No Fear of Color: Fashion Designer Trina Turk Continues to Define California Style

Photo by Taylor Hamby

The fine Imagineers at our friendly neighborhood Walt Disney Corporation took on a rather arduous task in the 1990s. They had to answer the question: How do you define California style and how do you embody it?

The question was asked in 1995 when Michael Eisner and his cronies announced plans for a California-culture and history centric theme park that would be taking over what was then the parking lot of Disneyland. And their answer was revealed in 2001 with the grand debut of Disney California Adventure park and it came as a whole answer, divided into multiple parts. Because the truth is, there is no one definition of California style.

Which part of the 31st state are you talking about? Are you referring to the Deco-era charms of Downtown Los Angeles? The vibrant and colorful sights and sounds of Olvera Street? The pine air and green and brown rugged beauty of Yosemite? The frigid and foggy yet delightfully gloomy climate of the Bay? The smell of manure that lets you know you’ve hit the central valley (that part of quintessential California must have not made it through early R&D tests of the now-retired “Soarin’ Over California” ride. Someone opted to go with the scent of orange blossoms instead)?

In 1995, the same year that Disney announced plans for their California Adventure, a young Southern California native set out on her own adventure inspired by the Golden State. Fashion designer Trina Turk was in her early 30s the year she stepped out on her own and launched her own eponymous fashion line from her apartment in Los Angeles. Since then, her fashion line found in the likes of Nordstrom to Neiman Marcus to Saks Fifth Avenue, has gone on to define California Style in a similar way to the Imagineers at Disney did––that is to say with the melting-pot style variety you get naturally from a state as diverse (in both culture and climate) as ours.

“California’s free from all of the sort of uptight traditions of the East Coast,” Turk says while seated “backstage” at a recent South Coast Plaza appearance. “There’s just much more [of a] kind of freedom to wear whatever you want to wear and style yourself however you want to style yourself.”

“I think that people accept sort of a diversity of style,” she adds. 

As diverse as “California Style” may be, there are several elements of fashion that are quintessentially California, such as beach wear, swim wear, and action and sports wear. And Turk cut her teeth as a budding designer such iconic California brands such as Ann Cole (of Cole of California Fame and Ocean Pacific (OP), whose headquartered in Irvine.

“This might be outdated but I always associate Orange County style with surf culture,” Turk says of Orange County’s distinct brand of style. “Because of all of the surfboard companies that were sort of born and raised in Orange County that’s kind of something that I always sort of think of, when I think of Orange County . . . Roxy, Quicksilver, and Masimo and all those brands were Orange County brands, and OP too actually. Those were all huge companies in their day.”

Palm Springs Poolside Style

In her early designing days, Turk also worked for Ann Cole, whose father Fred Cole started Cole of California, which was a titan of California style and fashionable swimwear in the 1940s through 1960s. Bathing beauties such as Esther Williams modeled for the company, which is most known for inventing the aptly named Scandal Suit in the early 1960s which featured a minimal amount of swimsuit and a maximum amount of fishnet.

“There was just a really strong connection between Cole and old Hollywood, and being sort of a fan of vintage clothing in the first place, that was a fun place to work,” Turk recalls. “Ann was a real character.”

“There was this great line,” Turk’s husband, photographer and designer Jonathan Skow recalled of Ms. Cole, “‘I said I wanted the model to look like Grace Kelly. This model looks like they dug Grace Kelly up!’”

“Cole kind of reinforced the idea of what a California brand was,” Turk says. “Because I think it was distinctively different from what was being made on the East Coast, especially at that time period. So yeah, I mean I think that Cole is like a tried and true California brand.”

In 1995 Turk took what she learned from working at “tried and true California brands” and began her own line in the same fashion. What began as a small scale entrepreneurial venture in her Los Angeles apartment shared with then-college sweetheart and now-husband Skow, blossomed into an iconic California brand in her own right. (Side note: Skow designed Turk’s wedding dress and fashioned it out of vintage 1940s barkcloth fabric. The pair got married in 1985 after hopping in Skow’s silver Buick Skylark and jamming out to Las Vegas. They spent the day thrift store shopping, stopped at the justice of the peace to make it official and celebrated the night with dinner at Caesars. I can’t think of a single thing that would make a more romantic day.).

By 2002, Turk found the perfect California home for her retail operation in what was then a not-so fashionable section of Palm Springs on Palm Canyon Drive. Turk and Skow, huge lovers of mid century modern themselves, own a home in Palm Springs, and while in the area they fell in love with a 1961 Albert Frey designed building; the Swiss-born architect helped define the quintessential desert modernism style Palm Springs has become synonymous with. When the long term tenants, a vintage furniture store, moved out, Turk jumped at the opportunity to open her first store.

She rented out one part of the building, which is the the ladies boutique today. Famed interior designer Kelly Wearstler––a maven of California Style (™) in her own right, whom no less than the New Yorker has designated “the presiding grande dame of West Coast interior design”––first designed the boutique.

It’s an homage to transitory time of the late 1960s and early 1970s as styles shifted from clean minimalist modernism to the bold and bright excesses of psychedelia and polyester. Bold colors and floor to ceiling windows create a vibrant and bright shopping experience; bold pops of color appear like colorful cactus blossoms in a sea of desert sand beige. Screw the Cabazon Outlets; a visit to the designer’s flagship store is a must stop shopping destination for the serious desert shopper.
Parts of these retro nods––such as the gold floral ceiling lamps and mirrored displays––can be seen in Turk’s Orange County boutique location, which opened six years later at Fashion Island. It was her fourth boutique, and also designed by Wearstler, to reflect the “relaxed yet sophisticated” style of Newport Beach. Wearstler’s obviously never been to Baja Sharkeez.

The boutique is as colorful in the otherwise beige Fashion island as a Sharkeez fish bowl cocktail freshly regurgitated on the Newport pier sands. Not everyone in rich newport beach likes color. Bright assaults of color of course are Turk’s signature. When we recently asked the designing duo what advice they have for those among us who are afraid of color, Skow quickly quipped, doing his best Cher impression, “Snap out of it!”

Zooport Beach Style (photo by Taylor Hamby)

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