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Rags and Riches

As a fashion capital, industrial Vernon may be on the homely side. But it's safe, cheap and freeway close. Which is why the style moguls spend workdays here.

December 19, 1996|MIMI AVINS | TIMES FASHION EDITOR

As serious and drab as the flat little municipality of Vernon is, the clothing it sends across the country is bright and sexy, cheerful enough to sustain California's golden image.

The skinny pink vinyl jeans that give an innocent teenager the look of a seductress, the all-business suit a middle manager buys when she's got an itch for her boss' job, the sturdy jeans that protect a young mother's thighs from stroller burn were all conceived in a 5-square-mile industrial village southeast of downtown Los Angeles. This curious clothing kingdom is home to many of the biggest, richest and fastest-growing apparel manufacturers in Southern California.

At high noon on most weekdays, a column of luxury cars files into the parking lot of Il Treno, an unpretentious restaurant on Santa Fe Avenue that is "Cheers" minus the alcohol (everybody knows your name). Jaguars, elephantine Range Rovers, Mercedeses and the occasional Lexus slalom around Max Azria's black limo to claim a coveted space. The owner and designer of BCBG, a popular fashion house that conveys the warp-speed energy of current style, doesn't get a special table at Il Treno, because none exists. Host Antoinette Carrot observes a seating strategy that bows more to the need for discretion than to the size of moguls' egos.

"I've learned to recognize that certain groups don't want to sit near each other," Carrot says. "I'll tell them, 'So and so is here, on the patio, would you like to sit somewhere else?' "

Sure. Better to put some distance between a manufacturer and the department store buyer who just dumped his line, especially when the buyer is romancing a new resource over lunch. Salesmen inevitably blab, so no smart designer sits within earshot of a textile rep. Janet Howard, who earlier this year was named California Designer of the Year, feels safer gossiping than talking business.

"What mills you use is top secret," she says. "You'd never say, 'Oh my God, I just got the greatest fabric from X,' because everyone copies everyone, and next thing you know someone would be going after this cool fabric you found."

For an intense three hours, during which the kitchen serves up 440 meals, Il Treno is thick with men and women who compete for the $218 billion Americans spend annually on clothes. So many of them have risen to the top of the apparel jungle that, on an average day, the white plastic chairs on the patio may cradle the bottoms of a dozen multimillionaires scarfing down grilled chicken salad or tortiglioni with garlic cream sauce.

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In the heart of this hard-working place, people do not dress especially well; it's their job to design, make and sell clothes, not to model them. Howard is an exception, in a black leather blazer with a vintage men's pocket square tied jauntily around her neck. A number of the men effect a neglected lonely-guy style that suggests wives who are either absent or uninterested. The paradox of the glamorous business of fashion is that, like Vernon, where the air carries the faint smell of stale garbage from a nearby graveyard for trash trucks, it really isn't very stylish at all.

Two hundred of the 91-year-old city's 1,100 companies fall within the garment business. At Il Treno, it's hard to distinguish the bankers, buyers, manufacturers, contractors, label makers, trim and fabric peddlers, owners of knitting mills and dye houses from the men in metal and food processing who also work here. What they all share is an affection for their adopted town more typical of folks in Mayberry.

Three years ago, Lonnie Kane, CEO of Karen Kane and husband of the designer, built a 130,000-square-foot warehouse and moved 300 of the women's sportswear firm's employees from smaller quarters in downtown Los Angeles, where parking was scarce, cars were vandalized and the city didn't repair a broken street light he nagged them about for more than four years. The company maintains a showroom at the California Mart downtown, which is a 10-minute drive from Vernon the few times a year the Kanes visit.

"In Vernon, business is in the driver's seat," he says. "Building permits are easy to get. A pothole is fixed in a day or two. A street light was out at the corner where my employees wait for the bus and after we reported it, it was fixed the next day. So I appreciate Vernon."

The city has its own police force, and fire, health and water departments. The power company charges 30% to 45% less than those in many California communities. The bulk of the city's revenues come from business license fees and sales taxes. With few retail stores and hardly anything to buy, Vernon rivals barren Moscow as a shopper's hell.

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