For a long time, Southern California's apparel firms were regarded in some circles as kooky, bit players in the fashion industry. That image stemmed from, among other things, the topless bathing suits designed in the 1960s by Los Angeles' Rudi Gernreich and the similarly outlandish, skimpy outfits made for actress Cher by Bob Mackie, a Hollywood costumer who later migrated to the New York fashion scene.
"Everyone would say, 'There go those Californians again,' " said Alan Millstein, publisher of Fashion Network Report.
Today, however, apparel manufacturing is a huge economic force here, a $7-billion-a-year industry. Until the current consumer spending slump struck, apparel employment climbed for years in Southern California, bucking the long-term national downturn in an industry hurt by lower-cost foreign competition.
With estimated employment of 111,000, the Southland's clothing and textile industry is close to overtaking the New York area--the longtime center of the U.S. apparel industry--in jobs. And with so much of the physical labor supplied by illegal immigrants through the underground economy, the impact of the apparel industry on Southern California's economy is probably far greater than the official statistics suggest.
The U.S.-Mexico free-trade pact under negotiation could eventually shift some apparel production south of the border, but for now at least, the legion of immigrant workers in Southern California willing to work for low pay remains a strong lure for entrepreneurs.
To be sure, New York remains the nation's fashion capital. With Women's Wear Daily and the influential fashion magazines all based in the Big Apple, 7th Avenue remains the place where hot new designers are anointed and where major retailers tend to do most of their shopping for fresh merchandise.
Consequently, even some mainstream Los Angeles firms such as Chorus Line maintain showrooms in New York, in addition to their sales offices here. On top of that, Sacks spends a week in New York every month but July to promote Chorus Line's merchandise.
Still, manufacturers have migrated to Los Angeles for years. Some are New Yorkers that came looking for relief from unions and transportation problems, while many others are immigrants from places such as Iran, Israel, South Korea and South Africa.
For merchandise buyers, no market outside of New York is more alluring than Los Angeles. Buyers pour into California Mart, a bustling 3-million-square-foot complex of four buildings covering a full block in downtown Los Angeles' Garment District.
It is a huge enterprise: An estimated 8,000 people work in the mart and as many as 10,000 more visit the showrooms every day; it houses offices for more than 1,500 apparel, textile and sales firms, along with 11 restaurants, five banks and a dentist's office. It even has its own ZIP Code.
Perhaps most important, the 27-year-old California Mart is the world's biggest single apparel market, a giant bazaar where manufacturers and retail buyers haggle over deals. It was launched as a family business by brothers Harvey and Barney Morse, a pair of lingerie makers who recognized how much more inviting the sprawling Southern California market would be for retail merchandise buyers if they could do all of their shopping under one roof.
When it's going well, the apparel business produces tremendous profits for the manufacturers. The rule of thumb is that if it costs a manufacturer $10 to make a blouse, the firm will sell it to a retailer for $20, who in turn will charge consumers $40.
"One item--one good idea--can make you a fortune," said Freedman, a lawyer whose family was in the apparel business.
Moreover, one-time failures have a way of resurfacing with new firms. If someone is willing to give you enough credit to buy some fabric and to pay for some garments to be sewn, you're back in business.
"In my 40 years in banking, it's the only industry I've seen where someone can go into business, not be successful and perhaps go into bankruptcy, and then go back into business six months later with no stigma attached--so long as it's an honest bust," said Bruce H. Corbin, a regional vice president with Union Bank and the dean of the Los Angeles lenders to the apparel industry.
Sacks himself escaped from an unraveling fabric firm when he launched Chorus Line in December, 1975, with Mark Steinman, who now is the company's president, and a third partner. The firm's name was inspired by the fact that the founders' wives were all studying dance.
In the early years, Chorus Line struggled. When the original third partner departed after a year with Chorus Line, the firm was left without anyone who knew the ins and outs of the dress business.
Before teaming up, Steinman, 48, and Sacks both sold fabric, and neither had ever been directly involved in apparel manufacturing.