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BOLD Fashion Statement : Amid Aerospace Decline, L.A. Garment Industry Emerges as a Regional Economic Force

March 12, 1995|VICKI TORRES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With 10 employees and $300,000 worth of computerized pattern sizing and layout machines, Guadalajara-born Soledad Plata has struggled to succeed in the fiercely independent and entrepreneurial Los Angeles fashion industry.

Plata started 17 years ago cutting paper patterns by hand, then went on to run computers for fashion giant Carole Little, put herself through technical school and found her own company with her husband and run it out of the family's garage in Duarte.

By 1990, Plata's credit was solid enough to allow her to obtain state-of-the-art equipment and, later, a small building in the Pico-Union neighborhood near the Convention Center. Now she's planning to buy more high-tech equipment--cutters that slice through as many as 100 layers of fabric at a time--in hopes of expanding nationally.

The growth of more than 3,500 tiny businesses like Plata Marking & Grading has transformed the local Los Angeles fashion industry--the design, manufacture and wholesaling of clothing--into a manufacturing giant.

Out of the rubble of Southern California's long recession, the garment trade--which itself suffered a slump nationwide--has emerged as one of the region's fastest-growing manufacturing employers. Bigger than motion picture production, it ranks second only to the shrinking aerospace sector.

In fact, even as federal dollars are pulled from aerospace companies here, U.S. defense conversion money is wending its way to Southern California for research into new fashion technology, products and production methods. (One possibility being pursued: the production of military uniforms.)

An estimated 119,400 people held textile and fashion-related jobs in Southern California last year in an industry that represented more than $15 billion of the regional economy, according to recent state Labor Department data. Average annual retail sales of clothing manufactured in L.A., at $63 billion, exceed by $17 billion sales of the venerable New York garment trade.

"Traditionally, people look at Los Angeles as the three-legged economy--it's aerospace, entertainment and tourism," said Jack Kyser, chief economist with the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles County. "They don't understand that we have this huge manufacturing base here."

But people in and out of the L.A. fashion industry call it a troubled business, poised at a crossroads.

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The very strengths that have enabled it to grow--flexibility, informality and the small size of its companies--also mean disorganization and disunity. In addition, the advantages stemming from the industry's use of cheap immigrant labor here--a troubling social issue in itself amid charges of worker exploitation--are being threatened by offshore operations and technological advances elsewhere.

And while some such as Plata have embraced new technology, observers warn that the overall industry's continued reliance on backward production methods could plunge the Los Angeles fashion trade into a decline as the rest of the industry computerizes.

"We're in the embryonic stages of employing technology in our industry," said Ken Wengrod, chief operating officer of Rampage, designer and producer of women's casual wear in Vernon and one of the region's biggest fashion companies. "It's almost similar to the automotive industry 20 years ago in that we have not developed or utilized sophisticated software programs, hardware technology and even human technology, such as the most efficient and productive methods to reduce our (garment production) cycle time."

In addition, the glitz that ought to surround in an industry devoted to fashion is nonexistent. Local industry leaders complain that they get no respect, no media coverage and no support from public officials. Instead of broad, well-kept city avenues, they do business along narrow, dingy, crime-infested streets.

Nor is it an entirely savory industry. Unlike aerospace, with its highly skilled and paid employees, the fashion industry is tainted by images of exploitation. It is an industry that in some instances pays the minimum wage--and sometimes less--to under-the-table, illegal immigrant workers. As the industry struggles to clean up these practices, it continues to be the target of labor-law crackdowns by state and federal officials. Think of L.A. fashion and you think less of twirling runway models than of immigration agents raiding sweatshops.

These shortcomings make it a fragile industry that will stagnate unless it changes its ways, with the Southern California garment industry relegated to the higher-end, more expensive niche of the business, warned a study of the industry commissioned by Southern California Edison.

Until World War II, the Los Angeles fashion industry manufactured clothes strictly for local residents, said Stanley Hirsch, a fashion industry veteran of 47 years and owner of the Downtown Cooper Building, an 11-story discount clothing center.

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