California Fashion Designer, Gina Ellis, Recreates Modern Style with Class
Southern California Stylin': Chill, Laid-back and All That
Easy Westcoast Styles During Difficult Times
In 2020 we all went through a lot of changes, and in 2021, it seems as if we're still wavering and unsteady. From my vantage point as an L.A.-based fashion/feature writer of African American descent I've noticed how much retailers and consumers struggled to adjust. Stores buffeted by COVID-19, vandalism during long-standing protests, and high unemployment turned the fashion industry into a dramatic teleplay. Many malls shuttered their doors, forcing shoppers to buy online.
For once I didn't feel bad about having SLE Lupus, and being in remission from Stage II A Breast Cancer, because now the whole world was joining me in my health induced quarantine. Even the students I help as a Special Education Instructional Assistant for LAUSD are joining me in online learning as schools remain closed during the coronavirus.
Still it isn't all bad, and through my confinement, I've learned how to analyze and interpret my world in a new way. Noting quickly what my fellow Los Angelenos are wearing on my brief trips to Kaiser-Permanente, Mar Vista Library, and my hair stylist, then comparing it to what I see in magazines and on the internet, I've been able to witness the evolving scene.
The Real Stuff
Resilient, yet refreshing, despite all of its sartorial obstacles, heightened by protective face masks and social distancing, California style has remained steadfast and given me a strong foundation to work from
Southern California Style
For years the stereotypical look the public associated with Southern California was of well tanned blonde women in denim shorts who spend all of their free time at the beach. While there definitely is that version, the style has broadened significantly, with the COVID-19-inspired athletic and leisure trends of sweats, t-shirts, and sneakers updating it aesthetically. In addition to sweats, leggings and skinny jeans are still popular with L.A. women regardless of their size, age, lifestyle, or race.
Decidedly non-cutting edge, the thing that makes these clothes distinctively L.A. is the way they're worn and the wearer's approach. For instance, instead of just wearing a pair of traditional black leggings with a plain oversized t-shirt, they give it a unique twist with a pullover sweater and a plush knit scarf. If the wearer decides to wear leggings in a neutral shade like gray, instead of black, they might also pair them with a light blue sweater, gray knotted headband, gray face mask, and brown leather Birkenstock sandals.
Denim jeans, that other California staple, that makes a regular appearance are seen frequently on both sexes in as many pairings as leggings. Frequently worn with t-shirts and other short-sleeved tops, they've also gone sporty with sneakers and retro with ballet flats. Reminiscent of Gidget and 1960s Barbie cropped versions are worn with colorful Marimekko and Lilly Pulitzer tops too.
Due to its casual appeal, whether it's a pair of jeans, an A-line skirt, shirtdress, Bermuda shorts or a chambray button-down, denim and casual are practically synonymous. Ranging in price, and lineage, chic denim separates can be found at thrift stores, online, or in chain stores all over the state. If you're wondering why it's such a staple in California, all you have to do is look at its versatility and ability to accommodate any lifestyle and budget. Whether you are a surfer in Malibu, or a fashion designer in downtown L.A., you can rock them your own way.
When I was living in San Francisco and attending San Francisco State University in the early 1980s, I might've worn a pair of snug, cropped Levi's, a vintage sleeveless top, and a pair of pointy-toed, dead-stock flats. Today, however, if I visited a store in L.A. to write a profile, I might wear a vintage black and white pinstriped Norma Kamali blazer, a white button-down shirt, vintage wide leg Levi's, and red cowboy boots. Despite their chronological and geographical differences both outfits share a sartorial bond.
Classic but Trendy
The Influence of Trends
Trends in California, particularly in L.A., sometimes make it difficult to see what is really "in" at the moment because street trends differ from those written about in the press or on the internet. You might see one trend, such as slide with athletic socks and sweatpants, or flannel shirts and jeans, but rarely will you see the whole gamut of looks at once, unless you attend a fashion show and they all waltz down the catwalk together. This habit of obsessively wearing the same thing as everyone else is one way certain groups uniformly identify with each other. Similar to Mods, Rockers, and other style tribes of yore, they silently signify allegiance to a certain methodology.
On the opposite side of this coin, are the individualists who march to their own drums. Influenced by their own inner muses, you will see them trying out a little bit of everything, and adding their own personal stamp. Within the fashion spectrum they belong at the top and are usually considered trendsetters. Highly evolved aesthetically, they pave the way for the rest of us.
Traditionally L.A.'s contribution to fashion have been largely influenced by Hollywood, whether it's through the movies, on TV, or on the red carpet, often drawing designers like Hedi Slimane and Tom Ford. Recalling Hollywood's Sunset Strip and Laurel Canyon's hippie scenes, it's impossible to ignore the overall effect of mild weather and natural beauty from California's coastal, mountain and desert regions as well.
