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California Mart Bursting at the Seams : 'One-Stop' Apparel Center Puts L.A. on Buyers' Map as More Designers Make It Their Home

November 09, 1987|MARTHA GROVES | Times Staff Writer

People laughed when two underwear manufacturers named Harvey and Barney Morse decided in the early 1960s to build a one-stop wholesale apparel mart in downtown Los Angeles that catered to retailers. Sure, the Morse brothers could produce 1 million pairs of ladies undies a month, but what did they know from fashion?

They're not laughing anymore.

Today, with 3 million square feet and an occupancy rate of 97%, the California Mart is the heartbeat of the Los Angeles apparel industry. Throughout its nearly 24 years, the Mart has mirrored the growth of garment manufacturing in the area. And with more manufacturers knocking at the Mart's doors, the owners are considering increasing the number of showrooms by 25% with a 500,000-square-foot addition.

In the past few years, thanks in no small part to the convenience of the California Mart--still run by members of the founders' families--apparel buyers for retail stores have increasingly added Los Angeles to their itineraries. Some in the industry say Los Angeles in the past three years has vaulted to second place in importance among U.S. clothing markets, after New York but ahead of Dallas, Atlanta and Chicago.

"California is coming into its own in terms of having its own image (and) recognizing its own niches," said Lydia Caffery, junior sportswear editor at Tobe Report, a New York-based fashion publication. "The best thing the Mart does is provide a one-stop shopping concept for retailers. It's the best in the country for that."

Casual Dress Emulated

Much of the credit for the increased sizzle in California apparel goes to a group of innovative, contemporary designers such as Georges Marciano of Guess, Leon Max, Nancy Heller, Carole Little, Jessica McClintock, Karen Alexander, Kevan Hall and Susie and Doug Tompkins of Esprit.

Intrigued by these designers' "California life style" looks--with heavy doses of denim and knits--clothing shoppers nationwide are clamoring to dress like casual Angelenos--the ones they like to poke fun at and emulate at the same time.

Teresa Pineda, a divisional merchandise manager at Bullock's responsible for contemporary and casual sportswear, said her business has shifted strongly westward.

"Fifty percent of my business is done in California," a dramatic change from the 20% eight years ago, she said. As for the Mart, "all of the manufacturers that we deal with in California have an office in the Mart. Obviously, it becomes very important to go over there on a moment's notice."

The Mart opened in 1964 with 350,000 square feet and 350 showrooms, its owners having endured the jeers of people who assumed early on that the gaping hole in the ground at Ninth and Spring streets signified a new freeway ramp or an archeological dig.

Now, having grown to three connected buildings with 3 million square feet covering a full square block of prime real estate, the Mart serves as the cornerstone of a business that last year in the Los Angeles area alone generated $9.9 billion in manufacturing and wholesale sales. In its labyrinthine halls are nearly 2,000 showrooms featuring more than 10,000 lines by prominent U.S. and foreign design houses.

Every year, thousands of retail buyers visit the Mart, placing orders for clothing to be sold in the nation's department and specialty stores. This year, they will spend an estimated $6 billion (wholesale), much of it during the several "market weeks" that are held annually so buyers can preview seasonal lines.

Need for Space

During the current spring-line showing, which ends Tuesday, more than 5,000 buyers are expected to strike millions of dollars' worth of deals with the manufacturers' representatives that run the showrooms.

And with more companies seeking space in the building, the Mart's owners are contemplating adding space to accommodate 500 more showrooms. "Our gut sense tells us the need is there," said Sidney Morse, 53, son of the late Barney Morse and one of the Mart's five general partners. (The others are David Morse and Susan Morse-Lebow, the son and daughter of the late Harvey Morse; Adele Morse-Platt, Harvey's widow, and Sydney Becker, who joined the team shortly before the Mart opened.)

With the Mart's growing importance has come a bit of controversy.

In September, a Mart-sponsored fashion show spotlighting California designers struck some out-of-town observers as disjointed and flat, despite an aura of enthusiasm. "California definitely has something," said fashion editor Caffery. "It's just struggling to try to present it so that everyone can see it's unique."

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