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A Kingdom of Rags

In the 1960s, the Possibilities Seemed Endless for a Young Prince in the Garment District.

April 18, 1999|GREGORY ORFALEA | Gregory Orfalea wrote "Messengers of the Lost Battalion: The Heroic 551st and the Turning of the Tide at the Battle of the Bulge." He lives in Washington, D.C

Speak to me, Santee and Los Angeles streets! Of a world of color flying by on a metal rack. Skeletons of dress patterns shivering on a shoulder. I am listening. For the sound of buttons jumping in a box, men groaning under bolts of cloth. I was the man, or a boy, flying by with color, shaking the buttons like the dice of my future, groaning with the men under worsted. And now more than half my life is gone, and Santee Street is silent. I put my ear to the wind.


Somehow, I was drafted to ride with my father in his pale blue T-bird to the factory downtown in the summers of 1959 to 1964, my 10th through 14th years. I don't think it was an order. It just happened. It was as natural as the feel of good woolen. We were a schmate family, a brood familiar with rags. A century ago, my father's Syrian father was the original linen merchant in Cleveland. My eye for beauty, both natural and false, must owe something to the display window, on Colorado Boulevard, of Awad of Pasadena, my maternal grandfather's Corday handbag place. It was as automatic for us children to work in a garment factory as it is today for kids to jigger the joystick of a computer game.

In 1951, my father, with "outside" man Earl Racine, began his first dress firm, LeGreg of California, a stylish conjoining of the names of his two children, Leslie and Greg. Dad's first "make" was an orange sleeveless dickey. And we weren't alone. There were dozens of women's garment factories in the lofts and along the streets. They were named as we were named, for wives and children: Jan Sue, Nancy B., Patty Woodard, Young Edwardian, Edith Flagg, Jody Tootique. And they all were selling the sun in a garment: Forget vacation. Slip this on.

LeGreg had some real hits: a striped tent dress that coyly hid baby-making of the '50s, sleeveless blouses and full bouffant skirts ($6 retail for a set!), something a Texas chain called Margo's named, in ads, "a pleat treat." A Maine boutique enlisted Women's Wear Daily as an agent, asking the publisher to call LeGreg's to order the "hot item," a sailor-collared chemise.

But the rag trade was always precarious, and by 1963, the business had capsized. As my father once said, "I'm not in one business, I'm in five," meaning that for each of the four seasons, plus "holiday," a manufacturer had to restyle his dress line. In this garment pentathlon, if you slipped during one season--if, for example, one hot style was made poorly by the contractor, had a bad "fit," or was undersold--the garments all flooded back and your kingdom was in a heap. You and yours were unstitched.

But rag people came back. That was the meaning of rags; you were used to reuse.

Dad named the new company "Mr. Aref," as if afraid to entrust his luck to anyone but himself. He took no partners. It worked. The company was the first to style and make "the granny," soon de rigueur for every protesting coed. It landed him in Time magazine. His designer, George Wilner, recently revealed the genesis of that number: "A small retailer from Glendale brought me something in calico he said his daughter's friends had made, and that the kids liked it. We found some leftover calico print fabric, some ruffle, and in two hours I had it styled empire, with cuffs, like Empress Josephine, cut and stitched. Marty Bogash, our head of sales, took it to the Broadway, to Walt Dixon, the buyer, and we sold $10,000 of the granny in one day. It took off like a rocket!"

By the end of the '60s, Mr. Aref was a $1-million operation with 70 employees. The company bought out another venerable firm, Ro-Nel, and started two other labels, By George! and Madison 7.


Ah, the first sacrament of the day: Howard's coffee stand, a little nook at the entrance to the Cooper Building at 9th and Los Angeles streets.

"Cream uhn shoogar, Aref?"

"Yes, Howard. As always."

"As always. Donut?"

"Donut, as always."

"As always, donut."

I liked the way Howard's baritone pronounced "shoogaar," as if he were giving the manufacturer his last sweetness of the day.

Then Dad and I strode down the gauntlet of showcases that lined the hallway entry to the Cooper Building. Dad would whistle at his, call the mannequin "Doll," and I would thrill at how prominent was our tent-dressed temptress.

Once the "goods" (anything made was good) were clipped of threads, I took them to shipping. I tried to first fill the orders of my Aunt Vinny (Circle Fashions on Pico Boulevard) and Aunt Jeannette (Jeanie's Casuals on Reseda Boulevard). The family was in rags from start to finish: father creating the styles, grandfather stitching the cloth and my aunts vending it.

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