Everyone must go!
Dressed in their trendiest best, scores of eager women hand their keys to the valet, check their names with a list-holder at the door and hungrily eye piles of goodie bags waiting to be snagged at the exit. Inside the West Los Angeles photo studio, waiters circulate with free champagne, a DJ spins a high-energy mix of indie rock and a phalanx of assistants surrounds important guests.
If there were a red carpet, a searchlight or a row of paparazzi, you might swear you had happened upon one of those pumped-up publicity parties that seem to be a way of life in Los Angeles. But this is a glamour-gilded sample sale.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. Nov. 25, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 25, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Sample sales date -- A listing with an article in the Nov. 18 Calendar Weekend section about fashion sample sales said the Gerry Building in downtown Los Angeles would have group sample sales on Dec. 3, 10 and 17. A group sale is scheduled only for Dec. 3.
Thirty designers have set up shop in the sprawling photo studio; curtained-off corners have become makeshift dressing rooms where fashion hounds try out the latest labels and designers offer advice, flattery and free drinks. Maybe it’s the midday liquor that’s taking the edge off, but there are no desperate divas frantically scouring racks or digging through bins for bargains. They’re relaxed!
Just five years ago, sample sales were no-frills affairs in Los Angeles. Designers or wholesale showrooms slashed prices on samples -- the small-size garments shown to store buyers each season -- and a short list of friends and acquaintances benefited. Prices typically started at wholesale (50% off retail) and plunged from there. Those sales were (and remain) the source for pennies-on-the-dollar shirts, dresses and the trendy looks destined for chain stores.
But the circumstances of the sales have changed within the last few years. The sample sale has become the latest social happening to be restyled in this city’s glamorous image. Many of the sales are now publicity-generating parties aimed at increasing a designer’s profile among savvy shoppers and a stylish elite. These particular events are not merely sales; they are events, staged by publicists and professional organizers. The promoters are not just selling odds and ends to the city’s endless supply of yoga-toned women. They’re marketing image, status, hope and a novel mode of entertainment to models, actresses, stylists, photographers, makeup artists, editors and big spenders. For them, organizers created the VIP invitation allowing desirable customers to shop early and organizers to better manage any threat of frenzied buyers.
Nonetheless, anyone with an e-mail address, the motivation to network and a grasp of sales fundamentals can pick up a James Perse clingy T-shirt for $20, Alvin Valley pants for $50 or overstock, returns, orphan remainders, slightly irregular and damaged goods or the one-of-a-kind fantasy pieces that may have graced a runway or magazine cover. Would-be shoppers can register with several websites to receive up-to-date notification of upcoming sales. Sites such as www.dailycandy.com, www.topbutton.com, www.planetlulu.com and even losangeles.craigs list.org post most of the notable events around town. Most of the downtown fashion marts still have monthly sales. In addition, designers at most sales solicit e-mail addresses and phone numbers to build their own lists.
A changing scene
Shopping conditions have improved at sample sales staged by professional organizers and by independent designers who feel the heat of competition. The bigger events accept credit cards and provide dressing rooms, parking, snacks, space to shop and a soothing ambience. The more upscale sales also have improved their merchandise. Now discriminating shoppers can score deals on designer goods, such as $60 Helmut Lang pants or $700 LoyandFord cashmere sweaters reduced to $100.
But many events still test a shopper’s dedication with inconveniences such as crowds, a jumbled assortment of styles and sizes and, frequently, a no-returns, no-exchanges policy. Women’s sizes are mostly 4 to 6, though sizes from 0 to 10 are increasingly available. Men who wear a 32-inch waist and inseam and medium or size 42 jacket can score at some sales. You may find oddly constructed items, too. After all, not everyone got an A-plus in tailoring class.
No matter. Sample sales have become a hit here because the supply is vast and the demand relatively untapped.
Southern California is the country’s second-largest apparel manufacturing region. The region is home to huge brands such as Guess, A.B.S. and BCBG Max Azria, but the large manufacturers tend to donate samples to large charity sales, offer them to employees or sell overstock at their own factory outlets. It’s the smaller companies and emerging designers who need cash and exposure, and sometimes they turn to professional organizers.
