Refusing to be labeled

Mike Hodgkinson is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.

From its roots in the sartorial bastions of Old Hollywood to trend-setting Melrose boutiques, the bespoke movement is spreading among Los Angeles designers. You can see it in the cut, the drape and the weave of the fabrics. Two worlds--the conservative and the visionary--are feeding off each other.

The notion of bespoke--or made-to-order garments--for years dusty and antiquated, is being refreshed and redefined by a new generation of designers. The very word bespoke, once shorthand for old boy's club tailoring speckled with the chalk dust of an aging clan, now encompasses innovation, originality and rebellion.

For the consumer, rejection of mainstream brands represents an act of defiance in a logo-hungry consumer culture. Wearing something unique and perfectly tailored--clothes made for you and you alone, to your exact measurements, in your precise shade of whatever--has a reverse cachet to the designer label, which loudly signals how much you spent and whatever image the designer is currently pushing. With bespoke, you hide the label--the label, in a sense, is you.

Hidden away in a six-story building downtown, deep in rag-trade territory on 6th and Los Angeles streets, B. Black & Sons preserves the bespoke tradition, promising the city's "largest in-stock selection of 100% wool" available for retail sale. And L.A.'s fashion-forward know the address. "B. Black is a wonderland," says Rick Owens, the Hollywood-based designer and winner of the 2002 Perry Ellis Award for Emerging Talent given by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Owens, who's known for using exquisite fabrics that softly drape, was introduced to the store by tutors at Los Angeles Trade Technical College.

"I was doing things with wool that were, for lack of a better word, deconstructed. The fabrics at B. Black already give your garment credibility--there's something traditional and stable about wools. When you start abstracting from those, it makes a nice balance. And B. Black is the only place in the world I've found that has this ribbon I use for my labels."

"Designers usually do mass production or they do true couture," says Melissa Masse, whose store, Masse Made to Measure, on Melrose breaks new ground between those extremes. "We custom-make everything but we also wholesale to about 30 small high-end specialty stores." For Masse, the range of materials carried by B. Black & Sons is beyond compare. "I started using the place eight years ago when I was a designer at Richard Tyler. I travel the world for fabrics, and I still go back there. That store is as Old Hollywood as it gets."

Stepping over the threshold at B. Black & Sons, you immediately sense you've entered a throwback era. A huge stuffed sailfish overlooks the strip-lit shop floor. Below the trophy, which is a memento from proprietor Irwin Volk's holidays in Mazatlan, are tightly packed rows of fabric "bolts," or rolls.

Volk, 69, has been running B. Black & Sons since his father stepped down as president in the mid-1950s. The company goes back further. "We're the oldest woolen jobber in Los Angeles," Volk says. "The business was started by my grandfather, Barnett Black, in 1922. There used to be seven jobbers like this on the street, selling to tailors and manufacturers."

Barnett Black emigrated from Russia to New York, then Chicago, at the end of the 19th century. "My grandmother had asthma," Volk says. "The doctor told her if you can't survive another Chicago winter, you better go west. We've been in this building since we opened. They brought my dad in when he married my mother. He and my two uncles ran the place," until Volk's return from service in Korea. "It's an old family business, four generations."

Hollywood costume designers have been using B. Black & Sons for years. The fabric for the suits in the mob drama "Bugsy" and "Men in Black II" hail from the store, as do the nun's habits from "Sister Act" and many of the textiles used in costumes for "Titanic" and "Minority Report." "We don't tailor anything--we sell to tailors," Volk stresses. "Anything a tailor needs to make a suit, he can buy and take it back to the shop. Some still are master tailors who can make a suit for the average guy from 3 to 3 1/2 yards of fabric. The other guys want 4 to 4 1/2."

The decline in traditional custom tailoring could have sounded a death knell for B. Black & Sons, but a new breed of buyer has been courted by the resident modernizing influence, Andrew Volk. Andrew is Irwin's nephew and the driving force behind B. Black's renaissance. Habitually dressed in a T-shirt and bespoke plaid pants, which he made himself from choice B. Black fabric, he works between the shop floor and his PC.

"Andrew has really breathed a new life into that place," Masse says. "He knows all the young designers. A lot of their customers are these old tailor-shop types, but I'm 29 years old. I love dealing with the older guys because they're hilarious, but it's good to have Andrew's point of reference."

Communications technology had pretty much bypassed B. Black & Sons before Andrew's arrival. "It feels like we got a fax machine only two years ago," he says. "We are very family-oriented, but I'm trying to get them to move into the 21st century. I spend three-quarters of my day on the shop floor and the rest of the time on the computer."

Having witnessed the decline in tailor-made garments, Andrew spotted the potential for an exciting change of direction, where he borrows from his customers, who in turn borrow from his ideas. "I saw there was something different than just a suit that could be made with material I sold, that would be great to wear out at night to a club. With not so many people wanting suits, me and my friends have started using the traditional wools and the pinstripes in more of a funky kind of light," he says.

"Now we're making suit pants that are not exactly baggy, but a little more fitted cuts," Andrew adds. "We're doing patches, all kinds of new things with the wools which really no one has done yet."

Darren Romanelli, who sells his Dr. Romanelli label at the Naked boutiques on North Martel Avenue and Beverly Boulevard, says B. Black & Sons was one of his early influences. "Andrew's energy helped a ton. He's all over the place with ideas, running upstairs grabbing different woolens. Overall, the energy in B. Black & Sons is incredible. I focus on using their woolens and fabrics for pants and shorts, and I've made a couple of custom suits. I'm blending a vintage vibe with a California feel. Andrew has everything from light blues and browns to beautiful dark cashmere blacks with stripes."

The move toward using the custom tailor's traditional raw materials for cutting-edge bespoke fashion is, in Andrew's opinion, gathering momentum. "Among small designers this trend is really blowing up. There are a lot of people out there, a lot of new names in Los Angeles. They deal with B. Black because we're at the 'jobber' end, meaning you don't need to buy huge quantities from us--you can do your small sample pieces and do your small units before you get large and have to go to a mill."

Alicia Lawhon custom-designs for an extensive list of red-carpeters. "I love B. Black & Sons," she says, recalling her first visit in 1996. "It was heaven, ideal for what I do, especially my early patchwork, folkloric pieces. I like the table where they have [samples] from the end of the fabric bolt, a beautiful variety. Seeing them together on that table is inspirational--all the different pinstripes, tweeds and tartans together."

Lawhon used B. Black & Sons fabric for her fall collection. "I made these shawls, like capes, on strips of fabric. The wool from B. Black is the capelet that drapes over your shoulder. It's pretty intense and absolutely delicious, and I hand-dyed it. The texture is beautiful, really yummy."

Out on the shop floor, Volk talks about his wares and illustrates those "yummy" qualities so prized by Lawhon and other designers. "That's Super 160s," he explains of a soft, luxuriant cloth. "It's very thin, very fine. We'll probably have to get $125 a yard for that. It's like butter."

And it won't show up on your neighbor at a dinner party. B Black & Sons--and the designers who are buying into bespoke--provide an alternative to a retail future where the lines between high fashion and mass consumerism have been blurred in the name of label worship. And it's not simply an attractive notion for a time when hyperbole rings more hollow than ever. It's also extremely comfortable. "If you have one thing custom made," Masse says, "whether it's a pair of black pants or the perfect black cocktail dress, you can't go back to buying off the rack. Once you have it, there's nothing else you want to put on your body."

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