If you take the nickel tour of Arnold Lorber's textile plant in Carson, bring a phrase book. Make that several.
On the shop floor, Lorber chats with workers in staccato Spanish, one of nine languages he has mastered in 50-plus years in the textile trade. He introduces a visitor to his Russian computer expert, a German dyer and an Israeli plant manager. He then touches the keypad of a sophisticated fabric finishing machine programmed in four languages: English, Italian, German and Spanish.
"It's like the United Nations in here," says Lorber, a Czechoslovakian-born entrepreneur who cut his teeth in the South American rag trade before building one of the largest U.S. fabric mills west of the Mississippi.
Offshore competition may be shredding America's hidebound textile industry, but business is bustling in Los Angeles thanks to a new breed of import. In a decade when the U.S. has shed nearly 120,000 textile jobs, immigrant capital, labor and know-how have boosted L.A. County's fabric-making work force by more than 70% in the 1990s alone.
Koreans, Iranians, Chinese, Europeans, Pakistanis and other foreign-born entrepreneurs have found a niche here cranking out wildly colored fabrics at breakneck speed for Southern California's quick-turn apparel trade. L.A. County now is home to close to 400 knitting, dyeing and finishing concerns, 40% of them started since 1991, according to state figures.
Combining Old World training and contacts with New World hustle and technology, foreign-born entrepreneurs have built a $1.7-billion local industry employing nearly 17,000 workers by spotting fresh opportunities in a mature field.
"It's very simple," says Korean-born Thomas Rhee, explaining the fast growth of his L.A.-based Calendar Textile Inc. "Back East, those guys go home at 5
o'clock. . . . I work 12 to 14 hours a day, 6 1/2 days a week, and I don't take vacations. The textile industry has changed, and it's the immigrants who have adapted."
Industry watchers say that entrepreneurial energy, combined with heavy automation, L.A.'s proximity to Mexican sewing plants and NAFTA rules favoring onshore textile production have enabled L.A.'s nimble fabric makers to remake a small corner of a fraying domestic industry.
"I pinch myself every day," says Steve Craver, a textile industry needle supplier who says his Southern California sales have tripled in recent years. "This is truly the wild, wild West."
To understand why the Southland's textile base is expanding while the domestic industry shrinks like a cheap T-shirt is to recognize the advantages of speed and local sourcing. To be sure, U.S. clothing and fabric manufacturers continue chasing low-cost labor around the globe. Burlington Industries and other American textile giants have built massive foreign plants in recent years to crank out miles of commodity fabrics such as denim that were once the mainstays of shuttered Southeastern mills.
But a quiet counterrevolution has emerged in Southern California thanks to the unique flavor of the local garment-making trade. Southland clothing manufacturers specialize in up-to-the-minute women's fashions. Styles and colors popular one season become thrift shop cast-offs the next. Retailers with a hot product moving off the racks want new stock within weeks before the fad cools.
Speed, Flexibility a Plus
That turn-on-a-dime mentality means that local apparel producers need fast, reliable textile suppliers and fabric dyers willing to do short runs of exotic fabrics in a blur of colors. It's the kind of work lumbering Eastern mills can't do quickly or profitably, and offshore competitors can't turn fast enough to meet 11th-hour deadlines.
Enter immigrants such as Swiss-born Michel Morger, toting skills and a passion for a traditional industry unmatched by many native-born entrepreneurs. A teenage textile apprentice in Switzerland, he was managing 200 people in a fabric-dyeing facility in Los Angeles by his mid-20s.
"Back home, you have to be at least 45 years old to have a position like that," he says. "L.A.'s strength is that the companies are small, creative and flexible. . . . We can turn an order overnight if we have to."
Now 32, Morger is a partner in Swisstex California, a 2-year-old dye house that will post $20 million in sales this year.
Southland textile producers also have gotten a boost from the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has set down special rules of origin for textiles and apparel known as yarn-forward regulations. To qualify for preferential treatment under NAFTA, clothing must be cut and sewn from fabric made from North American fibers in a NAFTA-member nation--Mexico, Canada or the United States.
Yarn-forward has provided a green light for many U.S. garment makers and sewing contractors to set up shop in Mexico. L.A. County's apparel employment dipped slightly last year after peaking at 111,000 workers in 1997. Job losses appear to be accelerating this year as local manufacturers take advantage of NAFTA's reduced tariffs and duties to move sewing operations south.
In contrast, L.A.'s textile employment continues to grow. The difference, experts say, is that L.A.'s textile plants are highly automated, so Mexico's cheap wages don't hold the same allure as they do for labor-intensive sewing operations. What's more, abundant water and technical expertise-- cornerstones of the dyeing and finishing trade--are harder to come by south of the border.
L.A.'s good transportation and proximity to Mexico make it a snap to ship fabric quickly to sewing plants there. So for now, Southern California remains a viable base to serve the burgeoning garment maquiladoras operated by U.S. apparel makers and those of foreign manufacturers scrambling for a foothold in the NAFTA region.
"We're seeing a shift in apparel production from Asian countries to the Western hemisphere," says Judi Kessler, an economic sociologist at UC Santa Barbara who is writing a book on NAFTA's impact on the Southern California apparel industry. "A lot of the sewing is going to Mexico . . . but NAFTA has made it advantageous to use some U.S. fabric."
