Gidget Goes High Fashion

Outsiders-the ones known in Los Angeles as suits, from the bizarre woolen things they wear on business trips--have always been intrigued by the laid-back lifestyle of southern California. Who could fail to love a place where people go to work in jeans, surf on their lunch hours and endlessly search for the fountain of youth? But while the rest of the country couldn't get enough of California's music, movies and morals, the fascination usually stopped short of designer fashion. For sophisticated career clothes and glamorous party dresses, even Californians turned to Seventh Avenue.

Now Seventh Avenue is looking to California. At Manhattan clubs, the regulars are decked out in taffeta, velvet and sequin-encrusted bathing suits. Michael Kors offers an emerald green off-the-shoulder bathing suit that can be taken to the islands and worn to a pool party or slipped under a velvet skirt for cocktails. The inspiration is straight out of the Pacific-although the matching crushed-velvet leggings are a concession to colder climates. Sophisticated California designers like Robin Piccone, Mark Eisen and Holly Sharp now have a new market for their career clothes-major East Coast outlets such as Bloomingdale's and Bendel's-- where their beachwear for all seasons is selling faster than alfalfa sprouts on Melrose Avenue. "California designers are the little secret most retailers count on for steady sales," says Kalman Ruttenstein, senior vice president at Bloomingdale's. Basic beachwear continues to attract shoppers, too. The West Coast Seventh Avenue is Orange County, where surfwear companies like Gotcha, Quiksilver and Ocean Pacific do a yearly business of more than $1.5 billion in sturdy denim shorts, Hawaiian-style floral shirts, tie-dyed T shirts and brightly colored bathing suits.

California style is hot because California is a state of mind that knows no boundaries. Clothes that go from ocean to office have an appealing practicality. "If you say the words 'American fashion' around the world," says Gotcha's president, Michael Tomson, "people think of three things: jeans, preppies or the beach." A former professional surfer, the 37-year-old Tomson is a role model for the 25- to 40-year-old customer he's trying to add to his company's list of teenage fans. He showed up for work one day recently in the southern California version of pinstripes: a pair of navy and tan Gotcha print shorts and a Comme des Garcons linen jacket. He calls this look "bottom-up fashion."

It may be comfort that makes California style so appealing, but it's the new high-tech fabrics that make the clothes comfortable. The designers use synthetics that move with the body and then spring back to their original shape. Lycra leggings are fast becoming the jeans of the '90s, while the best substitute for silk is microfiber, a polyester that looks and drapes like silk, but is always perfect, showing none of the snags and color variations of the real thing.

One designer stretching his creativity with Lycra is 32-year-old Mark Eisen, the hottest seller of the California pack. Eisen started his business with a $140,000 investment in 1988, and now takes in about $14 million a year. This season, he created a holiday collection full of synthetic daytime clothes, including denim and Lycra stretch stirrup pants. He's also turned out some sexy evening ensembles at reasonable prices (his silver-speckled rayon acetate evening dress is $250). But Eisen loves casual clothes the best. He made his name four years ago by creating what he called "couture denim," which might strike some people as an oxymoron. He even made a denim wedding dress covered in white tulle-presumably for the bride who throws her wedding down on the ranch.

Holly Sharp is more influenced by old-fashioned Hollywood love stories than by Westerns. The 34-year-old designer is known for a romantic retro look-flowing long skirts or wide-legged '40s-style jumpsuits with nipped waists and scooped necklines in granny-patterned florals. Granny wouldn't recognize the fabrics, though-lots of rayon, which keeps the price tags under $200. Swimwear designer Robin Piccone, whose neoprene swimsuits for Body Glove created a sensation, also uses synthetics, but her inspiration is more athletic than romantic. Her newest collection (under her own name) is inspired by the California fitness craze. She sews swimsuit cups and underwires into stretchy stirrup pantsuits to create sleek, one-step outfits for night or day. Piccone shows scuba jackets with bicycle shorts, a fencing jacket with leggings and a purple silk organza swing coat over a white Lycra sateen jumpsuit. (Catsuits and dresses range from $120 to $250.) Her clothes make the wearer look like she's always on her way to some sports arena..

Amid all the manufactured fibers and futuristic designs, the beautiful knitwear of Lianne Barnes seems almost a throwback to another time. Barnes, 29, turns out hand-loomed pullovers, cardigans and dresses that are casual and sexy. As befits a Californian, she often weaves politically correct themes into her designs--expressing her love of nature, the mountains and ethnic diversity in her choice of earth colors, appliqued flowers and American Indian patterns. "I'm not into the glitz and glamour of the movie scene," Barnes says. "I'm a beachy, mountain girl. And Los Angeles is a melting pot, with a strong European, Oriental and Hispanic influence. People wear what they want to wear. No power suits here." It's the perfect place for yet another California dreamer.