BOLD Fashion Statement : Amid Aerospace Decline, L.A. Garment Industry Emerges as a Regional Economic Force

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With 10 employees and $300,000 worth of computerized pattern sizing and layout machines, Guadalajara-born Soledad Plata has struggled to succeed in the fiercely independent and entrepreneurial Los Angeles fashion industry.

Plata started 17 years ago cutting paper patterns by hand, then went on to run computers for fashion giant Carole Little, put herself through technical school and found her own company with her husband and run it out of the family's garage in Duarte.

By 1990, Plata's credit was solid enough to allow her to obtain state-of-the-art equipment and, later, a small building in the Pico-Union neighborhood near the Convention Center. Now she's planning to buy more high-tech equipment--cutters that slice through as many as 100 layers of fabric at a time--in hopes of expanding nationally.

The growth of more than 3,500 tiny businesses like Plata Marking & Grading has transformed the local Los Angeles fashion industry--the design, manufacture and wholesaling of clothing--into a manufacturing giant.

Out of the rubble of Southern California's long recession, the garment trade--which itself suffered a slump nationwide--has emerged as one of the region's fastest-growing manufacturing employers. Bigger than motion picture production, it ranks second only to the shrinking aerospace sector.

In fact, even as federal dollars are pulled from aerospace companies here, U.S. defense conversion money is wending its way to Southern California for research into new fashion technology, products and production methods. (One possibility being pursued: the production of military uniforms.)

An estimated 119,400 people held textile and fashion-related jobs in Southern California last year in an industry that represented more than $15 billion of the regional economy, according to recent state Labor Department data. Average annual retail sales of clothing manufactured in L.A., at $63 billion, exceed by $17 billion sales of the venerable New York garment trade.

"Traditionally, people look at Los Angeles as the three-legged economy--it's aerospace, entertainment and tourism," said Jack Kyser, chief economist with the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles County. "They don't understand that we have this huge manufacturing base here."

But people in and out of the L.A. fashion industry call it a troubled business, poised at a crossroads.

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The very strengths that have enabled it to grow--flexibility, informality and the small size of its companies--also mean disorganization and disunity. In addition, the advantages stemming from the industry's use of cheap immigrant labor here--a troubling social issue in itself amid charges of worker exploitation--are being threatened by offshore operations and technological advances elsewhere.

And while some such as Plata have embraced new technology, observers warn that the overall industry's continued reliance on backward production methods could plunge the Los Angeles fashion trade into a decline as the rest of the industry computerizes.

"We're in the embryonic stages of employing technology in our industry," said Ken Wengrod, chief operating officer of Rampage, designer and producer of women's casual wear in Vernon and one of the region's biggest fashion companies. "It's almost similar to the automotive industry 20 years ago in that we have not developed or utilized sophisticated software programs, hardware technology and even human technology, such as the most efficient and productive methods to reduce our (garment production) cycle time."

In addition, the glitz that ought to surround in an industry devoted to fashion is nonexistent. Local industry leaders complain that they get no respect, no media coverage and no support from public officials. Instead of broad, well-kept city avenues, they do business along narrow, dingy, crime-infested streets.

Nor is it an entirely savory industry. Unlike aerospace, with its highly skilled and paid employees, the fashion industry is tainted by images of exploitation. It is an industry that in some instances pays the minimum wage--and sometimes less--to under-the-table, illegal immigrant workers. As the industry struggles to clean up these practices, it continues to be the target of labor-law crackdowns by state and federal officials. Think of L.A. fashion and you think less of twirling runway models than of immigration agents raiding sweatshops.

These shortcomings make it a fragile industry that will stagnate unless it changes its ways, with the Southern California garment industry relegated to the higher-end, more expensive niche of the business, warned a study of the industry commissioned by Southern California Edison.

Until World War II, the Los Angeles fashion industry manufactured clothes strictly for local residents, said Stanley Hirsch, a fashion industry veteran of 47 years and owner of the Downtown Cooper Building, an 11-story discount clothing center.

