BY DESIGN : Cal Mart to Get the Ultimate Beauty Treatment : To many tenants, the complex is, well, dowdy. But to reflect the L.A. industry's momentum, a face lift--a $14-million job--is in store.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On Saturday night, trying to look very much alive, the newly aggressive California Mart will promote the fall collections of a dozen West Coast designers.

Under new ownership and management since September, the Mart is powdering its nose and putting up its dukes, hoping to fend off competition and retake its turf as the home and heartbeat of the L.A. garment industry.

That industry looks especially strong now. It weighs in as the city's largest employer, contributing 120,000 jobs to the economy. Mayor Richard Riordan and other Downtown movers and shakers have voiced their support for the 3.7-acre Mart, calling it an essential player in what the city hopes will be good times ahead.

But the L.A. industry's strength lies in hip-happening companies with MTV images and names to match. And for many of the retailers who patronize them, the Mart is all wrong. The complex and its environs have become too dreary and downtrodden to remain station central, critics say.

With a lobby "that looks like a morgue," the Mart hardly reflects the industry's momentum, says Marc Goldfarb, a Los Angeles stockbroker who keeps tabs on such contemporary and junior companies as Bisou-Bisou, Jalate, XOXO and Rampage.

"It needs a face lift, an entire body lift," he says, adding that it could also use a hugedose of glamour. "The Mart should somehow tie in with Hollywood and make it a Hollywood-type destination. Fashion and entertainment go together."

Equitable Life Assurance Society, the Mart's new owners, and Maurice (Corky) Newman, its new president and chief executive officer, have promised lifts and glamour galore. Newman, a former president at Cherokee, Calvin Klein and Cole of California, says the industry shares the Mart's troubles. "It's evolving into something new. (But) the Southern California designer, manufacturer and rep are probably the strongest they have ever been--because California is finally being recognized as a fashion leader."

To give and get more recognition, the Mart revived what was once known as Press Week in October. The weekend event, renamed California Collections Preview, featured shows under huge white tents, a designer awards gala, and Hollywood celebrities on and off the runway.

This year's tent event will be even bigger and better, if marketing plans unveiled last week hold up. An emissary from the mayor's office promised that Riordan would open the event, "although he really wanted to model." And a Mart official promised that a slick $50,000 video look at California designers would go to magazine editors in New York and would possibly be shown on some airline flights.

The new respect for the local industry is long overdue, say insiders, including Else Metchek, a fashion consultant and former executive director of the Mart. "If you travel abroad, you know that on every chest there is something that says 'Beverly Hills' or 'Hollywood.' The words are still magic, just as 'Made in California' or 'Designed in California' are magic all over the world," she says.

"Our panache and niche is junior, contemporary, denim. It's an MTV kind of niche," Metchek says. "In the '60s, you had couturiers and high-end fashion mavens, including Mr. Blackwell. And they're all gone. All replaced with hot-looking, with-it fashion and major brands."

To match the panache, Equitable plans a 12-month, $14-million overhaul of the Mart. Along with a recently opened video-conferencing business center, there will be a satellite broadcasting studio, a lighter and brighter lobby, an international wing and a fashion theater for 1,200. Out of the Mart's secret-figure marketing budget will come money to court celebrities.

Equitable, the Mart's lender for 31 years, foreclosed late last year after the founding Morse family defaulted on about $250 million in outstanding loans. The fat-cat days, when prospective tenants were put on a waiting list and as many as 7,000 buyers a day would ride what some consider the city's fastest escalators, had waned amid department store mergers, specialty store failures and reduced travel budgets. Today, the Mart has an 80% occupancy rate and more than 10,000 collections, primarily women's wear, in 1,467 showrooms.

Those are vital signs to some tenants, such as Chorus Line, which recently upped its showroom space from 6,500 to 10,000 square feet. And to New York buyer Sally Pearson, apparel merchandise manager for Saks Fifth Avenue, who says: "I can't think of anyone who is not in the Mart, or nearby."

She and her buying team "come out en masse" five times a year to shop the contemporary market. "Nobody does it better," she says.

Mart president Newman's job includes keeping the Pearsons of the world happy--and informed. In what some consider an early faux pas, he handed the Mart's public relations contract to his daughter. He casually dismisses the matter, focusing instead on his participation in the mayor's industry round table last month. And on his role as president of the Downtown Property Owners Assn., which is working to make the area around the Mart cleaner and safer with private graffiti-removal squads and security patrols.

But "the brush-fires" as Jack Kyser, a Mart supporter and chief economist of the Economic Development Corp., calls them, continue to burn. In the past, Santa Monica's Water Garden was nipping at the Mart's heels. Now it is the Pacific Design Center.

Its new president, Andrew Wolf, has promised that by late spring, the West Hollywood building with proximity to posh restaurants and primo tourist attractions will have attracted more than 150 upscale tenants, many from the Mart.

But many insiders doubt there will be mass defections, because the Mart, for all its faults, has one thing going for it.

"We've explored the possibility of moving out," explains swim- and sportswear designer Robin Piccone, who won the Mart's Designer of the Year Award in 1989. "But even if there were a move, it wouldn't be practical unless it was done en masse. And that consensus is not easy. It's a non-cohesive group here, and the glue is the Mart."

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