would really put up a fight. Like ‘Oh yeah, that makes sense, you're a mountain brand,’” says Corey Simpson, a Patagonia PR manager from Idaho.
Instead, Patagonia sells the great outdoors with a mildly contrarian attitude, making technical apparel designed for everyday life as well as a variety of outdoor activities like climbing, skiing, and fly fishing. In 2011, it gained attention for a Black Friday advertisement that showed a blue fleece with the line “Don’t Buy This Jacket” printed above it, a call against consumerism that was, naturally, rather seductive to consumers. Patagonia always gives 1 percent of its sales to grass-roots environmental organizations, and last Black Friday, it upped that to 100 percent. At the end of the day, the donation totaled $10 million.
What Patagonia’s brand image lacks in California-ness, its corporate ambiance more than makes up for. Employees are known to go surfing in the middle of the day; a white board behind the front desk had space for a surf report, not yet filled when I visited. Nearly everyone wore flip-flops, with a few exceptions. A young guy working reception had on Birkenstocks, and Simpson was wearing sneakers. Only because he’d taken his car to the mechanic that morning and had to walk 20 minutes to work, he clarified.
I was scheduled to take a tour of the small campus with Chip Bell, commonly known as “Chipper Bro,” a lion of a guy with a gently saccharine manner. The Birkenstock-wearing receptionist described him as Patagonia’s “ambassador of stoke,” to which Chipper Bro added, “surfer, Frisbee player, and world’s greatest dad.” He is in fact an Ultimate Frisbee champion, and has been with the company for over two decades. Mainly, he works the front desk.
Chipper Bro volunteered to hold my recorder as we ambled past the daycare center for staffers’ children and toward the metal building where surfboards are made by hand.
“You don’t have to be a surfer, climber, dirtbag fisherman to work here. It helps, but it’s about understanding the end customer. Most people like to camp, like to hike, like to be part of their community through social things, environmental things,” Chipper Bro explains.
Patagonia’s staff quietly embodies the side of California that is outdoorsy, athletic, and eminently casual while focusing on their clothing’s functional properties. But it has become a potent part of the state’s image, at least in some circles, especially further north.
Just a few days before I visited, Business Insider published a story detailing venture capital investors’ love of fleece vests, particularly those made by Patagonia. Chipper Bro acknowledges that Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs and executives have indeed taken a liking to Patagonia’s style.
“I think they want to be connected to a brand that has social and environmental causes, that if they wear that, then they’re part of it,” he says. “I think it’s an image that they give themselves, but Yvon says to each person, including myself, ‘You need to live an examined life.’ But if you do that, you won’t want our clothes.”
Chipper Bro deposited me back at the front of the building, and I went to sit on a low stone wall on the front lawn with Tessa Byars, another member of Patagonia’s PR team. She offered me a kombucha from the cafeteria. It was stupidly nice out, and some employees had brought to work two puppies, who tussled in the grass. With a laugh, Byars assured me they were not plants. Eventually, the staff started trickling out to eat lunch in the sun, all rolled pants, multicolored fleeces, and flip-flops, with reusable bowls of salad and salmon in hand.
I fell for it all. Social and environmental causes are a good way to sell the brand, but this was way better.
It was cold and raining when I landed in San Francisco the following afternoon. I caught a cab downtown, dumped my stuff at my hotel, and hit the streets of a city with a reputation for a countercultural ethos and the unconventional style that breeds. Historically, anyway.
To an outsider, the convergence of hippies in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood during the Summer of Love in 1967 — set against the backdrop of Vietnam War protests and the establishment of the Black Panther Party, heightened by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and LSD — remains the most enduring symbol of that spirit. (That year, Charles Manson was released from a stint in jail and also moved to Haight-Ashbury, where he began to cultivate followers who he later coerced into committing murder.)
The tech-flooded San Francisco of today is famous for style that is, if not nonexistent, terrifically dull compared to the flowing dresses, suede fringe, and flower crowns of the late ’60s. Steve Jobs, with his veganism, drug use, and insistence to “think different,” embodied strains of that older counterculture, but is now a hometown idol to Silicon Valley workers in hot pursuit of disrupting transportation, food delivery, and pet-sitting. Jobs made a black turtleneck his trademark look. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg wears the same gray T-shirt every day so as not to waste precious energy on small decisions.
