A quintessential L.A. retailer, Revolve’s website sells an assortment of fashion labels with a West Coast aesthetic—bohemian blouses from Tularosa, jeans from Citizens of Humanity, statement jewelry from House of Harlow. California is famously casual, so daywear features floaty dresses and short skirts for lounging. By night, the glitz and sparkle comes out. New York City is subtle and structured; L.A. is loud and wild.
But Revolve recently made a play for East Coast tastemakers by renting a house in the Hamptons for the season. Through a series of star-studded parties, the company was looking to reclaim the glory days of California style, when the Golden State’s laid-back clothes ruled casual dressing across the entire U.S., from Arizona to Maine.
During the mid-2000s, Juicy Couture’s bedazzled tracksuits were a go-to for Hollywood stars and could be found everywhere, whether on an Ohio teen or New Jersey mom. The label even had a flagship on Manhattan’s famed Fifth Avenue shopping street. PacSun’s more than 900 stores were thriving by selling surf T-shirts and board shorts in shopping malls. Hollister’s SoCal logo tees dominated high schools as kids flocked to its bungalow-like stores. Lustful ads attracted the nation to American Apparel’s shirts and hoodies.
But then, disaster. American shoppers abandoned their Cali threads in favor of more urban East Coast style, trading denim for little black dresses and sandals for leather booties. Juicy shuttered all its U.S. stores in 2014, PacSun and American Apparel each filed for bankruptcy protection, and Hollister has shed more than $400 million in annual sales over the past four years.
Yet now, the pendulum is swinging back with the rise of the so-called athleisure trend—clothes that can be worn both in the gym and on the street. Shoppers are prioritizing comfort, seeking out technical fabrics that have some sort of practical benefit, like stretchiness or the ability to wick moisture.
A growing group of fashion labels are looking to take California style national again—but this time, their outfits aren’t bedecked in rhinestones or covered in cheesy beach patterns. Instead, there’s Wildfox’s flowing sweaters and ironic tees that vibe with nature, and Joie’s vintage-inspired creations. Jessie Kamm’s cropped sailor pants are perpetually sold out. Nasty Gal built a $100 million business exporting L.A.’s penchant for nonbashful tops and party dresses with plunging necklines or skin-baring cutouts.
The clothes are pure California, but more sophisticated than ever. And Revolve plans to lead the charge.
Juicy Couture defined an era of casual fashion, building a velour empire with nearly 100 stores that peaked in 2008 with $605 million in annual sales. At the time, there was nothing simpler for Revolve to sell than a tracksuit from Juicy or 2BFree. “We just had to buy sweatshirts and pants with a couple colors and graphics,” said Michael Mente, one of Revolve’s co-founders. “It was so easy to sell.”
It’s more complicated these days. Revolve sells hundreds of different designers, most of whom vibe with the retailer’s casual inclinations. In 2015 it bought Alliance Apparel, which owned the labels Lovers + Friends, Tularosa, and NBD. Each brand designed for different sectors of the Revolve aesthetic—boho dresses, little bright rompers, or flashy nightlife attire.
Revolve expects to hit $600 million in sales in 2016, up from around $400 million last year, and will be profitable, according to Mente. Most of its business is online, but it also operates what it calls a “social club”—an event venue mashed up with a retail shop—on Melrose Avenue that holds parties for “It” girls and celebrities.
Revolve isn’t the only California company amping up cross-country activities. Jenni Kayne brought her refined cashmere looks to Southampton in the form of a pop-up shop. Juicy Couture is making a push under new management, relaunching its tracksuits in July at such upscale national department stores as Bloomingdale’s. Then there’s Pam & Gela, a second act from Gela Nash-Taylor and Pamela Skaist-Levy, the women who unleashed Juicy upon the world.
“We feel like we invented—” said Nash-Taylor, abruptly stopping herself mid-sentence. “It’s not that we invented California style. It’s that we took California style to the world.”
Pam & Gela is a “grown-up” version of their old label, said Nash-Taylor. Yes, the label sells comfy velour tracksuits, but in more toned-down colors and fewer sparkles. All California style, for that matter, seems to have become more refined. Nobody wears a bubblegum hoodie and matching sweatpants anymore; instead, they’re pairing embellished sweats with a vintage jacket. Gone are the days of revealing super low-rise sweats and jeans; the high waist with a stylish belt and tucked top is in.
“People started dressing down, and casual is a huge influence in design now,” said Nash-Taylor. “Whether it’s Celine or Vetements—even Chanel does sweatpants. Givenchy does sweatshirts.” Indeed, even Donatella Versace ditched her usual sexed-up flair in favor of a gym-inspired collection in January. Vetements, the red-hot couture Paris label, walked an ode to Juicy down its runway with a glittery, body-hugging cherry look.
For Mente and Revolve, the new challenge is taking these trends and turning them into more growth. Once, California was the retailer’s main source of revenue. Now, in terms of monthly sales, it’s neck-and-neck between its home state and New York. Sure, on this balmy day in the Hamptons, L.A. clothes that show a lot of skin make sense, but there are still some puzzling contradictions to figure out.
“How do we address our girl if she’s living in New York and it’s wintertime?” said Mente.