Three years ago, a duo of Australian publicists launched what has become the model Los Angeles sample sale and party, the Billion Dollar Babes. Kate Nobelius and her partner, Shelli Anne Crouch, saw a marketing opportunity in the underutilized leftover merchandise and created the Billion Dollar Babes sales.
“We didn’t want it to be one of those backyard sample sales with things tossed on tables,” Nobelius says. “We made it an event, with alcohol sponsors and a DJ.” The first event attracted 200 guests; the second, 800; the latest, 4,000 across two days in the 40,000-square-foot Hollywood Palladium.
The choice of a nightclub is fitting. “It became a club of sorts,” Nobelius says. Their quarterly sale is now stratified. VIPs who pay up to $200 a year for membership can shop Friday, the sale’s first day. The public can sign up on the website for an invitation to shop on Saturdays.
The size and success of Billion Dollar Babes have inspired spinoffs. A year ago, jewelry designer Meike Williams invited a dozen clothing and accessory designers to share expenses for a sample sale that she named Style Spree.
“There is so much competition at the other sales,” Williams says. “You are up against 25 other jewelry designers.” Her 4-year-old Cake line now gets center stage at her comparatively smaller events, where customers buy directly from the designers.
“It’s a great way to do R&D;,” Williams says. “You get feedback on your new designs and an immediate response from your clients.” Her group shares expenses and avoids organizers’ fees and commissions, which can take up to 30% of sales.
Independent designers and the new-format sample sales exist in an only-in-L.A. symbiosis. The fledgling designers lack the credibility (and sometimes the expertise) to attract stores, but the entertainment industry needs its cutting-edge clothes to fill wardrobe rooms. Thus, designers with little retail presence can flourish at sales, notably the Fashion Co-op.
The event was founded a year ago by former fashion publicist Michele Jue and her designer partner, Kimberly Tominaga. They expected to find, at best, two dozen collections.
“We got over 60,” Jue says. “It shocked us from the beginning how many designers are out there desperate to get their stuff in front of people.” Their event now includes nearly 150 designers. Many have never sold to the public and, by Jue’s estimation, half are out of business in a year.
Still, hot labels, great deals and personal time with the designers aren’t enough to cut it in L.A. To stay ahead, organizers are upping the ante.
“We’ve put a new spin on the traditional idea of the sample sale by making it a little more upscale and comfortable,” says Lee Trimble, who works for GenArt, an organization that is dedicated to promoting young artists and raises money with an event called the Los Angeles Shopping Spree. The GenArt sale’s on-site hairdressers, manicurists or makeup artists turn the event into what she called a “one-stop makeover.”
The L.A. sample sale now carries such cachet that it has become a catchall device to drive business. At the La Brea Boulevard boutique Fishnet last month, owner Annie Jacobs invited some of her store’s vendors to bring in samples and overstock to supplement her store’s going-out-of-business sale. The Beverly Hills-area hair salon Steam is staging a sample sale with dancers and entertainment this week to celebrate its five-year anniversary. The sample sale may be closing in on ubiquity, but that’s not bad news.
“It’s a sign of the health of the fashion industry in Los Angeles,” says Brian Watson, a publicist who opened the Circle, a combination boutique and sample outlet in Silver Lake’s historic Neutra office building. The veteran publicist counted a handful of viable local designers a decade ago. Now he regularly fills the upstairs loft with key pieces from thriving brands such as Mon Petite Oiseau, Monah Li, Alicia Lawhon and Trina Turk.
Having a professional handle the sometimes-nasty business of sample sales is a welcome concept at the fashion district marts. Top Button’s West Coast manager Nina Sutton recently convinced the Gerry Building managers to let her organize and publicize that mart’s big December sale. Her New York-based company gets a 25% cut of sales and the showroom representatives skip the hassle.
Though showrooms have some of the best selection and lowest prices, representatives of popular lines have come to despise the bargain-hunting public. One downtown rep canceled her public sales because customers were “revolting and disgusting.” Another said demand for Juicy Couture had become “a rampant run for the door. It was horrifying.”
