Everybody has a chronic travel daydream, the escape to fantasize about when conference calls drag on or e-mail gluts the in-box. In the grip of a deadline I’m a surf-side California dreamer. I can’t actually surf, but something about the image of wave-riders barefooting it across Malibu’s Pacific Coast Highway at dawn, boards tucked under their arms, makes me wish I were Sandra Dee as Gidget frolicking on Surfrider Beach in a polka-dot bikini or Cheryl Ladd hanging out at Kris Munroe’s Malibu beach house in Charlie’s Angels.
Some people will argue that the food and fashion scenes in Malibu are unremarkable. And it’s true that it’s hard to see beyond the Barbie and Baywatch image of the place. But to my mind Malibu—especially its free-spirited barefoot approach to life—is the fountainhead of many of America’s most influential style trends. Most fashion editors will roll their eyes if you suggest that trends in clothes, like so many other elements of American life, move from west to east. As a big-city native, I, too, find the reality of Malibu’s wave of surfer style easier to ride in a daydream than in reality. But when you think about how casual our culture has become, how we dress less for business than for comfort, it’s hard to dispute that American fashion etiquette has been shaped by California’s outdoor-life, laid-back style. The long-skirted bohemian look, hoodies, Vans, those weird Vibram FiveFingers shoes, anything neon, hobo bags, trilbies, and vintage graphic T-shirts are all products of the West Coast’s skate and surf culture. Surfers were early adopters of Ugg boots, slipping them on after they peeled off their wet suits. Even old-school designers on New York’s Seventh Avenue have been known to dip their toes into surf-inspired looks such as neon neoprene or Teva-style sandals.
My first stop after dropping my bags at the Malibu Beach Inn—a once rundown motel recently rehabbed by David Geffen—was lunch at Taverna Tony with Ron Herman, the legendary Los Angeles retailer (everyone in Malibu is legendary and everything is epic). It was Herman who, along with his uncle Fred Segal, helped shape the Malibu look of sexy, colorful, and casual clothes: jeans, tight T-shirts, and print dresses. Segal bought a dumpy motel on Cross Creek Road back in 1975 and set up shops in the ground-floor rooms, filling them with imported European labels such as Chacok, Lothar, and Mic Mac, turning it into a popular shopping center called the Malibu Country Mart.
In the galaxy of great retail stars, Herman is a supernova. He is also a rebel who knows what he likes and looked verklempt at the idea of dining at one of Malibu’s more touristy spots. “They dance on the tables here on weekends!” he cried with mock disbelief. Like many Malibu regulars, Herman enjoys eating at Coogie’s Beach Café, a no-frills breakfast place next to the supermarket. He also loves to tell the story of the time three tourists tapped him on the shoulder in his boutique and asked him how to get to the town of Malibu. “I told them there is no Malibu,” Herman says with a laugh. “It’s just a highway and three strip malls.”
It’s true that if you don’t know what to look for or where to go you could cruise up Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Monica and never notice such landmarks as Moonshadows, the spot where Mel Gibson has been known to enjoy himself a little too much, or the back sides of billionaire mansions designed by Richard Meier and Marmol Radziner on Carbon Beach. You could get all the way to Zuma Beach, on the northern end of Malibu, with its postcard-perfect lifeguard stations silhouetted against the sunset, and be wondering, “Are we there yet?”
Video: Beach Getaways
As many songwriters have pointed out, Malibu is as much a state of mind as it is that 27-mile slice of California coastline that runs from Topanga to Ventura County. Head north and on your left lie the famous point breaks known to surfers around the world. If you look closely off Point Dume you can see dolphins jumping or, in late spring, gray whales migrating north with their calves. On your right are the cliffs and Santa Monica Mountains terraced with gigantic estates and rehab centers. After heavy rains, the cliffs tend to slide across the highway, further isolating Malibu from the sprawling madness of Los Angeles. In the 1960’s, when mudslides closed the highway for weeks on end, L.A.-bound locals would leave a car on either side of the slide so they could commute.
