How So-Cal Went Global
From macho torsos to matcha teas, why we all embraced the Californian lifestyle.
California has always talked a good game. Way before “California Soul” or “California Dreamin’” or “California Love”, the state was synonymous with the good life. You know why Hollywood’s in Hollywood? The near-guaranteed blue skies made it much easier to shoot exteriors than it would have been in Minnesota. Or Morecambe. Back in the 19th century, pioneers exchanged stories of pigs running around ready-roasted with knives and forks already stuck in their backs. They called it America’s America.
And that was before Instagram provided Californians with the ideal way to taunt the rest of the world with its oceanside vistas and laid-back good health. The emergence of the social media platform (developed in San Francisco, of course) is simply one of the ways that the Golden State has upped its lifestyle propaganda in recent years. It is now firmly established as the place the lesser West looks to for future developments in tech, movies, TV, media, fitness, design, retail, food and over-priced non-carbonated beverages – with thriving art, fashion and literary scenes, too. Oh, and if I had a quarter for every musician who claims their latest album was “inspired” by that LA/Mr David Lynch/early 1990s West Coast hip-hop vibe, I could afford to valet park at the Chateau Marmont.
A new Californian Gold Rush has been gathering pace for a while now – and become unmistakable in the past five years or so. It’s turbo-charged by a San Francisco Bay Area tech boom, glammed up by the Hollywood stylists, and given a quasi-mystical sense of mission by the statewide propensity towards hippiedom. (Not coincidentally, there’s a simultaneous Green Rush. Since California voted to legalise cannabis in November, the freeways have been lined with billboards advertising cannabis lifestyle products and hydroponic startups.)
You can’t move far in the neighbourhoods of Echo Park or Mar Vista without hitting a New Yorker who has moved to LA, tired of miniscule apartments, inclement weather and jaded hipsterism. A couple of years back, even The New York Times (which usually affects a snooty disdain for the West Coast) was forced to change its tune. “LA is enjoying a renaissance with a burgeoning art, fashion and food scene that has become irresistible to the culturally attuned.” Ooh!
I relocated here from London last year with sun, sea, space and a certain zeitgeist in mind – and soon became painfully aware that I wasn’t the only pasty Brit to conceive of this genius move. The playground on Venice Beach is marginally posher than Notting Hill, everyone seems to be cashing in on their “adorable” accent by launching a virtual reality startup or an athleisure brand. It’s also full of chic French women asking the way to Abbot Kinney (the coolest street on Earth, according to Parisians, it seems), which is, confusingly, full of chic Euro boutiques. Rents, I’m afraid, have readjusted accordingly. Parking is hard to find.
But California is still obligingly Californian. If you go to an art opening or a punk gig or a literary talk, there’s none of the jaded been-there, done-that you find in other cultural capitals. The charm lies in its curiously old fashioned quirks (did you know they haven’t discovered duvets out here and Chateau Marmont is kind of like an old people’s home?). People seem pretty happy to be here, glamorously laid-back and heartbreakingly upbeat, “And when they let you down/You get up off the ground” as La La Land has it. And they really want everyone to come along with them.
If it’s a painful, humiliating or silly exercise trend, the chances are it originated in California. If it’s a painful, humiliating or silly exercise trend with cultish overtones and exhortations such as “You were not born to be mediocre” and “Cherish each day” and “Fail better”, it definitely originated in California (and secretly, we love them for it).
The modern cult of bodybuilding had well and truly taken root in Muscle Beach, Venice, by the 1950s – around the same time the western appropriation of yoga really got going in Santa Cruz. It was Ms Jane Fonda who made the transition from political activism to self-improvement with her exercise videos in the 1980s. And now Barry’s Bootcamp, climbing gyms, CrossFit, semi-spiritual spin classes and Burn 60 interval training anti-gravity workouts are merely updating the trends – and coming to, if not already installed in, a studio near you.
There are a number of reasons why all treadmills lead west. One, exercising outdoors makes a lot of sense when it’s really sunny. Two, exercising indoors makes a lot of sense when you’ve built your cities around the car. Three, the obsession with body image is all pervasive – perhaps California’s cruellest export. Four, exercising in a group makes you feel good – perhaps California’s kindest export.
