King Amphi and I are at Flight Club, a shoe boutique in Los Angeles’ Melrose District, and in my hand is an olive green and black sneaker with an orange lace—something called an Air Jordan 4 Retro Undefeated—that sells for $30,000 a pair. “The clerk let you hold it,” says the crushed teenager later, “and you didn’t even get a pic.” A miracle had occurred on N. Fairfax Ave, and yet I could offer no proof of it to the world, or at least the world of social media, which is the only one that really matters to Amphi and his ilk. It is a very Los Angeles moment.
LA owes much of its greatness to the power of illusion, of course, its power to transform ordinary objects and people into something divine. The dream factory, and all that. For the same reason, it is also a terrific city in which to shop for streetwear, which depends on powerful illusions of its own. LA’s grip on our cultural consciousness might be loosening with each passing day, but its alchemical mechanisms remain firmly in place.
Consider the Mayfair Hotel, which until July was chiefly known to Hollywood types, if it was known at all, as the place where the first Oscars after-party was held. In the years since, the 1926 structure had retained the stately, massive columns in its lobby, along with a few of its more ornate elements, but it had also acquired—not unlike Norma Desmond’s house in Sunset Boulevard—a distinctly macabre shabbiness. A few years back, however, the Mayfair was purchased not with the intent of restoring some past luster but to combine that luster with a modern sensibility. The results are both wacky and sublime.
LA’s Westlake District, which is still in the beginning stages of a renaissance, sits just west of downtown. This is also where the Mayfair sits. It is mere blocks from such hospitality landmarks as the Westin Bonaventure, but worlds away in both statement and price. On occasion, rates at the Mayfair are as low as $159 a night, a veritable bargain by LA standards. But even more impressive is what patrons get for that price. On July 9, when the scaffolding and curtains finally came down, a gorgeous, swanky home-away-from-home was revealed, one spearheaded by Icelandic-born designer Gulla Jónsdóttir.
The lobby is now dominated by a strangely beautiful sculpture, one that resembles, depending on whom you ask, either a seashell or a flower, and handsomely complemented by plush, attractive seating. The M Bar and Library Bar may be found there as well, and the latter is especially nice, with predictably dim lighting but funky elements too, like pieces from LA artist Daniel Cohen’s “Periodic Table of Drugs,” whose “elements” include things like Xanax, Adderall and codeine (its side effects listed as “cotton mouth” and “dipping fat blunts,” among others).
Not far from there is an amenity both utterly up-to-the-minute and a nod to the hotel’s past (the Mayfair played host to live radio broadcasts in the 1930s), a theme that is echoed throughout the reimagined property. Its slogan might be “A Hotel Under the Influence” but there are really two influences, present and past, and it must be said that among Jónsdóttir’s finest achievements here is the seamless blending of the two.
From the caged chandeliers that highlight an original tin and copper ceiling, to the olive tree on the mezzanine, to the art curated by Kelly “Risk” Graval that references the gritty, graffiti LA circa 2018, to a private dining room named for writer Raymond Chandler (more on him later), to a jaw-dropping 800-crystal chandelier that hangs over a windowless ballroom with private access to the Mayfair pool (still under construction), the hotel really does seem to embrace both worlds, an LA of glamorous pasts and contemporary challenges. What unites them? Again, the power of illusion.
“It’s not like Hollywood, where first you’re on Nickelodeon when you’re 12 years old, and then you’re a singer and that kind of stuff,” says Amphi of today’s designer-stars of streetwear. “With this generation of influencers, it’s really impromptu. There’s no set plan.”
And they are not mere creators and curators of clothing and shoe collections, insists Amphi, but architects of contemporary youth culture. He tells me this over breakfast sandwiches of corned beef hash and eggs at Canter’s Deli, which since 1931 has played host to many once and future LA success stories (Guns N’ Roses shot its first publicity photo in a Canter’s booth). It is also the perfect place for Amphi to begin the day’s tour, it seems, since Canter’s is only a few blocks from Flight Club and the rest of the Melrose District, and as such has become a de facto rallying point for the gods of sneakerdom and their many admirers. People like Sean Wotherspoon.
