Although it scarcely rivals Paris or Milan as a fashion capital, Los Angeles is rapidly coming into its own. Thanks to a bevy of hot young designers, a large, inexpensive work force and a fashion-conscious populace, the garment industry in Southern California has burgeoned.
Apparel is the third-largest manufacturing sector in Los Angeles County, after electrical equipment and supplies, and aircraft and parts, according to the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. In the wholesaling sector, the garment industry ranks fifth in employment, after machinery and equipment, groceries and food products, electrical equipment and motor vehicles.
The county accounts for almost 76% of the state's apparel production and 67% of wholesale apparel volume. If it were a separate state, Los Angeles County would rank fourth in production, after New York, California (including Los Angeles) and Pennsylvania.
Most of the apparel establishments here are small. According to 1984 Census Bureau data, of 2,953 garment plants in Los Angeles County, 29.8% had between one and four employees, 19% had between 10 and 19, and 23% had between 20 and 49. Only six establishments had between 500 and 999 workers, with none employing more than 1,000.
Los Angeles' garment industry does have its dark side--prevalent "sweatshop" conditions for a work force that in many cases is underpaid or working illegally.
On a recent unannounced tour of several contract facilities near the California Mart, Assemblyman Richard E. Floyd (D-Hawthorne), Assemblywoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles) and several state labor officials uncovered a variety of problems.
In a building at Sixth and San Pedro streets, employees were working in a room that appeared to have sustained serious damage during the Oct. 1 earthquake. At two other factories, children under age 16 were working illegally on garments bearing such well-known labels as Outback Red and Cheryl Tiegs. In some plants, instead of receiving the federally mandated minimum $3.35 an hour, workers were paid on a piecemeal basis, at 6 cents per garment.
Few Los Angeles designers can ever hope to make the splash that Rudi Gernreich did when he presented the first topless bathing suit in 1964. Given the Vienna-born designer's role as an innovator--he was a early proponent of miniskirts in the 1960s and shocked the fashion world by shaving two models' heads in 1970--the California Mart decided in a fitting gesture this year to name its designer awards the Rudis.
"We felt strongly that because there are so many awards today . . . it needed a little handle," said Karen Witynski, a Mart spokeswoman. "And when we thought about it, everybody agreed that Rudi, being the California pioneer in innovation, stood for everything the award stood for."
Gernreich, the first fashion designer to grace the cover of Time magazine, died in 1985, but his swimsuit lives on in a sealed time capsule, sandwiched between a birth control pill and a Bible.