But after the war, swimsuit manufacturers such as Catalina and Cole of California captured national attention. Soon, some of the 150 manufacturers strung along Los Angeles Street formed an alliance to promote what they called California playwear, resort attire for December vacationers in warm-weather locales, Hirsch said. They dreamed up California Caravan, a train trip across the United States to sell department store buyers their lines of clothing.

As it grew, the industry spread from Downtown Los Angeles. Today, according to state officials, Southern California has 4,393 fashion-industry manufacturers, 90% of them with fewer than 50 employees. All but about 700 of these firms are small independent contractors whose employees size patterns, cut fabric and sew garments.

Manufacturers include such well-known labels as Guess? in Downtown Los Angeles, Bugle Boy in Simi Valley, Rampage in Vernon and Carole Little south of Downtown, which alone account for more than $1.5 billion in sales annually.

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But a huge chunk of the Los Angeles fashion industry is given over to non-designer-label, low-cost casual wear made by manufacturers whose garments are destined not for finer shops or department stores but for the hangers at Wal-Mart, Kmart and thousands of tiny retail shops.

Traditionally, the hub of the Southern California fashion industry has been the California Mart. The 31-year-old mart at 9th and Main streets houses a staggering 1,467 tenants in a maze of four separate high-rise buildings.

There, clothing manufacturers court primarily women's-wear buyers from national and regional department and specialty store chains. In tiny offices equipped with cappuccino makers, wine closets and racks to hang sample clothes, deals are struck that determine what styles of jeans, blouses and dresses will be sold in stores nationwide in the next few months.

"The industry in Southern California has always been the trendsetter for the country, a little way out, a little kooky," said Corky Newman, president of the California Mart.

The actual task of mass-producing the garments falls to a network of contractors who shun written agreements in favor of handshakes and verbal promises. It is an arrangement that favors quick production, which is crucial in the rapidly changing fashion scene, and fosters the entrepreneurial spirit that characterizes the local industry, its veterans say.

"I have seen manufacturers start from nothing and go well into the millions (of dollars) in a short period of time," said Sheri Drobnick, a retail consultant with Directives West. "It's the intrigue of this business."

Most of those working in L.A. fashion are seamstresses and cutters who toil on the upper floors of old Downtown Los Angeles buildings, Vernon warehouses and industrial complexes in El Monte, Commerce, Montebello and Orange County. These stalwarts of the garment trade are mainly Latino, Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese immigrants. Although some skilled and experienced workers can earn up to $12 hourly, the typical pay is minimum wage, without health care or other benefits.

What little glamour there is in the L.A. fashion industry comes from fashion shows held at the California Mart and at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. FIDM is a 25-year-old school housed on Grand Avenue Downtown in a modern five-story building (it has branch campuses in San Francisco and Orange County). It places close to 2,000 of its 3,000 students yearly in the fashion industry, says the school's founder, Tonian Hohberg.

Notable alumnae include Karen Kane, who now runs an $80-million sportswear company bearing her name in Vernon, and Joyce Johnson, who turned an FIDM school project into the $1-billion Dockers division of San Francisco's Levi Strauss & Co. The school has also produced its share of movie costume designers, including Marlene Stewart, whose clothes were worn in "True Lies" and "The River Wild," and Ha Nguyen, whose credits include "The Mask."

Yet, for all its importance, the Los Angeles fashion industry faces serious obstacles.

The lack of recognition is more than an ego issue. The media attention and public support lavished on the New York fashion industry have made the Big Apple the dominant force in the industry.

Buyers who come to the home of the California style might not even be able to see the latest West Coast fashions here, because manufacturers are busy schlepping the costly sample garments out of town to Wal-Mart buyers in Arkansas, May Department Stores Co. buyers in St. Louis or Sears, Roebuck & Co. buyers in Chicago.

And the buyers must brave some of the dreariest byways of Los Angeles, notes retail consultant Sandy Potter, who works in the California Mart. "Look at the streets around here. Buyers are constantly shocked by the neighborhood," she says.

Meanwhile, solutions to the sweatshop problems have been elusive. The industry's subcontracting arrangement too easily allows manufacturers to escape responsibility for job conditions and look the other way at state and federal labor violations by their contractors, said U.S. Labor Department officials here.