“It’s a short distance from Los Angeles, but emotionally it’s a big distance,” Herman says. “Even if they come in a Rolls, they are letting go of a lot.”
When Segal opened the Country Mart, he dumped a ton of sand into a pit and made a playground for local kids to romp in while their moms shopped for gypsy blouses and low-slung jeans. “We were dressing people for the beach, but also for the country,” adds Herman over a huge California salad. “That’s what made Malibu unique and still does—the authenticity of the country life mixed with beach life.” The Country Mart is just as popular now as it was back then. On any given day you might see Oscar nominees pushing their offspring on swings between lunch at the Italian trattoria, Tra Di Noi, and a quick shopping fix of sun-faded T-shirts at Planet Blue. Thirty-five years ago Malibu was a place where families lived earthy and artistic lives up in the canyons. They had horses and farms; they came down to the Country Mart in riding clothes. Some still ride their horses right into the Country Mart and saddle up behind the car wash. Artists still live up in those hills, but so do Courteney Cox, Pierce Brosnan, and Kelsey Grammer.
A premium on privacy and independence has prevailed in Malibu since the end of the 19th century, when May Rindge and her husband, Frederick, bought Rancho Malibu—“a farm near the ocean”—and later fought to keep a railroad and public roads from running through it. After her husband died in 1905, May Rindge continued to fight to prevent public access to her land, locking gates and only lending keys to neighbors and ranch hands. To pay for her legal battles, she leased oceanfront property to Hollywood celebrities who liked the fact that Malibu had very few laws and even fewer paparazzi. By the 1930’s movie stars like Barbara Stanwyck and Gloria Swanson were building “shacks” along the private beach that came to be known as the Malibu Colony.
Today, access to the Colony or Little Dume Beach is restricted to residents. But a lot has changed since May Rindge’s time. The easement next to David Geffen’s house on Carbon Beach allows a deluge of paparazzi to crowd the shoreline. At the Country Mart, fashion brands such as Missoni and Lanvin—the kind of labels better suited to high society than high tides—are moving in. Nike has opened a massive outpost that will also sell Hurley surf gear, and Whole Foods has staked its claim on the land behind the skate park. Oracle founder Larry Ellison was rumored to be developing a franchise of St.-Tropez’s famous Club 55 for his new Carbon Beach complex. To this day Malibu has no Main Street or town center. The post office is in a strip mall next to a greasy spoon called the Country Kitchen, where a guy named Morry shoos away paparazzi while serving breakfast burritos by the side of the highway. The local trailer park, whose residents refer to their homes as “land yachts,” is called Paradise Cove, and the best sushi and Mexican food can be ordered from the same ramshackle restaurant tucked behind Point Dume. Even the menu at Nobu is unapologetically casual. Chef Gregorio Stephenson has added such un-Nobu fare as a grilled rib eye with truffle butter sauce to the menu.
This nonconformist style tends to minimize the distinctions between high and low. You can come to Malibu just to drop in on a wave, as so many day-tripping surfers do; they park on the side of the highway and slip into their wet suits. Or you can come to Malibu and drop $47 million on three oceanfront lots. There’s an appealing absence of attitude and status anxiety. Despite the dense population of celebrities, the mentality is small town—well, up to a point. However understated they may be, most small towns don’t offer the spectacle of farmers selling balsamic lemonade beside the highway and such famous faces as Cindy Crawford and Pam Anderson doing their volunteer turns as crossing guards at the elementary school.
“It’s a no-worries kind of town,” says Stefani Greenfield, cofounder of the Scoop chain of clothing stores, who spends part of each summer in Malibu. “There’s an ease. People move slower, they talk slower. You could have $10 or $10 billion and it doesn’t really matter.” Nick Nolte used to wander through the Country Mart in his bathrobe.
“When I was growing up here people did not wear clothes,” says Laurie Lynn Stark, whose husband, Richard, cofounded the Chrome Hearts brand in a Malibu garage. “You went barefoot in a bikini to the market and that was not weird. T-shirts with cowboy boots and boxer shorts rolled down was not an unusual look.”