Wotherspoon is the cofounder of Round Two on Melrose Ave., the second outpost of a shop that began life in Richmond, Virginia, in 2013. Wotherspoon, who grew up not far from there, is a “virtual encyclopedia of sneaker knowledge,” according to the Round Two website, and his shop is devoted to reselling, which sounds like a fancy name for a thrift shop until you see that shop and its prices. On the day Amphi and I visit, there is already a line of 10 teens eagerly waiting when the store opens at 11, all so they might peruse racks of marked-up versions of last season’s streetwear. To wit: a 2017 T-shirt by Supreme that sold for $40 then goes for $100 now.
Needless to say, this accelerated nostalgia has created a wide opening for speculators, a few of whom make their living solely by buying and then reselling stock to stores like Round Two. (Young men entering boutiques carrying tall stacks of shoeboxes are a frequent sight on Melrose.) Otherwise, a Round Two trophy case of sorts features several pairs of butter-colored Adidas Yeezy Boosts designed by Kanye West ($350); elsewhere, a pair of Off-White Converse Chuck Taylors designed by Virgil Abloh go for a cool $1,250. Indeed, so important is Wotherspoon to sneaker culture and the brands behind it, he recently designed his own shoe for Nike, a particolored variation on the Air Max that was released (or “dropped” in sneaker parlance) on March 26. Priced at $160, the Air Max 1/92 Sean Wotherspoon immediately sold out (many went to speculators). It may still be found online and in stores, though often for several hundred dollars more.
Like many of the biggest stars in the sneaker world these days, Wotherspoon started as a boutique owner, and rose to prominence as a curator of tastes for the youth market. The same is true of Tak Kato and Mike Toe, the brains behind Blends (slogan: “Understanding of Nothing”). The men, both of whom grew up in Japan, opened their first store in Costa Mesa in 2006 with the idea of “blending international tastes with global level products.”
“And then, in 2009, they were featured on High Snobiety,” says Amphi, in conjunction with “a drop they did for DC,” a skateboarding shoe brand. The rest is history.
“These little stores will try extremely hard to get stock for shoe releases or clothing releases so they can get noticed, because High Snobiety and others will inform readers, say ‘these are the hottest shoes that are being released this week and here’s where to get them.’” Kato and Toe were already fixtures in the LA fashion scene (Kato designed LA’s Comme Des Garcons boutique), but thanks to industry contacts and sweat equity, they were able to open Blends, a sort of guerilla shop, a streetwear speakeasy. Now the pair own five stores, one of them in Beverly Hills.
“There’s lots of different ways people make it,” Amphi says. “For Keyser Gonzalez”— Blends’ social media marketer, whom we’d met while visiting a pop-up shop that appeared while Blends’ downtown LA location was being revamped—“it’s modeling and being a social media star. For Tony Camaro, it’s being an artist.”
Tony Camaro works on the second floor of Bodega, a clothing and shoe store that resides in ROW DTLA, a new development in the center city that “weaves together retail, restaurants and creative office spaces to stunning effect,” said the Los Angeles Times last year.
The buildings, which are from the teens and ’20s of the 20th century, were once dedicated to the gathering and shipping of fresh fruits and vegetables from California to the rest of the country. Now, the buildings—like seemingly everything else once integral to daily life—have been repurposed as artisan eateries and small boutiques, of which Bodega is one of the more fitting.
Bodega’s motto is “hidden in plain sight,” and indeed the store looks, from the outside at least, like the sort of small grocery store one might see in a marginal Boston neighborhood. Sure enough, the first Bodega was launched there in the early ’00s. “It looked like a shitty convenience store, but it had a speakeasy vibe,” says Gabi Lamb, a Bodega sales associate who also helps with styling and artist relations. Like many a great idea before it, the original concept was sketched out on a napkin, and “friends of friends chipped in to build the Boston store.”
In LA’s Bodega, a plastic flap warehouse entrance gives way to produce boxes filled with watermelons and coconuts, which itself gives way to a retro cool shop stocked with a carefully curated selection of streetwear, plus a line of Bodega-branded shoes, clothing and products “with designs that are a good representation of us,” Lamb says. Among America’s youth, Bodega’s taste is unimpeachable, Amphi tells me, and its decision to feature brands popular on the streets of Tokyo (“the gold standard”) along with its reputation for hosting some of the biggest releases have made it a mecca for streetwear aficionados. When Nike selected Bodega LA as a drop for its Off-White Presto in July, hundreds of people waited in line for hours for the chance to purchase them.