Patagonia’s success in San Francisco on the basis of its ties to environmental activism is representative of what some describe as a broader demand for clothing that offers meaning beyond simply looking good or on-trend. Shilpa Shah, co-founder of the San Francisco–based brand Cuyana, sees such positioning as fundamental to a brand’s success in the city. Cuyana does this explicitly through its “Lean Closet” program that lets customers opt into receiving recyclable bags with their purchases, which they can fill with any clothing they no longer want and send back. The startup then donates those items to domestic abuse victims through the Violence Intervention Program.
San Franciscans appreciate the origin of pieces. People wear what expresses their style, but also what represents their values.
Shah believes that threads of San Francisco’s hippie movement still exist to some extent. She describes participating in protests as a big part of her undergraduate experience at the University of California, Berkeley in the ’90s, just a stone’s throw away in the East Bay. When Shah returned to Berkeley for business school after a stint in LA, where she grew up, she found a student body eager to interrogate companies’ social missions — a culture rather different from the one her husband experienced at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
“San Franciscans appreciate the origin of pieces. Is there a component around it being fair trade? Is it ethically sourced? Where did it originate from? People wear what expresses their style, but also what represents their values, to some extent,” says Layla Katz, who when I spoke to her was a styling supervisor at the personal styling startup Stitch Fix.
Though local women spend plenty of money on clothing, they’re careful not to flaunt brand names for fear of looking superficial, says Shah. She sees the lack of shame around the pursuit of outward beauty as one of LA’s comparative strengths. Considering how well-groomed men in LA look, that seems to apply across the board.
“I love the fact that making and being and doing something beautiful is enough. That’s not something to be ashamed of. Why wouldn’t you want to look your best? It’s very nonjudgmental and easy there,” she says of LA. “I think there’s a lot of judgment in San Francisco, which is what breeds these extra layers of meaning into the fashion.”
Maybe this is why it was so much easier to get San Franciscans to talk about their clothes than it was their peers in San Diego and LA. Living up to the myth of Southern California chill, the latter weren’t prone to overanalysis. In San Francisco, everyone had an opinion, often barbed.
Chris Florendo, a 37-year-old manager at the secondhand store ReLove, recalls a vibrant fashion scene in San Francisco during his late teens and early 20s. Stores carried Margiela, Raf Simons, and Helmut Lang, he says, and the city was filled with artists and bohemian types dressed in all manner of singular outfits.
That culture of sartorial inventiveness has faded away, Florendo says. In his view, the cause is relatively straightforward: A booming tech industry has accelerated the city’s gentrification and pushed out the creatives who pioneer trends and set the beat for local fashion. What’s left behind is a bland landscape where style is hardly at the top of people’s minds. They have money, but, without the presence of artistic types to emulate, limited sense for how to apply it to their closets.
“With the tech companies, how people dress is becoming super-casual. We have women who come in and find beautiful dresses and say they don’t have an occasion to wear them,” Florendo says. “Why do you need an occasion to wear a beautiful dress?”
The coder stereotype of men in hoodies and T-shirts is an element of the new look of San Francisco, but from what I could tell, it also resembles the contents of a Madewell store. Over the next few days, I saw a lot of skinny jeans, heeled booties, and anoraks on women. The male equivalent was jeans, nice leather shoes, and button-downs. If not original, it certainly had an air of moneyed concern.
“You’ll see on any BART ride, guys are just outfitted head to toe with that suede detailed jacket, the dark selvedge denim that has stitching details,” says Stitch Fix’s Katz.
The look is casual but pulled-together. Universally digestible, hard to mess up. Optimized, like a tech product, for work and life.
I met up with Nkechi Njaka, a creative consultant who works with lifestyle, wellness, and fashion brands, at a coffee shop down the street called Saint Frank. It’s classic “AirSpace,” to borrow a term from The Verge. Decorated in shades of wood and white, perfectly anonymous in its minimalism, Saint Frank could have existed in Los Angeles, New York, Berlin, or Tokyo.
Njaka, who lived in LA, Brooklyn, Minneapolis, and Edinburgh before San Francisco, believes that aesthetics are an important way of expressing what’s inside. She’s grown frustrated by what she sees as a sameness pervading young San Franciscans’ wardrobes.
Universally digestible, hard to mess up. Optimized, like a tech product, for work and life.
“What you choose to wear embodies who you’re choosing to be in that moment. When all everyone wants to wear is Patagonia fleeces, baggy jeans, Chucks, and maybe a hoodie, I’m just like, ‘I don’t really know what you’re trying to communicate here,’” Njaka explains.