Before NAFTA was even a gleam in a bureaucrat's eye, Lorber was among the first wave of immigrant textile entrepreneurs to establish a beachhead in Southern California. It was the late 1960s, and he recalls that area garment manufacturers bought most of their fabric from importers or East Coast mills.
"There was nothing here" in the way of textile production, he says. "It was a wasteland."
So Lorber and others--first Europeans, then Iranians, then Asians--set out replicating the industry they knew. The son of textile entrepreneurs, Lorber had done it before in Caracas, Venezuela, where he and other European Jews had made a fresh start after World War II.
His beginning in Los Angeles was humble enough, a few machines churning out double-knit polyester for hot purple jumpsuits and other swinging '60s fashions. Today Lorber Industries of California is a $100-million-a-year vertical operation with knitting, dyeing, printing and finishing equipment under one roof. He and others have helped make Southern California one of the world's fastest-growing producers of "circular" knits, named for the whirling machines that crank out tubes of cotton and synthetic fabrics used for everything from delicate undergarments to durable sportswear and slinky dresses.
Like tireless, revolving spiders, Lorber's knitting machines spin 24 hours a day transforming yarn into an unbroken web of fabric. The dull, off-white material formed from undyed yarn is then bleached and fed into the gullet of mammoth stainless steel dyeing vats known as jets. There it agitates from four to eight hours in a scalding dye solution hotter than 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Once colored, the material moves through a series of sophisticated machines that slit the tubular lengths of fabric, stretch them, dry them, treat them for shrinkage and finally wind them into tight, bright bolts that plop like 40-pound crayons from the end of the assembly line.
A dizzying palate of fabrics twist and turn on their mechanical conveyors around the hot, humid shop floor: a bright blue-and-green soccer-ball print, a burnt-orange calico, a luscious candy-striped knit, a gray fleece.
"Novelty stuff, specialty stuff, off-the-wall stuff," Lorber says. "That's the California market."
Iranian textile makers, many of them Jews, immigrated to Los Angeles in the early to mid-1980s, following the Islamic Revolution in Iran. They and other Middle Easterners have built some of the most impressive textile facilities in Los Angeles. But it was Korean entrepreneurs who took the local industry to new heights beginning in the late 1980s.
That's when Brazilian Koreans who had dominated the apparel trade in Sao Paulo arrived in Los Angeles searching for a stable economy and better education for their children. Many set up garment manufacturing and wholesaling operations in L.A.'s downtown fashion district, supplying inexpensive apparel to small retailers, off-price stores and exporters. It wasn't long before other Koreans--some from Brazil, others from the homeland--set up knitting facilities to supply this burgeoning market.
"Many of them started virtually from scratch," says J.C. Choe, publisher of Pacific Textile News. "They bought one or two used knitting machines and slept in the factory."
Today Koreans control an estimated 35% of L.A.-area knitting mills, according to Craver, the West Coast sales manager for industrial needle manufacturer Groz-Beckert Inc. who has tracked the trend. His firm and other industry suppliers such as fiber giant DuPont have added Korean speakers to their staff to woo an ethnic segment grown well beyond mom-and-pop shops.
Fast-moving Doori American Inc., for example, is building a 240,000-square-foot knitting and dyeing factory in Fullerton to augment the company's three existing facilities in South Gate and Gardena, according to operations manager Keith Kim.
Korean textile makers also are moving beyond their tight ethnic network to sell into the mainstream apparel market. Rhee's Calendar Textile supplies manufacturers whose garments are carried by major retailers such as Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney and Kmart.
"That's the real American dream," Rhee says. "That's where all the Koreans want to be."
Challenges Lie Ahead
Whether all of them can get there remains to be seen. So many competitors have jumped into the Southern California market in recent years that margins are tighter than a pair of Spandex hot pants. Asia's economic woes haven't helped matters any, as cheap imports continue to flood U.S. shores.
"This market is so saturated that we're killing each other," says Charlie Kang, president of Paradise Textile in Chino. "There will be a shakeout."
Some say California's rigid environmental rules will put a lid on growth, while others lament the shortage of skilled American workers needed to take the West Coast industry to the next level. Textile engineering programs such as those found in universities in the Southeast don't exist in area colleges. Local firms haven't had much luck luring Southerners into L.A.'s upstart, ethnic industry, forcing them to look abroad for talent.
"I've got workers from Israel, Canada, England, Germany, you name it," says Daniel Kadisha, the Iranian-born president of Long Beach-based Texollini, one of the area's largest fabric mills. "I've had businesses in telecommunications and aerospace, and I've had an easier time finding technical people in those fields than in textiles."
Others predict that West Coast textile manufacturers eventually must follow their customers' sewing plants to Mexico. But Ali Zahedi, president of Lafayette Textile Industries, is betting that increasing sophistication will keep companies such as his in business here.
He and his partners just spent $8 million to retrofit a shuttered Los Angeles factory with a state-of-the-art color lab and the finest European-made textile dyeing and finishing equipment. Next year they plan to add knitting machines that will enable them to work with customers to develop new fabrics. Quality, innovation and speed, he figures, will be the key to long-term survival.
"If this industry dies," he says, "I'd like to think we'll be the last ones to close the doors."