That’s perhaps why the nouveau sample sale organizers are so successful. When they pitch designers on the benefits of their services, again and again they promise: “We’ll get you in front of the right people.” Consider yourself one of them.
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Rags and riches
Sample sales used to be the exclusive province of fashion industry wholesalers who offered great deals to their friends. Now entrepreneurs and enterprising publicists have harnessed samples, back stock, returns and more to create sales that are more like a party for bargain hunters.
As designers increasingly seek to control their image, the sales are becoming a way to unload extra stock to a select set of stylish shoppers.
Some of the area’s top sales and their next scheduled event:
New York-based Valley offers his full collection and his signature hip-hugging pants to L.A.
Where: Le Meridien Hotel, 465 S. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills
When: Noon to 6 p.m. Friday to Sunday
Info: (310) 247-0400
Billion Dollar Babes
An international assortment of nearly 60 men’s, women’s and accessory designers. Stock consists of samples, overproduction and returns from New York, European and local contemporary designers, mostly in sizes 0 to 8. RSVP required.
Where: Hollywood Palladium, 6215 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood
When: Dec. 3, members only; Dec. 4 for the public, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
California Market Center
The mammoth mart houses more than 1,000 showrooms for clothing, accessories, housewares and gifts. Mostly small and petite sample sizes. Showrooms decide individually to sell samples, usually on the last Friday of the month. Check showroom windows for notices.
Where: 110 E. 9th St., downtown L.A.
When: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 3, 10 and 17
Info: (213) 630-3600 or www.californiamarketcenter.com
The combination boutique and sale spot offers samples and back stock of women’s and children’s clothing, shoes, handbags and jewelry from local independent designers at 40% to 85% off retail.
Where: Neutra Office Building, 2379 Glendale Blvd., Silver Lake
When: 3 to 6 p.m. Friday, noon to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Info: (323) 665-5336 or email@example.com
Cooper Design Space
The 29 showroom tenants in the fashion district building individually decide when to sell samples of their cutting-edge men’s, women’s and pet collections. Notices are often word-of-mouth, or signs are posted in showroom windows.
Where: 860 S. Los Angeles St., downtown L.A.
When: Typically the last Friday of the month. Holiday sales set for Dec. 3, 10 and 17. The building is open from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Info: (213) 627-3754 or www.cooperdesignspace.com
Cut Cute Designer Sale
Contemporary clothing and accessory designers, including T-bags, O Studio Works, Alba Heredia and Cut Cute Couture, will sell samples and extra stock at or below wholesale prices.
Where: Cut Cute, 108 W. 2nd St., Suite 906, downtown L.A.
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Dec. 4-5.
Info: www.cutcute.com/sale.html or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Nearly 150 emerging designers of women’s, men’s and children’s clothing, jewelry and accessories in a range of sizes. The last sale of $40 Jimmy Choo shoes inspired battles. Online RSVP required.
Where: Smashbox Studios, 8549 Higuera St., Culver City
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dec 4; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dec. 5
GenArt LA Shopping Spree
Twice a year, this arts and entertainment organization stages upscale sales featuring deeply discounted clothing and accessories from 30 established and emerging local designers.
When: Next event scheduled for early March. Location TBA.
Cost: $5, $20 VIP; free for GenArt members
Info: (310) 360-0141 or www.genart.org
The Gerry Building
The fashion district building will stage its first group sample sales from tenant clothing manufacturers and independent sales representatives.
Where: 910 S. Los Angeles St., downtown L.A.
When: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Dec. 3, 10 and 17
Info: www.topbutton.com or www.gerrybuilding.com
Designer David Lim’s Kasil jeans and twill pants are heavily discounted, along with accessories by Uncle Sarah and tops by Statice.
Where: 2974 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Noon to 4 p.m. Saturday
Info: (323) 263-6565
Local cutting-edge designer Barry sells samples, overstock, runway-show accessories and “weird, one-of-a-kind things that could be some celebrity’s prototype pants,” along with work from her contemporaries Punk Empire, Europa and Calin jewelry and Balthazar belts.