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Moreover, few in L.A.'s fashion scene are as technologically savvy as Soledad Plata.

Wengrod and other critics say too many of Southern California's garment industry workers use antiquated equipment and methods because contractors either don't want to invest in costly modern equipment or insist that 50-year-old methods produce the best results.

This means that the advantage of low wages that Los Angeles manufacturers now enjoy is being lost to overseas operations that increasingly are turning to computerized equipment, said Newman of the California Mart. By some estimates, 90% of the fashion industry work in Los Angeles is still done by hand.

Southern California's fashion mavens are finding themselves in an unaccustomed spotlight these days, as an increasingly important part of the regional economy. But that's more the result of the shrinking of the aerospace industry than of any strategic effort of their own.

The decline in defense contracts over the last few years prompted Barry Sedlik, manager of business retention for Southern California Edison, to take note of the importance of the apparel industry as an economic force.

"It was a customer group that no one had paid much attention to before," Sedlik said. Intrigued, Sedlik called apparel industry leaders to more than two dozen meetings over the past two years and commissioned a study of the industry by economic consultants DRI/McGraw-Hill. Soon, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan's office took an interest.

With the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, Riordan convened a meeting last month of more than 60 movers and shakers in the fashion industry, from big-name manufacturers to contracting associations. Although the mayor made no concrete pledges, it was the first such event that Hirsch could recall in more than 20 years.

"Most of these people are interested in their own business," said Stuart Rutkin, a contractor and board member of the Garment Contractors Assn. "They're not too interested in consulting with the competition. Most of them are not interested in creating an industrywide community."

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But now some industry leaders are struggling to persuade others to put aside their individualistic instincts and join forces with one another and with people in other businesses to work toward common goals in training, promotion, technological advances and government lobbying.

They are moving in some innovative directions. For example, a $350,000 Defense Department grant will let researchers at Cal Poly Pomona study how area clothing manufacturers can add military uniforms to their production lines, said Jean Gipe, director of the university's Apparel Technology and Research Center.

Another Pentagon grant totaling $1 million is being sought by the Pomona school to set up a technology center with up-to-date garment industry equipment, such as body scanners for computer-aided design, which have not been seen west of the Mississippi, Sedlik said.

"In our industry, there are resources available that we haven't tapped into," said Wengrod of Rampage. "In automotive, aerospace, the U.S. government, defense contractors, there are some high-level people available that have this type of technological background to bring that talent here so we can be more competitive in the U.S. and world fashion industry."

Meanwhile, things are looking up at the California Mart, which lost tenants to nearby buildings amid rent increases and a failure to renovate. Under new ownership, tenants are coming back.

The Mart revived its annual tent fashion shows last October after a seven-year hiatus, and the building's new owners will soon begin a $4-million modernization of the Mart's lobby. The revamped ground floor space will include a 1,200-seat fashion theater, a buyers' office equipped with phones and computers, and a video conference center to allow satellite television conferences between manufacturers at the Mart and buyers around the globe.

And there is talk of establishing an industry-wide yearly Los Angeles fashion show independent of the Mart to create excitement, attract buyers and generate national media coverage.

For Plata, toiling six days a week with her 10 workers on West Venice Boulevard next to an auto repair shop, the changes envisioned by the Downtown movers and shakers in the industry are a world away. But her business' survival depends on continued industry growth.

"We're kind of small right now, but I'm sure that in the next 10 years we're going to be as big as Rampage," Plata vows. "But we can't get there if the industry is not going there too."

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Pressing Ahead

The Southland's garment industry has grown steadily in recent years. It is the area's second-largest manufacturing employer, behind a declining aerospace but ahead of a rapidly expanding movie business.

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Estimated workers, in thousands, Los Angeles and Orange County metropolitan statistical areas 1994 Aerospace: 208.3 Apparel-textile manufacturing: 119.4 Motion picture production*: 94.5

Note: Aerospace includes manufacturing of electronic components, aircraft and parts, missiles and spacecraft as well as computer, office, communications, navigation and measuring and control equipment, all of which may have uses outside aerospace.

* Date for Los Angeles County only

Source: California Employment Development Department

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