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N.W.A biopic gets its vintage clothes straight outta South Gate

N.W.A biopic gets its vintage clothes straight outta South Gate
Greg Thorton browses the racks at Greenspan's, a family-owned vintage clothing store in South Gate. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

Over the years, Evan Greenspan has seen a lot of people walk through the doors of his family's vintage clothing shop — from A-list celebrities to local street hoodlums. When hip-hop group N.W.A was hitting the charts, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E often browsed the racks at Greenspan's, one of the oldest retailers in Southern California.

Now, the South Gate store is outfitting them again — or at least their characters — in Universal Studios' movie "Straight Outta Compton."

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"I knew that was the go-to place for all your gangster clothes," said Kenya Ware, a costumer and shopper for "Straight Outta Compton." "Eazy would be smiling right now knowing that we went to his 'hood and backtracked where he started and where he went to get his fashion."

Greenspan said the filmmakers purchased hundreds of items worth about $15,000, including the Charlie Brown polo shirts worn by Eazy-E in the film.

Ware, who grew up in Baldwin Hills, said she's known about the store since she was a teenager.

"If you wanted to get any type of original clothing, you went to Greenspan's," Ware said. "That's where every gangster, rapper, everybody went to back in '87 and '88 in my high school days."

With its classic and discontinued styles, 87-year-old Greenspan's has long been a favorite of movie studio wardrobe departments. The shop has supplied clothes for about 50 films, including "American Me," "Bugsy," "Reservoir Dogs," "Boyz n the Hood" and "La Bamba."

That's helped the business find a niche in the fiercely competitive clothing market dominated by online retailers such as Amazon.com and big-box stores like Wal-Mart. But supplying studios isn't a steady source of income the store can count on. The majority of sales comes from regular customers such as Marcos Armas.

Armas, 55, makes the trip from Inglewood almost every week to expand his wardrobe. He was in the store recently to buy an American-made straw fedora and a Pendleton board shirt to complete the cholo look he was going for.

"When I was a teenager I used to dress with these type of clothes," Armas said. "Time went by, I got older and I could no longer find this style of clothes anywhere. You go to the mall and you can't find them, you go to the swap meets and they don't have the real deal."

Inside the stuffy store, vintage clothes from the 1940s to the '80s are stacked chaotically. Aisles are filled with boxes of unsold inventory from department stores, warehouses and factories that went out of business.

Ware said that when she shopped for "Straight Outta Compton," she opened sealed boxes filled with hard-to-find items such as Puma tank tops and vintage Levi's 501s — all of them never worn and with their tags still on. She also found throwback Charlie Brown polos that Eazy-E wore in the film.

Greenspan said that his father's dislike of late-'70s fashions and polyester fabrics and his love for the looks of the '40s, '50s and '60s drove the store into classic clothing.

The store also offers one of the widest selections of Pendleton board shirts anywhere, including shirts made exclusively for Greenspan's.

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"There was a new person in charge of menswear for Pendleton and they asked me, 'What can we do to be relevant for Southern California?' and I said 'Make this shirt,'" Greenspan said of the solid-color Tony Shirt with its plaid collar.

Over the years the store has attracted a loyal following of Angelenos, including gang members, skaters, bikers, tattoo artists, lowrider enthusiasts and celebrities such as Lady Gaga and Ryan Gosling.

Greenspan, 59, said his grandfather Alec Greenspan, who founded the original store in Watts in 1928, insisted that every customer be treated like a "lady or a gentleman." The store has operated on that principle ever since.

Despite a boost from the movie business, Evan Greenspan says business has been slowing. The U.S. economy might be improving, but many of his working-class customers are unemployed or under-employed, and aren't buying like they used to.

To boost sales, Greenspan started using the Internet and social media to build an international customer base. The store now has more than 40,000 followers on Facebook and Instagram, and Greenspan's online store draws shoppers from Japan, Europe and across the U.S.

But its future is uncertain, said Greenspan, who runs the store with a small staff and help from his son Josh and sister Shira.

Josh Greenspan, 25, said he isn't sure he wants to take over. He's busy trying to build his own classic clothing brand.

For his father, the store, in South Gate since 1939, is much more than just a bricks-and-mortar retail shop.

"It's a creative way that I can do things that nobody's done or thought of doing," Evan Greenspan said. "It's a means of putting a roof over my family's head and food on their table. It's an 87-year-old legacy of my family and its honor, reputation and appeal to multi-generations."

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