They even speak a different fashion language in Malibu. “Burn-out,” for example, doesn’t necessarily refer to the result of too much intense work; it also happens to be a T-shirt style. When someone refers to ozone or laser, they might not be talking about the environment or their latest treatment from resident dermatologist Rebecca Giles; they could be talking about a new denim wash.
This spirit of sunstruck dishabille, which seems blended from Malibu’s traditional anti-conformity and its mountain and ocean views, can make even the most simply dressed urban fashionista feel conspicuous, as I did in a plain uniform of black pants and jacket. Rea Laccone, a former Jil Sander–wearing fashion executive from Los Angeles, started the Vince label after spending more time at her Malibu home and finding that she didn’t have the right casual clothes. “So much of the way we dress is dictated by the weather,” she says. “There are no rules because you never know if it’s going to be hot or cold. So the look becomes very eclectic.”
Indeed, if you show up at Nobu in anything fancier than sandals, you’ll get the side eye from locals who sip their passion-fruit sake with their ceviche on the patio or at the bar, where they get special service from Nicole. And when people come back from town they apologize for being so dressed up, as environmental activist and co-chair of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) leadership council Kelly Meyer did one recent afternoon when she came home from a confirmation Mass, teetering around a local fund-raiser in heels. “Sorry, sorry, I’ve been in town,” she remembers telling friends.
Most residents drive around with surf or hiking gear at the ready in their trunk. There’s an 88-year-old woman in Paradise Cove who swims in the ocean every day. “The ocean really dictates our schedule,” says Lyndie Benson, who has lived in Malibu for 15 years. “If there are great waves, we’ll cancel other plans and just go surfing.” For residents like Benson and Meyer, conservation is topic A. Other residents spend the better part of their time raising money for charities such as Heal the Bay. For a recent “Peace Paddle Out” to raise money for NRDC’s ocean initiative, Meyer enlisted local boarders and surfers to form a peace sign in the ocean off Paradise Cove.
Some Angelenos drift up to Malibu for the outdoor lifestyle or the close-knit community—both on and off the water—and never go back. Rande Gerber and Cindy Crawford found Malibu to be the ideal place to raise their kids. “I can run my business from my home office and watch my son surf after school,” says Gerber, who opened a branch of New York’s Café Habana in the Malibu Lumber Yard shopping center in part so that he could have a place to go for dinner with his family and friends.
Designer James Perse rented a house on Malibu Road four years ago and hasn’t looked back. “I could see a contrast of who I was in the city and who I was here and I chose here, no question,” he says. “There’s such a sense of community, from the people who have been here for fifty years, retired surfers, to people like me who are looking for a place to find community.”
Although his business is based in L.A., Perse moved his family to Point Dume and spends as much time doing outdoorsy stuff—trail running, surfing, and biking—as he does designing his signature supersoft T-shirts and slouched-on linen pants. His newfound outdoor bliss inspired Yosemite, a line of activewear. And now you can buy James Perse–branded mountain bikes, surfboards, and comfy, overstuffed couches in his Lumber Yard flagship. “The source of inspiration is the way people live here, the idea of minimalism and sophistication mixed with the warmth, the sun,” he says. “I want to create something that feels good, something to smile about.”
Nobody knows the intimate connection between nature and sophistication better than George Vasquez of Zuma Canyon Orchids, a nursery on Bonsall Drive that’s been supplying homes and businesses with plants since 1974. On the day I visited him in his whitewashed-glass green house stocked with thousands of white butterfly orchids and custom arrangements of yellow, red, gold, and fuchsia hybrids, Vasquez was commandeering a noontime delivery to Tim Conway for his birthday. “For Joe the butcher or John the billionaire it’s the same price. We arrange for free,” Vasquez told me. “No decorator’s fees.” Vasquez, who grew up in Malibu and learned to surf on Zuma Beach, has seen his fair share of billionaires, servicing homes from Beverly Hills to Montecito. He has supplied Spellings, Bridgeses, Adlers, McCourts, and even Gordon Ramsay. “The thing about orchids is,” he says, “you meet the nicest people.”