Where: 1734 Silver Lake Blvd., Silver Lake
When: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday Info: (323) 663-9526
Jewelry, hair accessories, bags and shoes from Michelle Roy, Surly Girl Bags, Tail Bait, BC Footwear and Seychelles at 30% below retail.
Where: Michelle Roy showroom, 221 N. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills
When: 6 to 9 p.m. Dec. 2
Info: www.michelleroydesigns.com, email@example.com
Various contemporary fashion showrooms individually decide to offer samples for sale, often on the last Friday of the month, except during market weeks.
Where: 127 E. 9th St., downtown L.A.
When: During the holiday season, some tenants will sell samples from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (or until samples are gone) Friday and Dec. 3, 10 and 17.
Owner Noah Soltes recently left the downtown loft, where hundreds of people snatched upscale collections for 50% to 75% below retail every Saturday. Now he has two stores selling clothing and accessories from 80 local and New York designers. Some items are specially made for the sales from manufacturers’ surplus fabric. Special sales online too. For store sales, RSVP online.
Where: 1735 Berkeley St., West L.A., and 6000 Reseda Blvd., Tarzana
When: Today and Friday online only. Stores open Saturday only.
Pure Consulting Sample Sale
Independent designers represented by this public relations firm offer samples and overproduction below wholesale prices. RSVP required.
Where: 2186 1/2 Beachwood Terrace, Los Angeles
When: Noon to 6 p.m. Saturday Info: (323) 871-0087 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Sassy City Chicks
Nearly three dozen local designers of women’s clothing and accessories personally sell their wares for 15% to 70% off. Leifer Public Relations organizes the events.
Where: Area 101 Stage, 1051 N. Cole St., Hollywood
When: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday
Cost: $5 at the door; $3 in advance
In a Moroccan carnival setting, salon owner Carla Gentile gathers makers of clothing, jewelry and pottery -- plus a snake charmer-- for a combination sample and overstock sale and anniversary celebration.
Where: Steam, 314 N. Harper Ave., Los Angeles
When: 2 to 7 p.m. Sunday
Info: (323) 966-0024
Shoe Frenzy 2005
Designer shoes -- thousands of them -- are sold at low prices to benefit the Women’s Clinic and Family Counseling Center.
Where: Veterans Memorial Building, 4117 Overland Ave., Culver City
When: May 2005
Info: (310) 203-8336 or www.shoefrenzy.net
A dozen contemporary fashion, accessory and jewelry designers gather intermittently to offer discounts of 20% to 60% Cake jewelry, Fig clothing and Luxe Pet doggie wear.
Where: Quixote Studios, 1011 N. Fuller Ave., West Hollywood
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dec. 11
Info: (323) 363-3321 or www.stylespree.com
Other hunting grounds
* Craig’s List -- Area designers sometimes clear out samples and back stock through sales publicized in the website’s clothing and accessories section. losangeles.craigslist.org.
* Daily Candy -- In addition to sending daily e-mails that publicize new fashion-related products and services, the site is a reliable source of upcoming sample sales by the big and little players. www.dailycandy.com.
* Stylish Girl -- Partners Jacqueline Cohen and Andrea Gressinger started staging “Girls’s Night Out” parties/sales in hotel ballrooms a year ago. Now they’re two-day events, held eight to 10 times a year, that feature L.A. designers such as Edward An, T-Bags, Park Vogel and Natalie B. Their latest event was last weekend. Register by e-mail at email@example.com.
* Top Button -- Organizes and publicizes sample sales for designers and showroom representatives in exchange for a fee. The website lists store sales and online bargains. Register on the site for free notices of future events. www.topbutton.com.
* Rec Center Studio -- Owner Steven Stickler’s Echo Park photo studio hosts intermittent sample sales, which are listed on the site. www.reccenterstudio.com
* St. John Knits -- The Orange County manufacturer of women’s knitwear is famous for an annual blowout sale of samples and overstock, tentatively set for early 2005. Admission is by invitation. (949) 863-1171 or www.stjohnknits.com.
Valli Herman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.