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A SPECIAL REPORT ON THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA ECONOMY : THE SOUTHLAND'S INDUSTRIES : Riches in Rags : Laid-Back Trend in Fashion Has Garment Industry Riding a Wave

November 15, 1987|ELLEN MELLINKOFF | Ellen Mellinkoff is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

The popularity of clothes associated with Southern Californians--lightweight, casual wear from surfer baggies to trendy knits--is fueling a boom in the region's apparel industry.

And, as the population increases in the Sun Belt and as people across the country adopt the Southland's informal dressing habits, the future looks bright in the Southland's garment district clustered around the California Mart in downtown Los Angeles. In fact, garment-making is expected to be one of the area's shining economic growth areas over the next few years.

Talented, home-grown designers, a huge, non-unionized work pool and an established distribution and subcontractor network are poised to capitalize on this expected growth. But the industry is "like 'The Perils of Pauline' ," says Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. "They get over one problem and then there's another one to deal with."

Now that Southern California is finally taken seriously as more than a place to make swimsuits, there is competition from cheap imports to deal with, as well as a local worker shortage and even zoning problems in the four Los Angeles ZIP codes that are home to the majority of manufacturers.

The Southern California apparel industry grossed an estimated $9.9 billion in combined manufacturing and wholesale sales last year, with women's clothing accounting for 70%. That was up substantially from $6.3 billion in 1980. After weathering a slump that saw employment fall drastically to 73,500 in 1982, the local work force hit a record 82,600 in 1986.

Kyser now expects the industry to hit revenue of $14 billion and employment of 92,000 by 1990.

Garments already represent the third-largest manufacturing sector in Los Angeles County, based on employment (after electrical equipment and supplies, and aircraft and parts), and that may change if, as expected, aerospace stagnates over the next few years.

The region manufactures "good, wearable clothes," Kyser says. "We reflect where we are. Trends like the surfer craze play to our strengths." Top firms here include Ocean Pacific, Maui and Sons, Surf Fetish, Catchit, Quicksilver USA and Gotcha. While sales of surfer shorts are seasonal in the Northeast, year-round orders come in from Arizona to Florida.

No longer focused strictly on spring and summer lines (which mean six-month furloughs every year for most industry workers), Southern California now "manufactures winter clothes for people who have mild winters," says Patty Miller, fashion coordinator for the California Mart. "We have a change of seasons here--and all over the Sun Belt--and we are very wise to those changes. We shift from gauzes and voiles to lightweight wools, knits and thermal cottons. We are very savvy to the needs of the Sun Belt customer."

Miller goes a step further: "The rest of the country is adopting the California life style--greatly expanding our market. When I go into department stores in the Northeast, I see lines by Carole Little and Guess? They are the same ones that they sell locally. They don't have separate lines for the East Coast."

As a result of this growth, influential trade publications such as Women's Wear Daily have increased their coverage of California designers, giving West Coast design even more visibility.

The threat from low-priced imports has been parried by focusing on stylish, middle- and higher-priced clothing. "We're not into tonnage," Kyser says. And local manufacturers can move fast, sniffing a new trend and getting it to the stores long before foreign manufacturers can get their ships to shore. The ability to move quickly is one of the regional apparel industry's major assets, experts say.

But the local industry is admittedly not in the high fashion, international design league. "We'll probably never rival Paris or New York," Kyser says. He calls the area's forte the "specialized middle"--colorful, stylish and casual. Leon Max, Carole Little, Nancy Heller and Camp Beverly Hills are all cutting-edge companies that project the Los Angeles image of casual chic, industry watchers say.

The Los Angeles apparel industry began in the late 1940s with Cole of California, Jantzen and Elizabeth Stewart making names for themselves nationwide as premier swimsuit manufacturers. The fledgling industry was boosted by Hollywood costume designers who sold their sidelines to retailers. Helen Rose, Edith Head, Bill Travilla--while not involved in large-scale manufacturing--had name-recognition that gave a cache to local industry. Even today, that "gilt-by-association" with film and television gives Southern California apparel a high visibility factor.

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