The first time I visited Malibu, many years ago, I remember walking on the beach at Little Dume with an old friend of my husband’s. His kids were all tossing around in the waves, and we were talking about the vast difference between the casual vibe of his Malibu lifestyle and my stressed-out urban frenzy back in New York City. In retrospect I have to confess that I didn’t “get” Malibu. I couldn’t imagine why people would pay millions of dollars to live in rickety houses overhanging the ocean with the Pacific Coast Highway zooming through their living rooms. And those surfer dudes who parked on PCH seemed slightly mad to me, especially on an unseasonably cold and rainy May morning. But on my recent visit it was only a matter of hours before I had peeled off black layers of urban gear and suited up in jeans and a T-shirt, captivated by the unconventional sight of sun-bleached barefoot surfers crisscrossing parking lots, surfboards in hand, stoked to catch a wave.
Great Value Casa Malibu Inn on the Beach Prime views of area real estate from Carbon Beach. 22752 Pacific Coast Hwy.; 800/831-0858; casamalibu.com; doubles from $169.
Café Habana Malibu George Clooney is a fan of the bougainvillea-covered patio, where diners order fish tacos and tequila on the rocks. 3939 Cross Creek Rd.; 310/317-0300; dinner for two $75.
Country Kitchen The burgers and breakfast burritos are some of the best on the West Coast. 21239 Pacific Coast Hwy.; 310/456-8708; lunch for two $25.
John’s Garden Fresh Health Store This family-run sandwich shop has been making its famous avocado clubs for more than 30 years. 3835 Cross Creek Rd.; 310/456-8377; lunch for two $20.
Malibu Seafood Clam chowder and battered cod are staples at this popular fish shack. 25653 Pacific Coast Hwy.; 310/456-3430; lunch for two $40.
Nobu Chef Gregorio Stephenson serves up lobster and shiitake salad, sashimi, and ceviche. 3835 Cross Creek Rd.; 310/317-9140; dinner for two $150.
Savory Locals order chef Paul Shoemaker’s duck-liver pâté to go and serve it at their canyon cocktail parties. 29169 Heathercliff Rd.; 310/589-8997; dinner for two $75.
Taverna Tony Guests come for the celeb sightings and grilled vegetables and stay for the live music and belly dancers. 23410 Civic Center Way; 310/317-9667; dinner for two $45.
Tra Di Noi Try the tonnarelli or pasta primavera on the patio; don’t miss the elaborate seasonal white-truffle menu. 3835 Cross Creek Rd.; 310/456-0169; dinner for two $105.
Aviator Nation Founder Paige Mycoskie’s new Malibu branch sells faded and overdyed sweatshirts with retro logos. 3835 Cross Creek Rd.; 310/317-9975.
Chrome Hearts Local fashion stars Laurie Lynn and Richard Stark sell signature silver jewelry and leather jackets at this tiny jewel of a store. 3835 Cross Creek Rd.; 310/456-5533.
Drill Surf & Skate In addition to surfboards, wet suits, and shorts, this new surf and skate shop has a great selection of burn-out cotton T-shirts. 30765 Pacific Coast Hwy.; 310/457-7715.
Planet Blue Specializes in T-shirts that look like they’ve been baked in the sun and flowing, floral-print dresses. 3835 Cross Creek Rd.; 310/317-9975.
Ron Herman The place to buy crinkly button-down shirts by Frank & Eileen, L’Agence long flowing dresses, and Ron Herman’s beaded canvas tote. 3900 Cross Creek Rd.; 310/317-6705.
Vince Linen sweaters and long, fur-trimmed cardigans—yes, fur in Malibu—are favorites at this spot. 3835 Cross Creek Rd.; 310/456-8237.
Zuma Canyon Orchids Family-owned farm selling orchids of every size and color. 5949 Bonsall Dr.; 310/457-9771.
See and Do
Adamson House Built in 1930, Rhoda Rindge Adamson’s private home showcases original Malibu Potteries ceramic tiles and is just a short walk from Surfrider Beach. 23200 Pacific Coast Hwy.; 310/456-8432; adamsonhouse.org.