A SPECIAL REPORT ON THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA ECONOMY : THE SOUTHLAND'S INDUSTRIES : Riches in Rags : Laid-Back Trend in Fashion Has Garment Industry Riding a Wave

Ellen Mellinkoff is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

The popularity of clothes associated with Southern Californians--lightweight, casual wear from surfer baggies to trendy knits--is fueling a boom in the region's apparel industry.

And, as the population increases in the Sun Belt and as people across the country adopt the Southland's informal dressing habits, the future looks bright in the Southland's garment district clustered around the California Mart in downtown Los Angeles. In fact, garment-making is expected to be one of the area's shining economic growth areas over the next few years.

Talented, home-grown designers, a huge, non-unionized work pool and an established distribution and subcontractor network are poised to capitalize on this expected growth. But the industry is "like 'The Perils of Pauline' ," says Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. "They get over one problem and then there's another one to deal with."

Now that Southern California is finally taken seriously as more than a place to make swimsuits, there is competition from cheap imports to deal with, as well as a local worker shortage and even zoning problems in the four Los Angeles ZIP codes that are home to the majority of manufacturers.

The Southern California apparel industry grossed an estimated $9.9 billion in combined manufacturing and wholesale sales last year, with women's clothing accounting for 70%. That was up substantially from $6.3 billion in 1980. After weathering a slump that saw employment fall drastically to 73,500 in 1982, the local work force hit a record 82,600 in 1986.

Kyser now expects the industry to hit revenue of $14 billion and employment of 92,000 by 1990.

Garments already represent the third-largest manufacturing sector in Los Angeles County, based on employment (after electrical equipment and supplies, and aircraft and parts), and that may change if, as expected, aerospace stagnates over the next few years.

The region manufactures "good, wearable clothes," Kyser says. "We reflect where we are. Trends like the surfer craze play to our strengths." Top firms here include Ocean Pacific, Maui and Sons, Surf Fetish, Catchit, Quicksilver USA and Gotcha. While sales of surfer shorts are seasonal in the Northeast, year-round orders come in from Arizona to Florida.

No longer focused strictly on spring and summer lines (which mean six-month furloughs every year for most industry workers), Southern California now "manufactures winter clothes for people who have mild winters," says Patty Miller, fashion coordinator for the California Mart. "We have a change of seasons here--and all over the Sun Belt--and we are very wise to those changes. We shift from gauzes and voiles to lightweight wools, knits and thermal cottons. We are very savvy to the needs of the Sun Belt customer."

Miller goes a step further: "The rest of the country is adopting the California life style--greatly expanding our market. When I go into department stores in the Northeast, I see lines by Carole Little and Guess? They are the same ones that they sell locally. They don't have separate lines for the East Coast."

As a result of this growth, influential trade publications such as Women's Wear Daily have increased their coverage of California designers, giving West Coast design even more visibility.

The threat from low-priced imports has been parried by focusing on stylish, middle- and higher-priced clothing. "We're not into tonnage," Kyser says. And local manufacturers can move fast, sniffing a new trend and getting it to the stores long before foreign manufacturers can get their ships to shore. The ability to move quickly is one of the regional apparel industry's major assets, experts say.

But the local industry is admittedly not in the high fashion, international design league. "We'll probably never rival Paris or New York," Kyser says. He calls the area's forte the "specialized middle"--colorful, stylish and casual. Leon Max, Carole Little, Nancy Heller and Camp Beverly Hills are all cutting-edge companies that project the Los Angeles image of casual chic, industry watchers say.

The Los Angeles apparel industry began in the late 1940s with Cole of California, Jantzen and Elizabeth Stewart making names for themselves nationwide as premier swimsuit manufacturers. The fledgling industry was boosted by Hollywood costume designers who sold their sidelines to retailers. Helen Rose, Edith Head, Bill Travilla--while not involved in large-scale manufacturing--had name-recognition that gave a cache to local industry. Even today, that "gilt-by-association" with film and television gives Southern California apparel a high visibility factor.

The California Mart, a wholesale merchandising center with its own ZIP code and 2,000 showrooms representing 10,000 lines, has provided the industry with both a psychological and physical headquarters, attracting manufacturers and buyers from all over the United States. Local schools such as Fashion Institute of Design, California Institute of the Arts and Otis/Parsons provide a steady stream of design talent for the industry.

Until recently, the industry also has had an abundant pool of cheap labor, the vast majority from Mexico or Central America. But the recent overhaul of the immigration laws has employers worried about their ability to find enough workers to meet the future demand.

"Our major concern is the labor pool," says Bernard Brown, president of Koret of California and chairman of the political action committee of CAIC (Coalition of Apparel Industries in California). "Production is our major problem. We're all afraid we'll be late on deliveries. Stores won't accept late merchandise, or they'll expect a substantial discount.

Are machines idle?

"The situation is not good right now," Brown says. "Some subcontractors are reporting as much as 40% of their labor pool is not available." In Los Angeles, most manufacturers design a line and run up samples from which to take orders, then they rely on small, outside contractors to produce the garments. (About 42% of local apparel manufacturers have 19 or fewer employees; another 23% have 20 to 49 employees.)

"Contractors really do our business for us, and they are suffering," Brown says. Illegal workers are afraid to show up for work and confused about the new laws. "Workers must fill out forms that require them to list the names and addresses of all relatives in the United States, which many are understandably reluctant to do. And on top of that, none of the forms are in Spanish." Employers are also required to keep more complete records of every employee, a burden to small businesses such as garment contractors.

Industry officials have been talking to legislators and immigration and Labor Department officials to see what can be done to bring workers back to work. One possibility is a guest worker program, similar to that used in agriculture.

"We definitely have to come up with a plan for guest labor," says Bob Becker, marketing director for the California Mart.

A long-term threat to the local apparel industry's prosperity--cheap imports--seems to have leveled off. Many U.S. companies that have had their garments manufactured in foreign countries are finding that they have traded cheap labor costs for other headaches: problems with quality control, slow deliveries and increased transportation costs.

The Southern California garment industry's customary weapon against imports continues to be frequent design changes--turning out new styles on a dime and getting them into the stores promptly. Hong Kong, South Korea and China have so far not been able to compete effectively in this race to get hot, new merchandise into U.S. department stores.

Local zoning regulations are also creating a headache for garment manufacturers. "They like to be close to the (California) Mart," Kyser says. "It's an anchor." Four nearby ZIP codes (90007, 90014, 90015, 90021) account for 48% of the apparel industry work force in Southern California. Those areas are zoned for commercial use but not for the light manufacturing that goes on at many small garment firms. "It's been used for light manufacturing all these years," Brown says. "But lately it's come to the attention of the city council." At least for now, the issue has been tabled.

Brown predicts that eventually the city council will rezone the area to conform to its de facto use for light manufacturing rather than evicting the garment makers. "The city wouldn't want to lose its tax base there," Brown says.

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