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James Flanigan

A Sharp Mind Who Redefines 'Cutting Edge'

January 01, 2003|James Flanigan

Though only 38 years

old, Sabrina Kay has stitched together quite a success story -- one that shows why Los Angeles remains a productive center of the global garment industry and underscores how U.S. trade statistics can be misleading.

During the last decade, Kay has built the California Design College into a vital institution that teaches computer-aided pattern making and apparel-merchandising methods to hundreds of students a year.

Her graduates, in turn, are finding jobs plentiful. That's because, although Los Angeles has lost a large amount of sewing work to places where it can be done much cheaper, from Mexico to Central America to Asia, the high-end tasks are being performed here. Among them: computer-aided design and pattern making, size grading and color setting.

"Designs are all being done by U.S. firms," says Brent Kauffman, a 20-year veteran of the California garment industry and sales manager for Isda & Co., a high-end sportswear firm based in San Francisco.

The patterns and instructions are then sent via the Internet to China, South Korea, Vietnam and elsewhere in the developing world for the needlework to be completed.

The resulting garments come back through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, where they are registered as imports. But the more valuable intellectual property, which was created here and beamed to Asia, is not counted as a U.S. export. That's because digital CAD-CAM files, unlike cartons of slacks and blouses, can't be tallied by customs officials.

The upshot: Experts spend too much time worrying about a growing trade deficit while missing the fact that the local apparel industry is doing pretty darned well despite the competitive pressures of the global economy.

The trend also shows why

Sabrina Kay was on to something when she borrowed $500,000 from her father, an apparel retailer, to open her school in Koreatown in early 1992. She had all of six students back then.

"I gave my father a 15-page business plan," says Kay, who emigrated from Seoul to the U.S. with her parents at age 17. "But I wrote it in English so he couldn't pick it apart."

To be sure, hers is not the only place around to learn computer skills tailored to the garment trade. Others, including the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (with campuses in Northern and Southern California) and Cal Poly Pomona, offer similar courses.

But Kay geared her program for older pupils -- many of whom already were out in the working world and eager to advance.

"I wanted to establish a technical school that would simply teach job skills without all the other academic courses," she explains.

At the time, the garment business was only slowly adopting computer-aided techniques because the software was expensive and the Southern California economy was mired in recession. But Kay made a deal with Lectra, a French software developer, to spread the use of its programs if the company would supply her classrooms.

Her next big move was to obtain accreditation for the school -- a process that soaked up considerable energy. "In 1995, I worked day and night," Kay recalls. She used to offer her employees overtime so they would stay late and help her, prompting a running joke around the college: "So, who got to sleep with Ms. Kay last night?"

The hard work paid off. Today, California Design College pulls in $6 million a year in revenue from a student body of about 500. Many of those who attend the school rely on federal loans and grants to pay their $12,000 tuition -- an arrangement that has provided Kay with a more or less guaranteed source of income.

In the last two years, Kay has expanded her curriculum to include courses on how to present merchandise, manage an apparel company and display and sell apparel through three-

dimensional fashion presentations on the Internet.

"Everybody wants custom fashion, but they don't want to pay for it," Kay says. The answer, she asserts, is technology: allowing customers to buy garments measured by computer and then made to order.

A couple of months ago, Kay took the next logical step for an entrepreneur: She sold her school for more than $12 million to Education Management Corp.

The Pittsburgh-based company was attracted to the college "by the curriculum's focus on fashion technology," says

David Pauldine, president of Education Management's Art Institutes, a system of adult schools teaching art and design, culinary skills and fashion.

But something else proved enticing as well, he adds: "Sabrina's leadership and the fact that she has some years left to work and advance her career."

For Kay, who will continue as head of special projects for Education Management, going with the larger firm means "having access to the capital and infrastructure to expand academically." She wants to begin attracting foreign students and offering bachelor's degrees.

The implication is clear: The needles may have gone abroad. But the sharpest minds remain right here.

*

James Flanigan can be reached at jim.flanigan @latimes.com.

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