Bassike joins Flannel, Aesop and AUST in LA’s Venice Beach
Bassike, a nine-year-old label founded on Sydney’s northern beaches and known for its long-line T-shirts, low-slung trousers and pared-back utilitarianism, is the latest Australian brand to make its way to Venice Beach, Los Angeles – the boardwalk chocked with muscle men and freaks on rollerskates, lined on one side with grey medical marijuana dispensaries and flanked on the other by ocean.
The store is light and spacious with sparing fixtures. It flows into an interior garden, shared by a popular restaurant and cafe, Superba. This week, for the first time, it opened its doors to the public. “The best thing for us,” says Bassike co-founder Mary Lou Ryan, “will be if the local community buy into what we’re doing and understand us.”
Deborah Sams, Bassike’s other half, likes the odds. “It’s a really laid-back space. There are lots of artists and creative people. There’s a huge surf and skate culture. There are so many parallels that it felt right.”
Ryan says the brand has always had a strong jersey and denim DNA. “And the Venetian look is very similar to that.”
The Bassike store is on South Lincoln Boulevard, an arterial highway that runs across Venice and into Santa Monica. It’s a relatively new area for retailers, although Bassike is not the first. The backstreets surrounding it are populated by squat, freestanding houses and two-storey apartment blocks. Some of the buildings are painted eccentric pastel shades and the modest gardens are filled with succulents. There are palm trees everywhere.
Property prices in Venice are rising fast. The artists and creatives Sams mentioned are still around, but so are a great deal of young urban professionals. The area has a higher-than-average income for Los Angeles, but lower-than-average diversity. Google has an office down the road.
While the look of the streets is very different, the configuration is similar to many Australian outdoor shopping strips: strings of freestanding or terrace boutiques mixed with casual dining in affluent areas are a winning formula in this country. But it’s a very different set-up from the rest of Los Angeles.
The engine that’s powering Venice’s transformation into a boutique shopper’s paradise is Abbot Kinney Boulevard, a dozen blocks from Bassike’s outpost.
Perth-founded label Flannel opened on Abbot Kinney three years ago, and has been enjoying significant success there. Resort-wear focused, Flannel uses lush natural fibres such as silk and linen to create free-flowing clothing for grown-up trustafarians. The brand’s positioning on Abbot Kinney has been perfect. There are more overtly “boho” stores on the street, but those labels smack of fast fashion. Abbot Kinney also has its share of high-end boutiques selling clothing and homewares. Yet Flannel is in a sweet spot: more-high end than the bohemian shops, more bohemian than the high-end retailers.
“You can get lost shopping in the rest of LA,” says John Lawrence, who runs Flannel with his wife, Kristy. “It can be a little overwhelming. Abbot Kinney didn’t feel like that. It felt comfortable.”
Four blocks up the road Australia’s most artful yet prolific purveyor of high-end skincare, Aesop, has a store. It opened midway through 2013. At the easternmost end of the boulevard is AUST, a multibrand boutique that stocks dozens of Australia’s more successful brands, from high-end labels such as Lover, Zimmermann and Romance Was Born, to more affordable, made-in-Bali, made-to-party fare from Shakuhachi and Alice McCall. AUST is run by an Australian, Hannah Wang, and a Canadian, Kristin Fedyk. In a way that feels so true to the Australian-tries-on-American-sincerity style of speaking, the shop boasts Australian fashion that is “effortlessly cool and easy to wear, yet experimental at the same time”.
With major, high-end US brands fighting for property on Abbot Kinney, the rental prices were a significant deterrent for Bassike. Other small and independent brands are making similar calculations, and the area Bassike has set up in is quickly filling out. You don’t have to walk far from there to hear an Australian accent, either. Motorcycle, surf and menswear retailers Deus Ex Machina have an “emporium of postmodern activities” one block away. “They were one of the first to arrive in Venice,” Ryan notes.
When Flannel opened, Lawrence thought they might have to design specifically for their Venice customers, but they’ve found their work translates easily across the Pacific. “It’s not any different. Your best seller in Australia will be your best seller in the US.”
Sams is yet to see if this will hold true for Bassike. “We really don’t know how the Americans will respond to the product,” she says. “There’s nothing quite like it in the US as a brand.”
Often, Bassike’s clothing is androgynous. While minimalist in their use of colours – greys, navy, white and beige can be found almost every season – Sams and Ryan tend to play with proportion. They’ll elongate sleeves, or add volume at the waist. They are particularly fond of kimono style cuts. “Definitely there is a way of dressing that we won’t encapsulate…” says Sams. “It won’t be the Kardashians that come to us. It’ll be more low-key than that.”
In many ways, Venice is a gateway to the rest of the US market. It is barely a 15-minute drive from LAX, when the traffic is kind, and for many visitors this makes it a perfect final stop. Lawrence says that some of Flannel’s best customers are from the East Coast, squeezing in a quick hit of shopping before they fly home.
While Ryan and Sams don’t explicitly mention this advantage, getting noticed on a broader scale in the US is something for which they’re hoping and bracing. Alexander Wang founded his label – also relaxed, with jersey at its core – at almost the same time as Bassike. Now his brand is one of the biggest names in contemporary fashion.
They are relieved they didn’t share his trajectory, but in watching his global ascent they can also see their own potential. “We like [that we’ve grown slowly] because it’s let us stay true to ourselves, grow organically and not compromise on the basis of the expectation of big department stores,” says Sams. “When you grow fast, you often have to compromise. We’re very comfortable with the kind of brand we want to be now … so we can take it to that next level.”
Venice is changing quickly. As bigger brands arrive, there has been pushback from locals, who want to keep the suburb’s personality intact. Right now, this serves the Australian labels well. They’re small enough, beachy enough and scrappy enough to fit into the “old” idea of Venice. But, if they can grow into the “new” idea of Venice as well, appeal to the silicone beachers as well as the artists, and keep pace with more recent arrivals such as New York label Rag & Bone, then it could be the beginning of something very big.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 26, 2015 as "Venice breached". Subscribe here.