Not coincidentally, she’s found dating to be a challenge. For that, among other reasons, she was considering moving back to LA, until she found love in Oakland.
“Everyone really heavily identifies with where they work. It’s culty in that way, and part of being in a cult is fitting in,” says Njaka. “There’s a lot of homogeneity that comes with that.”
Sameness of style is indicative of graver issues of sameness in tech. The industry has yet to address the serious lack of racial diversity and gender parity in its workforce, despite frequent calls to do so. According to a recent report, African-Americans and Latinos each account for 5.3 percent of tech employees, which is at least 16 percent less than companies across all sectors. A CrunchBase study published last May showed that 7 percent of partners at the top 100 venture capital firms were women. Before clothes even come into play, everyone already looks alike.
While Florendo and others posit that many of San Francisco’s young professionals dress without a vision for a personal aesthetic, Njaka is getting at a kind of active intentionality, one that’s based on the exploitation of subtle cues to signal belonging to a particular group. Sydney Pfaff, who owns a boutique called Legion on the cusp of Chinatown and the Financial District, has picked up on this, too.
“You’re seeing more people in fleece than there even used to be, which is funny because that became a stereotype a long time ago,” she says. “It’s like they feel they’re supposed to, so they follow these rules. I think that’s what’s killing a lot of the personality and character that the city had.”
“They’re all chain people trying to not look like chain people.”
Pfaff, who was born in San Jose and has lived in the state her whole life, insists that some of San Francisco’s eccentricity remains. She describes her neighborhood, North Beach, as old-school and less susceptible to change, home to writers and beatnik types. But the rising cost of living has driven some of her friends to move to Oakland, LA, “or somewhere random where it’s cheap and they can buy a house, like Richmond, Virginia,” and Pfaff routinely sees small businesses tapping out.
Areas that have inched upscale have lost their feeling, she says, citing Hayes Valley as a prime example.
“The restaurants are expensive, and the shops are expensive. A lot of them are chain stores that are trying not to look like chain stores, and I feel like that’s the person, too,” Pfaff says. “They’re all chain people trying to not look like chain people.”
If Jeff Buchman, the FIT advertising expert, is correct in his assessment that fashion is no longer the most potent way to claim a California lifestyle from afar, it’s partly because California style itself has been overtaken by another, more aspirational look: that of the generic, global hipster.
Avocados taste best in California, but avocado toast lives in the international waters of social media. Likewise, the easy-sexy Reformation dresses and Levi’s mom jeans that the Los Angeles–based model Rima Vaidila describes seeing all over her neighborhood play just as seamlessly in gentrified Austin, Texas, as they do in gentrified Silver Lake. Ironically, this rootless look is a California innovation: San Francisco, where fashion has flattened, generates tools like Instagram and Pinterest that disentangle style from place. One local export contributes to another local (or, more often than not, locally inspired) industry’s obsolescence.
When I stopped by LA’s Arts District early in my trip, it struck me as a Disneyland version of Bushwick. Young people not tethered to an office on a Tuesday morning strolled by warehouses converted into fancy eateries and art galleries. They wore lucite glasses and jeans. Mike Tucker, an imposingly tall music producer and writer who goes by the name BloodPop professionally and worked on Justin Bieber’s Purpose album, loped past, dressed in all black. With some time to kill before a meeting, I ordered an espresso at a coffee shop where the only seats were low wood benches arranged on the sidewalk. Next to me, two women discussed the logistics of a food shop they were opening.
“Oh, you know what I omitted? All the gluten-free flours!” one of them exclaimed.
Just as Instagram replaced a democratic, chronological feed with an algorithm that bumps up photos it thinks you’re most likely to enjoy, gentrified zones like this fill with those goods that have sold before. It’s the flat whites, the wheat alternatives, the avocado toasts towering with poached eggs, large crystals of salt, and sprigs of greenery, along with the delicate jewelry, the crop tops, the chic athleisure. All of this I could have readily found at home.
Perhaps the rise of the ubiquitous cool, young hot person who travels the world, unbound to place, is just an amplified, crowd-sourced version of what we’ve already seen: the dislocation of regional style that brands have always employed when marketing California to the world.
It’s tempting to say that the basics-on-the-beach genre of California style simply overstayed its welcome, that fashion is cyclical and customers have grown immune to that type of marketing, but the appeal of the beach is evergreen. So long as we’re chasing sun and salt air, we’re probably not going to want to wear much more than a tank top and jean shorts.
Eliza Brooke is a senior reporter at Racked.
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