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L.A. Trade Cut From New Cloth

Immigrant entrepreneurs are boosting the Southland's textile industry while the rest of the country's shrinks. Speed, locality and Old World know-how are part of the successful weave.

July 21, 1999|MARLA DICKERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you take the nickel tour of Arnold Lorber's textile plant in Carson, bring a phrase book. Make that several.

On the shop floor, Lorber chats with workers in staccato Spanish, one of nine languages he has mastered in 50-plus years in the textile trade. He introduces a visitor to his Russian computer expert, a German dyer and an Israeli plant manager. He then touches the keypad of a sophisticated fabric finishing machine programmed in four languages: English, Italian, German and Spanish.

"It's like the United Nations in here," says Lorber, a Czechoslovakian-born entrepreneur who cut his teeth in the South American rag trade before building one of the largest U.S. fabric mills west of the Mississippi.

Offshore competition may be shredding America's hidebound textile industry, but business is bustling in Los Angeles thanks to a new breed of import. In a decade when the U.S. has shed nearly 120,000 textile jobs, immigrant capital, labor and know-how have boosted L.A. County's fabric-making work force by more than 70% in the 1990s alone.

Koreans, Iranians, Chinese, Europeans, Pakistanis and other foreign-born entrepreneurs have found a niche here cranking out wildly colored fabrics at breakneck speed for Southern California's quick-turn apparel trade. L.A. County now is home to close to 400 knitting, dyeing and finishing concerns, 40% of them started since 1991, according to state figures.

Combining Old World training and contacts with New World hustle and technology, foreign-born entrepreneurs have built a $1.7-billion local industry employing nearly 17,000 workers by spotting fresh opportunities in a mature field.

"It's very simple," says Korean-born Thomas Rhee, explaining the fast growth of his L.A.-based Calendar Textile Inc. "Back East, those guys go home at 5

o'clock. . . . I work 12 to 14 hours a day, 6 1/2 days a week, and I don't take vacations. The textile industry has changed, and it's the immigrants who have adapted."

Industry watchers say that entrepreneurial energy, combined with heavy automation, L.A.'s proximity to Mexican sewing plants and NAFTA rules favoring onshore textile production have enabled L.A.'s nimble fabric makers to remake a small corner of a fraying domestic industry.

"I pinch myself every day," says Steve Craver, a textile industry needle supplier who says his Southern California sales have tripled in recent years. "This is truly the wild, wild West."

To understand why the Southland's textile base is expanding while the domestic industry shrinks like a cheap T-shirt is to recognize the advantages of speed and local sourcing. To be sure, U.S. clothing and fabric manufacturers continue chasing low-cost labor around the globe. Burlington Industries and other American textile giants have built massive foreign plants in recent years to crank out miles of commodity fabrics such as denim that were once the mainstays of shuttered Southeastern mills.

But a quiet counterrevolution has emerged in Southern California thanks to the unique flavor of the local garment-making trade. Southland clothing manufacturers specialize in up-to-the-minute women's fashions. Styles and colors popular one season become thrift shop cast-offs the next. Retailers with a hot product moving off the racks want new stock within weeks before the fad cools.

Speed, Flexibility a Plus

That turn-on-a-dime mentality means that local apparel producers need fast, reliable textile suppliers and fabric dyers willing to do short runs of exotic fabrics in a blur of colors. It's the kind of work lumbering Eastern mills can't do quickly or profitably, and offshore competitors can't turn fast enough to meet 11th-hour deadlines.

Enter immigrants such as Swiss-born Michel Morger, toting skills and a passion for a traditional industry unmatched by many native-born entrepreneurs. A teenage textile apprentice in Switzerland, he was managing 200 people in a fabric-dyeing facility in Los Angeles by his mid-20s.

"Back home, you have to be at least 45 years old to have a position like that," he says. "L.A.'s strength is that the companies are small, creative and flexible. . . . We can turn an order overnight if we have to."

Now 32, Morger is a partner in Swisstex California, a 2-year-old dye house that will post $20 million in sales this year.

Southland textile producers also have gotten a boost from the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has set down special rules of origin for textiles and apparel known as yarn-forward regulations. To qualify for preferential treatment under NAFTA, clothing must be cut and sewn from fabric made from North American fibers in a NAFTA-member nation--Mexico, Canada or the United States.

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