Rags and Riches

TIMES FASHION EDITOR

As serious and drab as the flat little municipality of Vernon is, the clothing it sends across the country is bright and sexy, cheerful enough to sustain California's golden image.

The skinny pink vinyl jeans that give an innocent teenager the look of a seductress, the all-business suit a middle manager buys when she's got an itch for her boss' job, the sturdy jeans that protect a young mother's thighs from stroller burn were all conceived in a 5-square-mile industrial village southeast of downtown Los Angeles. This curious clothing kingdom is home to many of the biggest, richest and fastest-growing apparel manufacturers in Southern California.

At high noon on most weekdays, a column of luxury cars files into the parking lot of Il Treno, an unpretentious restaurant on Santa Fe Avenue that is "Cheers" minus the alcohol (everybody knows your name). Jaguars, elephantine Range Rovers, Mercedeses and the occasional Lexus slalom around Max Azria's black limo to claim a coveted space. The owner and designer of BCBG, a popular fashion house that conveys the warp-speed energy of current style, doesn't get a special table at Il Treno, because none exists. Host Antoinette Carrot observes a seating strategy that bows more to the need for discretion than to the size of moguls' egos.

"I've learned to recognize that certain groups don't want to sit near each other," Carrot says. "I'll tell them, 'So and so is here, on the patio, would you like to sit somewhere else?' "

Sure. Better to put some distance between a manufacturer and the department store buyer who just dumped his line, especially when the buyer is romancing a new resource over lunch. Salesmen inevitably blab, so no smart designer sits within earshot of a textile rep. Janet Howard, who earlier this year was named California Designer of the Year, feels safer gossiping than talking business.

"What mills you use is top secret," she says. "You'd never say, 'Oh my God, I just got the greatest fabric from X,' because everyone copies everyone, and next thing you know someone would be going after this cool fabric you found."

For an intense three hours, during which the kitchen serves up 440 meals, Il Treno is thick with men and women who compete for the $218 billion Americans spend annually on clothes. So many of them have risen to the top of the apparel jungle that, on an average day, the white plastic chairs on the patio may cradle the bottoms of a dozen multimillionaires scarfing down grilled chicken salad or tortiglioni with garlic cream sauce.

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In the heart of this hard-working place, people do not dress especially well; it's their job to design, make and sell clothes, not to model them. Howard is an exception, in a black leather blazer with a vintage men's pocket square tied jauntily around her neck. A number of the men effect a neglected lonely-guy style that suggests wives who are either absent or uninterested. The paradox of the glamorous business of fashion is that, like Vernon, where the air carries the faint smell of stale garbage from a nearby graveyard for trash trucks, it really isn't very stylish at all.

Two hundred of the 91-year-old city's 1,100 companies fall within the garment business. At Il Treno, it's hard to distinguish the bankers, buyers, manufacturers, contractors, label makers, trim and fabric peddlers, owners of knitting mills and dye houses from the men in metal and food processing who also work here. What they all share is an affection for their adopted town more typical of folks in Mayberry.

Three years ago, Lonnie Kane, CEO of Karen Kane and husband of the designer, built a 130,000-square-foot warehouse and moved 300 of the women's sportswear firm's employees from smaller quarters in downtown Los Angeles, where parking was scarce, cars were vandalized and the city didn't repair a broken street light he nagged them about for more than four years. The company maintains a showroom at the California Mart downtown, which is a 10-minute drive from Vernon the few times a year the Kanes visit.

"In Vernon, business is in the driver's seat," he says. "Building permits are easy to get. A pothole is fixed in a day or two. A street light was out at the corner where my employees wait for the bus and after we reported it, it was fixed the next day. So I appreciate Vernon."

The city has its own police force, and fire, health and water departments. The power company charges 30% to 45% less than those in many California communities. The bulk of the city's revenues come from business license fees and sales taxes. With few retail stores and hardly anything to buy, Vernon rivals barren Moscow as a shopper's hell.

Dark knots of power lines traverse the sky and train tracks scar the streets, so not much can be done to disguise Vernon's homeliness. But at Karen Kane and many of the area's other new and renovated warehouses, considerable care has been taken with the interiors. Walls are painted in light colors, windows are large, skylights numerous. At Guess? Jeans, where Howard works as a consultant, the street facade is so grim that visitors might expect an office befitting salesmen in a David Mamet play.

