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COLUMN ONE : Garment Business's Two Years of Terror : The victims of the 'Carole Little Murders' were industry success stories. But a string of threats and their brutal deaths make many wonder how risky the trade might be.

November 03, 1995|PAUL LIEBERMAN and GEORGE WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Uncle Dave walks into Macy's slipper department and asks, "What are your 10 largest sellers?" He buys them, peels off the labels and puts on new ones--with his own company's name. Uncle Dave then marches upstairs to see a Macy's buyer, claims these are his samples--and offers to supply them for a price just a bit lower than the store was paying.

The punch line: "He got an order for 20,000!"

And the obvious lessons: Someone will try to knock off any product you make if it sells. And someone will always look to undercut you by a few pennies and put you out of business.

Rabinowitz knew all this when he headed West in 1969, at 21, but it did not deter him from going into the rag trade. He sold handbags, tried his own garage-based sportswear business, then joined an established firm--in part because he noticed one designer, a shy blonde with mussed hair. "I thought when I saw her there, 'Yeah, this seems interesting,' " he said.

Carole Little was the daughter of a Sears shoe executive--Slippers? Shoes? Was this destiny or what?--who had graduated from fashion school then plunged into the profession in the era of hot pants.

She was nine years older than the boyish division manager with curly red hair, but it became a classic pairing of opposites: she the creative genius, he the "suit," a business and computer whiz who made no apologies for cultivating a "taste for making money."

In 1974, they borrowed $20,000 from his family to form their own firm, California Fashion Industries, to launch a Carole Little line. They had to wait only a year for their break--Carole Little's version of the Uncle Dave story:

During a trip to France she wandered into a men's store and bought a big silk shirt with two flap pockets and epaulets. Back home, she knocked off a version for women, in four colors. Lauren Hutton, the top model of the day, by chance was photographed wearing one. Bingo! The "Lauren Hutton shirt" exploded off the shelves.

Stores such as Saks and Bullock's embraced Carole Little's designs, which were described as perfect for "women intent on scaling the corporate ladder," as women began doing just that. Later, garment experts would list Carole Little among the firms that led a 1970s and '80s renaissance in the Los Angeles apparel industry.

Before long, she was making gowns for the Oscars and the couple were mainstays of Westside society, pals with show biz legends such as Gregory Peck. They hosted charity affairs and Robin Leach found them a natural for his "Lifestyles" spotlight.

Even when the romance faded a few years back, the business partnership endured. They kept side-by-side offices at the firm's headquarters, and if they lived apart--well, all that meant was that they each had a jaw-dropping estate in Benedict Canyon. His was across the canyon from Valentino's, hers next to Kareem Abdul Jabbar's.

"I've been fortunate," Little summed it up, "and haven't had that many tough times."

Until the 1992 riots, that is.

Their headquarters at Main Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard was looted and torched, suffering $11 million damage.

When rebuilt, it included high-tech surveillance and heavy metal fencing and 40 armed guards. Little and Rabinowitz got home security, too, and bodyguards to drive them to work. If riots broke out again, they'd be ready.

A year later, however, they learned the limits of such precautions. That's when guards were assigned, for far different reasons, to an employee--Karin Holzinger.

Threatening Calls, a Shot That Missed

She grew up in a peasant household in Bavaria and learned to work a sewing machine at 14, part of an apprentice program. As it turned out, she could not have done better with a Ph.D.

By 21, she was in management and a sportswear company sent her to Vermont to help start a line of ski clothes. In 1991--20 years later--she joined Carole Little as a veteran who could look at a shirt and tell how many cents it cost to put on the pocket.

Her title was vice president, domestic production. Her salary: $150,000, plus $25,000 in bonuses.

The guts of the job was dealing with contractors. That was because Carole Little, like many clothing firms, is not really a manufacturer but a designer and marketer.

The clothes are made by Southern California's thousands of cutting and sewing shops. Some are garage-based, others factories, but there is one constant--cheap immigrant labor.

Still, when Holzinger joined Carole Little, recession-plagued stores were pushing manufacturers to trim costs even more. So her mission, she said, was to " 'flush out' non-performing or expensive contractors" among the 45 the company was using then.

Within months, she had pared away a dozen or so. And "there was never a harsh word," she said.

Even so, her position was among the most high-pressured in the trade. With contractors hired job to job, they compete so feverishly it is common for them to offer lavish gifts--or kickbacks--to executives who dole out the work.

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