When clothing wholesaler Les Appel abandoned the California Mart--the pulse of L.A.'s garment industry--to open a showroom in an unslick, nondescript building nearby, he felt the snipes of the crowd.
"People wanted to see me fail here, because I was a maverick," says the 36-year-old Detroit native.
Appel left his boxlike showroom, among 2,000 within the mammoth Mart complex, for an airy loft at the New Mart building at 127 East 9th Street, an aging brick high-rise growing in repute as a home for hot, contemporary designers.
In a business given to in-crowds, cold wars and wildly varying fortunes, the New Mart represents the latest wave of independent fashion thinkers breaking off on their own.
Purchased by the late Ben Eisenberg and his wife in 1981, the New Mart is being transformed from a downtrodden manufacturing space--with cranky elevators and mismatched linoleum--to a sophisticated setting for selling fashion.
Since Esprit settled in four years ago, dozens of other successful firms moved in, including Leon Max, Jessica McClintock, Bronx, Glenn Williams, Camp Beverly Hills, along with a smattering of sales reps such as Appel. All chose a risky "character building" over the status quo of the Mart.
"Renegades," designer Gene Ewing calls the bunch. "I wouldn't think of leaving the California Mart."
Requests to Return
"Those who've moved across the street are the people who've succeeded over here first, because we've spent the money (helping them)," added Sidney Morse, a general manager of the California Mart, who sees defectors as forfeiting the Mart's huge promotional machine of fashion shows, publications and organized market weeks. "I get requests all the time from people who want to come back--and if we had more room, a considerable amount would come back."
But the California Mart is running out of space. The 24-year-old wholesale fashion center--where an estimated 100,000 store buyers annually choose the clothes consumers will buy next season--is 97% full, and it has a waiting list of fashion firms seeking larger showrooms. The squeeze has led the Mart to consider expansion beyond its current 3 million square feet, said Morse.
Indeed, Appel says he was "bursting at the seams" when he left his 906-square-foot California Mart showroom in January for a 3,000-square-foot loft, for which he pays just 20% higher rent. Aside from the economical space, he was drawn to the high ceilings, natural light and low-key atmosphere, which he considered more conducive to displaying and selling clothes.
"This is the future. I knew it in my gut," said the clothing rep of 11 years.
"That last year at the Mart, I was losing buyers during market because they were not comfortable in the showroom," Appel added. "At the Mart, it's like a cattle call."
Though once worried that buyers wouldn't find his new showroom, Appel says his net profits will be up more than 20% this year. Down the hall, clothing rep Joyce Milder also reports sales up 20% since moving into the New Mart in August after a decade at the California Mart.
'Change and Taking Risks'
"This game is about change and taking risks," said Milder, who wholesales 10 fashion lines in 13 Western states. "This is a decision I made to improve my bottom line."
Jane August, a dress buyer from Macy's in San Francisco, says that although she likes the ease of buying at the self-contained California Mart, she thinks "viewing merchandise is a lot easier at the New Mart. The showrooms are three to four times larger, and there's nothing going on in most of them except great white walls," she said.
Designer Jessica McClintock saw the New Mart as a chance to build a stronger corporate image. Accustomed to selling her five clothing divisions in showrooms scattered throughout the the California Mart, last summer she centralized her divisions into one huge, fantasy castle of a space designed for her at the New Mart.
"The whole world of retail and image is changing, and in order to build a strong company, you have to make a statement. It's difficult to do that in a small space," said the San Francisco designer of romantic, feminine dresses.
Leon Max will soon open a futuristic "metal sculpture" of a showroom at the New Mart, sinking $500,000 into the 6,000-square-foot room.
"I wanted a very interesting architectural environment for the clothes," said Max, who calls "atrocious" the low ceilings and "office-building" look of the California Mart.
"Ultimately it's not that important where we are--whether we're at the Mart or somewhere in the vicinity," said the L.A.-based sportswear maker. "At the Mart, they've taken a posture that they're the supreme ringmasters of the fashion industry in Los Angeles."
"The California Mart is unequivocally the center of the fashion industry, bar none," counters Morse.