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Shopping the Neighborhood

Trawling for Trends in Downtown L.A.

Serious shoppers know the Fashion District has always had bargains. Now it's got style too.

July 20, 2001|MARJORIE HERNANDEZ and BOOTH MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

With whirring garment racks, hairless mannequins modeling a rainbow of lingerie and miniskirts and a cacophony of voices hawking everything from lucky bamboo to live geckos, the Fashion District in downtown Los Angeles is the ultimate urban experience. The gritty neighborhood, which many know as the garment district, is no longer simply a wholesale and manufacturing center. It has become a destination not just for bargain basics, but for trendy clothing and accessories.

On certain days wholesale and designer showrooms, like those at CaliforniaMart and New Mart, sell samples and overstock to the public. (There's a CalMart sale this Saturday). A number of stores have opened recently offering fashionable merchandise at prices 20% to 50% below those found on similar items at the mall. A few examples: Studded "J.Lo" bandannas for $1, camouflage cuff bracelets for $4, cowgirl rhinestone belt buckles for $16 and knockoff messenger bags for $17.

"Not only have we seen more wholesalers selling to the public, but we are seeing stores opening up that are catering solely to retail customers," said Kent Smith, executive director of the Fashion District Business Improvement District. The organization of property owners, founded in 1995, renamed the area and has helped polish its image.

Play, a showcase for up-and-coming local designers, opened inside an art gallery on Spring Street just a few weeks ago. Owner Michele Montano, 30, a designer who graduated from L.A.'s Trade Tech College in 1992, said she chose her location because of downtown's emerging art scene and development surge. "Until now there has not been a place down here to nurture young designers."

Garment manufacturers first made their way to L.A. from New York in the 1920s, attracted by non-union labor. Women's swimwear companies Cole of California and Catalina were among the first labels to gain national attention in the 1930s, but it wasn't until after World War II that the district came into its own as a sportswear center. Companies such as Guess, Cherokee Group and Carole Little have made the district the hub of L.A. County's $21-billion apparel industry. Although it may not have the respect or dollar value of New York's Seventh Avenue, the Fashion District is the nation's largest apparel-related employer, providing nearly 50,000 jobs.

A mainstay of the district is the 1,200-showroom center CalMart. Despite changing hands and enduring growing pains since opening in the 1960s, it still attracts buyers from all over the country. As the district's showcase, CalMart's lobby shops are some of the best.

On a recent morning, Kathleen Gage, 24, was in the CalMart lobby at Details Accessories on a mission to buy a silver clutch purse and jewelry to match a wedding outfit. The fashion designer from Los Alamitos said she hits the shops in the district at least once a week for "fashion forward" finds. "You see it here before it's even on the floor at the mall."

Others prefer the rough-and-tumble of Santee Alley, an outdoor market where the sounds of rap, Latin and techno music mingle with the smells of grilling hot dogs wrapped in bacon. Shoppers clog the three-block bazaar, darting back and forth across the alley to check out the wares, or to buy a snack. An alley favorite is fresh mango with a squeeze of lime, purchased from one of many women pushing fruit-filled laundry carts.

"You can get sports stuff here at a pretty good price," said Joe Cozza, 35, folding his wallet after snapping up a pair of track shorts for $10. "You can get perfumes that are a little bit cheaper. You can get jeans half off. But you got to know where to go. You get a big variety in quality here," said the electrical engineer from Redondo Beach.

Quality isn't always the best, but at $20 for of-the-moment, wedge-heeled sandals, you get what you pay for. Another downside of buying clothes in the alley is that sizes can be a bit skewed. (The alley's version of a size large looks roughly equal to the mall's version of a size small.) Most Santee merchants don't have dressing rooms and won't even let shoppers try things on over their clothes.

Shop owners prefer to deal in cash, though some will accept credit cards. Most stores do not allow returns or exchanges, but they do allow bargaining. So grab a sun hat, prepare for some serious walking and don't forget to ask: Is that your final price?

Route: Start anywhere, but stores are a bit scattered. The CalMart at 9th and Main streets provides a reference point and a meeting place. From there, continue to other adjacent stores, the New Mart and Santee Alley. Maps of the district are available online at http://www.fashiondistrict.org, and there's a free trolley tour on the last Saturday of every month. (Call [213] 488-1153.)

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