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?”