“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.