"Outside, you see 12-foot walls topped with barbed wire, but inside, it's like Oz," Howard says. "There are palm trees and flowers and benches. A big Lichtenstein hangs in the hall outside my office."

Gene Montesano and Barry Perlman describe the sky-lit space where they moved their Lucky Brand Dungarees three years ago as a cool New York loft. They planted rose gardens outside. "If we'd done that in downtown Los Angeles, we'd find bums sleeping in the roses," Perlman says.

The 6-year-old men's and women's sportswear company operates a retail store on La Brea Avenue that has been held up at gunpoint. "I drove over there from Vernon and got there quicker than the police," Montesano says.

Vernon offers no special incentives to companies like Lucky Brand. Safety is enough of a draw.

"When my partner first said we were moving to Vernon, I said, 'I'm going to work at home.' But after the first day, I loved it. We've planted palm trees. It's home."

At least during the day. When the sun goes down, the working population of 45,000 shrinks to 90 full-time residents, most of them city employees. The Chamber of Commerce's general manager can tick off the city's houses and one small apartment complex on her fingers and toes.

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The first garment manufacturer came to Vernon in 1925, when Fred Cole set up West Coast Knitted Underwear Manufacturing. Until then, the area had been a center of heavy industry. Cole's company became Cole of California swimwear, changed hands several times, and still has a facility in Vernon. Other apparel firms didn't follow till the mid-'80s. Metal processors were leaving the area, making it ripe for redevelopment.

"There were big warehouses there, and that's what the apparel industry looks for, big boxes they can fill with cutting and shipping operations," Lonnie Kane says.

Other manufacturers in Vernon include Rampage, Chorus Line, Z. Cavarricci, Bongo, Democracy by Michael Glasser, Laundry by Shelli Segal, XOXO and Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit--powerhouses whose sportswear stocks the malls of America. Smaller apparel-related companies also inhabit the neighborhood. Their owners cite additional Vernon virtues as easy access to five major freeways and factory space at one-fourth the cost of a comparable downtown site. With rents so cheap, the prosperous companies that flock to Vernon don't have to share space, as do many smaller firms in the city of Industry, South El Monte, city of Commerce, Gardena and downtown.

"It's like having your own villa compared to living in an apartment," says Orly Dahan, one of four owners of Tag Rag, a junior sportswear company that moved from downtown to an old transport warehouse in Vernon in 1986.

The sort of creativity that hatches chartreuse corduroy pea jackets and sundresses of pseudo-Pucci pastel prints flourishes in these idyllic work spaces. Lucky Brand's Montesano says, "When you're happy and you're feeling good about where you work, the juices flow." Tag Rag's head designer, Michele Dahan, agrees: "You can concentrate in Vernon."

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The dark side of such pristine professional environments is the absence of inspiration; the visual stimulation of street life has nourished fashion since the '60s. "In this business, we all travel," Dahan says. "If you're constantly stimulated, at what point are you going to stop and focus and do what you have to do?"

Karen Kane misses opportunities to see how real people interpret fashion. "I wind up going out to get that on the weekends," she says. "The people-watching near our store on Beverly Drive is really good."

Guess? designer Sabine Hoerz escapes to the Jose Eber Salon in Beverly Hills to goose her muse. "It's a drag, but you certainly don't see anything interesting around here," she says.

So sanguine are Vernon's commercial immigrants, even when confronted with frustrating train-related traffic delays, it would be hard to dispel a rumor of free Prozac being dispensed at city hall.

"You could sit at a train crossing and wait for 20 minutes, if you're unlucky," Lonnie Kane says. "So what everyone has learned to do is carry a newspaper in the car or use the cell phone." Adds Lucky Brand's Montesano: "At least you won't get mugged while you're waiting for the train to pass. If that's the worst thing about being in Vernon, I'll deal with it."

Montesano is also planning to handle another of the city's failings: its dearth of appealing restaurants. In the coming year, he'd like to open a place that would make him look forward to lunchtime. "We have almost 200 employees, and I'd like to give them an attractive place to go."

Soon, Il Treno may have competition. That's progress.

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