Tony Camaro, a friendly, high-energy sales clerk in deck shoes and high-water sweats, works on Bodega’s second floor, among its collection of Bape and Stüssy collections. “Stüssy had kind of lost its coolness,” Amphi announces at the top of the stairs, “but then they went to Japan and the hype started all over again.” Camaro nods in agreement, and I eavesdrop a bit while the two of them speak their native patois. I hear about the stitched-on Nike swooshes and industrial motifs of Virgil Abloh (“right now he’s the premier high-end streetwear designer”), about the business of buying and reselling shoes (“a lot of people standing in line at places like this are going to resell them, because they will never appear in mainstream stores”), and the integral role played in all this by StockX.com, which is a sort of online Kelley Blue Book except for sneakers.
“You put in info on the condition and wear” of a pair you own, says Amphi, and then watch for potential buyers. “On eBay, everyone bids on one shoe. On StockX, every shoe bids on one person. The sellers fight for the buyers.” He demonstrates, pointing to the pair of Converse One Stars he happens to be wearing at the moment. They are yellow, which GQ recently declared the color of the season. “My size, 12, isn’t going for that much, but as you can see, the 11-and-a-halfs are going for $650. I can even see the 52-week high and low for these if I want.”
At this point, Amphi and Camaro begin talking of shirts and hoodies that are “fire” and “sick,” and shoes that are “dope” and “super-dope” and “100-percent.” And I also hear an unfamiliar term, which happens to be the most insulting thing you can call a lover of streetwear: hypebeast. “You don’t want to be a hypebeast,” says Camaro with gravity.
According to UrbanDictionary.com, “a hypebeast is a kid that collects clothing, shoes, and accessories for the sole purpose of impressing others. Although the individual may not have a dime to their name, they like to front like they are making far more than everybody else. Equipped with mommy’s credit card, the hypebeast will try his hardest to make sure he has every pair of Nikes he saw Jay-Z wearing on 106th and Park.”
“They mismatch their clothing,” says Amphi simply, shaking his head. “If you want to see true fashion folks,” adds Camaro, “hang out at Heavyweight Gallery next to Brooklyn,” a shop on Melrose, or at Chinatown Market, a pop-up on Fairfax. Or eat where true streetwear people eat, places like Grand Central Market or Pink’s Hot Dogs or Prime Pizza or Jon & Vinny’s or Diddy Riese in Westwood. The latter, I learn later, specializes in custom ice cream sandwiches, featuring, on any given day, 10 different kinds of cookies sandwiching 12 different flavors of ice cream (slogan: “The CrumbleCream Cookie Co.”).
After a long day of shopping and hypebeast-shaming, I can’t wait to get back to the rarefied delights of the Mayfair, whose restaurant Eve, perfectly in keeping with the hotel’s vibe, looks backward and forward with equal affection: the name comes from a character in a 1939 short story that Raymond Chandler wrote while living at the hotel, and features an American bistro-style menu fashioned by Scott Commings, a recent winner of Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen.
Eve’s gold-and-black dining room plays host to an eclectic array of deliciousness that might include, on certain days and nights, jalapeno bacon cornbread, an amuse bouche of smoked salmon and dill, falafel macarons, lobster bisque with a Jenga length crouton, a crispy calamari salad, wild mushroom pappardelle, octopus carpaccio, a fig balsamic gelato, and—last but not least—a house-made Madagascar vanilla ice cream tinged with scotch that melts onto a hot chocolate chip cookie baked and served in a cast-iron skillet.
The Mayfair is unapologetic in its dual concerns, and proudly so, which is something of a departure among extant hotels of the era. Other properties, such as the Hollywood Roosevelt, are dedicated to the rhythms and motifs of old L.A., and fittingly so, as the Roosevelt hosted the first Oscars ceremony in 1929, catalyzed the stardom of Marilyn Monroe (after she posed on the hotel’s diving board for a suntan lotion ad) and allegedly witnessed the first steps taken by Shirley Temple. This approach pays its own dividends, particularly in the case of 25 degrees, a chandelier-bedecked “polished take on the traditional American burger bar” that offers its own special brand of deliciousness at all hours, from morning (hearty grilled breakfast sandwiches) till night (Guinness milkshakes).
But on this trip at least, I am under the influence of the Mayfair. It is the perfect place to repair to after a long day spent with the illusions past and present of LA, that CrumbleCream-hidden-in-plain-sight-understanding-of nothing city of Off-White Prestos, Converse One Stars and shoes that sell for slightly less than the average American car.
Rooms at the Mayfair Hotel may be found for as low as $159 a night, although $185 is the average. For information, visit mayfairla.com.