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The label may say Halston or Bugatti, but the company that makes many of America's ties is nowhere near New York or Milan. Surprise, it's right here in Los Angeles. : Knots Landing

December 04, 1992|WILLIAM KISSEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Drive down Santa Fe Avenue a few miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles and you're sure to find a row of dilapidated warehouses, a burned-out pickup or two and a set of abandoned railroad tracks. You'll also find one of the biggest stockpiles of designer neckwear in the world.

Ties are big business in the sleek, monolithic building that houses Superba Inc. and dominates the 1700 block. Over the past 30 years, everyone from Hollywood costumer Don Loper to French designer Claude Montana has had neckties made by Superba. Even the Gap has joined forces with the 119-year-old manufacturer.

"Most men are surprised when they find out their fancy designer tie was made right here near downtown L.A.," says Mervyn Mandelbaum, president and CEO of Superba. They might be even more surprised to learn that Superba is the largest tie maker in the country, its $75 million in annual sales accounting for 20% of the market.

Mandelbaum, 50, has guided the company for 13 years, and most industry watchers agree he is the secret behind its success. Some observers--including employees--say Mandelbaum is so nice he "could charm a gopher out of the mouth of a rattlesnake." Others say he's a "cool cabbage" who insists on total control.

"I think he's been successful because he's built the company slowly, with all the right names, the right production and the right fabric sourcing," says Karen Alberg, editor of Menswear Retailing, a monthly trade magazine that tracks the necktie business. "He's concentrated on the moderately priced necktie, which was an untapped market."

Superba's designer silk neckties fall in the $20 to $45 retail range, while many of its competitors produce ties that sell for $75 or more. Among its most popular labels are Zylos by George Machado, Italian-based Erreuno, Bugatti and Villa Bugatti, and Halston. Superba pays licensing fees to these designers, then sells the ties directly to retailers.

Upstairs in the 145,000-square-foot Superba factory, a loud hum fills the air as more than 300 employees work on a shipment of whimsical red and yellow silk neckties. Heavy gray machinery dominates the floor; the only color comes from the strips of fabric scattered about, making the place look like a giant Laundromat.

"This is the first time we've done ties for the Gap," says Paul Johnson, vice president of manufacturing, as he checks a machine that sews interlining to half-done ties.

While hand-sewing usually signals quality and often drives up the price of a garment, the opposite is true of neckwear. "Six years ago all of this work had to be done manually," Johnson says. "Now, we only do manual sewing on the less expensive ties."

A necktie is a rather complex product requiring up to 22 manufacturing steps. First comes the selection of silks, usually by Mandelbaum and a team of designers working in Como, Italy--the hub of the Italian silk trade--and the United States. Next, three pieces are cut, sewn together and turned inside-out so the interlining can be attached. A Brimato machine then presses the triangular tip, called the template, into place.

Finally, right-side out again, the tie gets decorative stitching and a label before being pressed, boxed and shipped. The process requires 18 workers but takes as few as four minutes, and Superba can produce up to 4,000 dozen neckties a day--more than a million a year.

An inexpensive tie and a costly designer one are virtually the same in construction, Johnson says. "The differences come from the quality of fabrics."

"In most cases . . . a $75 tie is a limited edition of a $32.50 tie," Mandelbaum says.

The firm that would become Superba was founded in 1873 in Rochester, N.Y., by Herman C. Cohn, a 19-year-old haberdasher's son with $100 to invest. He figured that neckties had broad market appeal, could be bought and sold quickly and offered a high rate of return. H. C. Cohn & Co. became Superba in 1908 and remained a family business until 1950, when it was incorporated as a private firm with four partners.

Mandelbaum, who learned tie-making through his father's neckwear company in South Africa, joined the firm in 1977 and became president two years later. He says Superba had started to falter in the mid-1970s because its only asset in an age of product licensing was Don Loper, a popular label among Hollywood celebrities. Mandelbaum quickly decided to move the company to the West Coast, where its sales were strongest, and to rebuild the business through brand licensing and niche marketing, two relatively new concepts in the neckwear trade.

His first success was Stringbeans, a line of skinny, 1 3/4-inch-wide knit ties introduced in 1980. "I recognized a new young generation of men wanting to buy neckwear that didn't look like something their fathers would wear. And the knit tie was very popular with them," Mandelbaum says.

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