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California Style: How to Get the Look

Immerse yourself in the Golden State lifestyle by seeking out fashion-first independent retailers and local brands

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From Farrah Fawcett and Cindy Crawford in swimsuits on the beach to Jennifer Lopez and Gwyneth Paltrow in couture on the red carpet, Californian fashion has always been something to aspire to. The clothes we see in magazines and on TV offer a glimpse into life on the Best Coast, and beckon us to visit. The hope is that by heading west we can soak up not only the sunshine, but the sunshiny aesthetic too.

Perhaps the best way to dress—and feel—like a local is to shop like a local. Rather than stuff your suitcase, leave some room or pack an empty bag so that you can boutique hop while you’re in California.

Whether you’re visiting San Francisco or San Diego, or exploring Joshua Tree or Los Olivos, there are scores of independent retailers showcasing styles dreamed up by California-based designers. Given many regions’ commitment to localism, it’s not uncommon for boutiques invest heavily in clothing, shoes, and accessories that are designed and often produced within state lines, making them authentically Californian. And of course, some of the Golden State’s home-grown fashion superstars—household names like Trina Turk and Johnny Was—spread their sartorial vision via their own stores.

But how exactly do you define the Californian look? “Laid-back bohemian with a deconstructed edge,” says Los Angeles–based stylist Morgan Simonds of Better Off Dressed. “California is all about incorporating and creating the latest trends, and then putting a casual, beachy spin on them.” Keep reading for our suggestions on what to buy while here to put together the kind of relaxed ensemble California is known for.

Beachside Basics

“California style is a confident, beautiful silhouette that is as appropriate on the sand as it is on the street,” says Los Angeles womenswear designer Heidi Merrick. Begin with a flattering swimming costume, perhaps a nude bikini from Venice Beach brand Cali Dreaming or a sexy one-piece from the eco-friendly L.A. brand Hot as Hell. Cover up with a pullover rash guard by Merrick or a mesh dress from Jade Swim, two made-in-L.A. brands. The finishing touch? A Panama straw hat from Janessa Leoné, another Los Angeles label with a Culver City shop. Then, as the sun begins to set, change into a lightweight dress by local designers James Perse or Sugar Candy Mountain, or throw on a pair of sailor trousers by Jesse Kamm. Ward off the evening chill with a cropped sweatshirt by Backbeat Rags.

City Staples

Whether meeting friends for brunch, picking up produce at a farmers market or visiting a museum, you’ll want outfits that are comfortable yet stylish. Blogger Jacey Duprie of Damsel in Dior says, “If you really want to blend in wear trousers or jeans, not a sundress. Also, pack a jacket because it gets chilly in the evening.”

Fred Segal in West Hollywood and Elyse Walker in Pacific Palisades are great places to start your shopping adventure in L.A. Look for local labels like The Great, a womenswear collection by celebrity stylists turned designers Emily Current and Meritt Elliott; and Reformation, a line committed to creating feminine silhouettes with sustainable fabrics. In San Francisco, visit Hero Shop and The Voyager Shop, as well as the physical branches of local labels Everlanethe Podolls and Erica Tanov. Add a classic clutch from Los Angeles designer—and celebrity favorite—Clare V., and you’ll be good to go.

Athleisure Wear 

Given California’s obsession with healthy living, it’s perfectly acceptable to wear workout gear all day, even if you have no intention of exercising. Look for Mill Valley brand Carve Designs’ boldly patterned leggings, sexy tops by L.A.’s Electric Yoga and cotton hoodies by Emeryville-based Title Nine. Complete the look with a fashionable, reusable water bottle by the San Francisco company BKR and a Suga yoga mat, made in Encinitas (in North San Diego County) out of recycled wetsuits.

Dose of Denim

Though originally intended as workwear for farmers and miners in the 1850s, jeans were invented in San Francisco and popularized by Hollywood, thanks in large part to James Dean and Marlon Brando. “Start with Levi’s, they’re headquartered in San Francisco, after all,” says Bay Area blogger Stephanie Nguyen of Sunkissed Steph. “Opt for straight-leg jeans, shorts or an oversized jacket with some on-trend trainers, like classic black-and-white Vans. From there,” she says, “layer in the cool factor with a statement top or different accessories, like a straw bag or cat's-eye sunglasses.”

Many premium denim companies are based in California, including AG, Paige Denim, Citizens of Humanity, Mother Denim, Current/Elliott, 7 For All Mankind and Joe’s Jeans, which has a physical store inside South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa. Pair a cropped style with Beek sandals, SeaVees trainers or Rothy’s ballet flats, which hail from Newport Beach, Santa Barbara and San Francisco, respectively.

Evening Essentials

“Californians love flowy tops and trainers by day, but also like to add some glam at night with heeled sandals and layered necklaces,” says Simonds, who recommends Maxfield, an upmarket clothing store with locations in Los Angeles and Malibu. It’s a good bet for accessories, too, with classic pieces from California jewelers, including Sarah Jane Wilde, Lisa Eisner, and Colette, and Joanne Fisk. In San Diego, visit Boutique De Marcus in the Gaslamp District for on-trend designs for both women and men, or, if you’re looking for something formal, visit Alexia María in La Jolla. Everyone from Gwen Stefani to Tori Kelly wears her showstopping designs.

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