Increasingly, the Californian approach to fussy eating has taken hold in the most unlikely places. You’ll find gluten-free pizza in Rome, vegan-chic salad bars in Paris and cold-pressed green juice bars in Shanghai. Which feels wrong somehow.
The obsession with “clean eating” makes a lot more sense when you realise that the kale in California actually tastes pretty good. It’s the climate. The state is responsible for almost all of the US’s fruit and vegetables: 99 per cent of its artichokes, 99 per cent of its walnuts, 97 per cent of its kiwis, 95 per cent of garlic and so on. At Erewhon, the implausibly aspirational Fairfax supermarket, the brassicas are displayed with an allure that must have been learned from the San Fernando porn industry. Its varieties of kombucha, kimchi and kefir make Whole Foods look like a service station snack counter.
California’s is also an immigrant culture, hence the California roll, the kimchi dog, the ramen burger and endless tacos. It’s also where the food truck took off and In-N-Out Burger was born. Hence, the instinct towards full-on sensory indulgence and feel-good abstinence are held in constant dynamic tension.
All about image
There was a time when Californian men’s style was not much to WhatsApp home about: branding you could recognise across an eight-lane freeway, fake band tees, trucker caps, “Executive Hoodies”, douchebag detailing on jeans.
However, ever since Mr Hedi Slimane relocated his operations from Paris to LA while he was creative director at Saint Laurent, there has been excitable talk of the City of Angels becoming the fifth fashion capital. It already has some of the most directional womenswear designers – Mr Jeremy Scott of Moschino, Mses Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte, Mr Greg Chait of The Elder Statesman.
LA has the requisite subcultures to draw on for inspiration, from surfers to rappers to skaters to bikers to bodybuilders to punks to those gnarled but always well-toned old hippies. It has the beach-to-boardroom lifestyle that pushes towards athleticism and comfort. And well, a V-neck T-shirt does flatter the pecs you’ve spent so much money honing.
There’s a fine art to dressing informally with just the right amount of “I woke up like this”. Your white tee should be spotless. Your jeans unstained. But try hards will be spotted a mile off. If there’s a secret to California style, it’s layering (vital, with the fluctuations in temperatures in a desert). A scuffed-up leather jacket will usually hold it all together.
Should you move to California, you will soon be inundated with recommendations of people you should see. “I know the best noodle guy.” “Let me introduce you to my dry cleaner.” “You’ll definitely need a gyno.” “Oh my God, my crystal therapist is ah-maz-ing.” “My personal trainer was working me so hard today, I’ll give you his number.” “So who’s doing your cleanses?”
Part of the reason is that a lot of Californians were outsiders once. It’s confusing being far from home. Particularly when you’re following dreams with attendant heartaches and pratfalls. They need people – professionals, even – to pick them up again. And once they find their people, they tend to stick with them. Even if their people turn out to be a certifiable cult. It’s one reason why the entourage has become the ultimate status symbol. So wherever you are, find your stylist, your yoga instructor, your preacher, your crystal therapist, your oral hygienist, your dry cleaner, your business guru, your bone-broth guy. And tip them well.
I bet you non-Californians didn’t have a trainer, a yoga teacher, a therapist and a nutritionist until five years ago. That, my people, is the Californian Effect at work once again.
You cannot move far in California without being walloped around the face by positivity. It’s a civic duty. It’s almost impolite to be cynical. They’re a bit cooler about these things in the Bay Area, but it was up here that a young tech entrepreneur told me: “I honestly feel like we’re living in the modern equivalent of Renaissance Florence,” no trace of irony.
Similarly, Californians teach us there is no experience, good or bad, that cannot be incorporated into your own narrative of self-realisation. In Silicon Valley, there is a full-on cult surrounding failure. Failure is one of the however-many traits of a successful person, if you read the motivational blogs.
In LA, the local radio hosts will inform you that there’s been a seven-vehicle pile-up on the I-10 eastbound at La Cienega and it will take two hours to get to Downtown. “But why not make it a meaningful moment?” It seems faintly improbable that such a can-do spirit might take hold on the Instagram feeds of Berliners and Mancunians. But such are the times. They are Californian times.
Illustrations by Mr Giordano Poloni