Gina Ellis, "Prayer Haute Couture"
An Archetypal Designer
Of course throughout my career I've met quite a a few local designers who reflect the Southern California lifestyle in their clothing, yet out of my extensive list, one of the ones who's impressed me the most is Gina Ellis founder of Prayer Haute Couture. What makes my meeting her so profound was the location of my initial discovery.
I had just moved, with my mother, to a house next door to my grandmother's house in South Central Los Angeles after living in an apartment near Culver City for over 20 years. Driven by a desire to get to know my new neighborhood better, by taking a walk, I traveled up the street and before I reached the corner I saw Gina Ellis' studio in a well-decorated factory space. Unexpected and beautiful it contrasted so effectively with the surrounding area I knew interviewing her would add significantly to my knowledge about West coast Style.
Up until the time I discovered Ellis and her company I wasn't sure if the redefinition of sportswear was due to the influx of different cultures or global occurrences that affected the world, and California, or the mainstream acceptance of the genre. But now, with the popularity of coordinated workout gear, knits, brightly hued sweats, earth tones, and comfy sneakers worn with everything I believe it occurred because of a combination of all these factors.
Setting herself apart from the traditional variety offered by Juicy Couture, Uniqlo, Zara, H&M and others she decided to add refinement and elegance to her line of sweats, wraps, sweaters, throws, leggings, and t-shirts by constructing them out of cashmere and Supima cotton then further detailing them with embroidery. Flowing from one natural palette to another, her ash, gray, and black collections make one feel as though they're looking at a Dorothea Lange photograph or Georgia O'Keeffe abstract painting. Beautiful as either stand alone or coordinates her pieces also go well with vintage Jean-Paul Gaultier or Marc Jacobs.
"Prayer is the ultimate lifestyle collection for the modern woman who is also a trendsetter," said Ellis. "She also understands fashion and wants comfortable and wear things that translate well from travel to work."
Recently the idea of buying less and wearing existing wardrobe pieces more often has become the philosophy behind sustainably-based companies like Eileen Fisher, Guyana, and Everlane. By promoting her philosophy about well-made classics that last for years, Ellis could be seen as an early advocate for this school of design. Geared for women with a similar mindset, it was her weariness over the same old downtime standards that prompted her to take a chance and fill a niche for those who wanted more than shorts and jeans
Petite with long blonde hair, and an athletic body, she personifies the California Girls the Beach Boys sang about in the 1960s. She's her own best muse. Casually dressed in a sleeveless white tank top, skintight black pants and black ankle boots, when I interviewed her in her showroom, she told me the reason for creating Prayer initially "was to give herself options".
Born on August 19, the same day as Coco Chanel, she shares more than a birthday with her. She also shares a natural gift for design. More intrinsically skilled than classically trained she insists her "approach to style" came from being raised among the grandeur of Big Sur. Originally from New York, she came to California at two years old. Her parents were professional dancers, top talents who added glamour to various nightclubs and fraternized with Gwen Verdon and other fleet-footed hoofers. She later studied dance with Jaime Rogers, but insists since her heart really belongs to fashion, she followed that path instead.
"At 7, when I lived at Big Sur, a salesman came by with a treadle sewing machine," she said. "I begged my mother to buy it. When she did, I made my brother a shirt with it."
Professionally her career has been varied enough to make her current venture a logical succession. From her days as a film wardrobe stylist and rock'n'roll costume designer to a graphic artist she's refined a signature style that's eternally significant. An industry veteran, of over 10 years, she has an extensive background in retail and label ownership. She used part of her name when she started Gina Nicole in 1982 and later in 2005, she started Classic Collections the foundation for Prayer Haute Couture. But if you're thinking her company has ever been, or will ever be, as widely promoted as Ed Hardy you'd be wrong because she's always believed in "building a strong base through small growth".
"My customers are 40 to 60 year olds," she said. "They're more forward-thinking dressers, jet setters and celebrities. We haven't sought out the press and publicity, instead they've come to us. We've also put merchandise directly into stores."
The celebrities who've already worn Prayer Haute Couture are Cindy Crawford, who wore an off-white Elegant Throw in an informercial for a skincare product, and Cher who bought her Phoenix sweats. When asked who her dream customers are she said, "Angelina Jolie and Cate Blanchett".
As wonderful as her clothes are to wear it's the positive spirit she attaches to each garment that makes them really special. Whether or not you agree with her that "everyone needs a prayer" you can't deny we all need clothes made by designers who care about quality as much as she does.