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Refusing to be labeled

A Look Back to the Bespoke Traditions of B. Black & Sons Inspires L.A.'s Fashion Forward

January 05, 2003|MIKE HODGKINSON | Mike Hodgkinson is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.

From its roots in the sartorial bastions of Old Hollywood to trend-setting Melrose boutiques, the bespoke movement is spreading among Los Angeles designers. You can see it in the cut, the drape and the weave of the fabrics. Two worlds--the conservative and the visionary--are feeding off each other.

The notion of bespoke--or made-to-order garments--for years dusty and antiquated, is being refreshed and redefined by a new generation of designers. The very word bespoke, once shorthand for old boy's club tailoring speckled with the chalk dust of an aging clan, now encompasses innovation, originality and rebellion.

For the consumer, rejection of mainstream brands represents an act of defiance in a logo-hungry consumer culture. Wearing something unique and perfectly tailored--clothes made for you and you alone, to your exact measurements, in your precise shade of whatever--has a reverse cachet to the designer label, which loudly signals how much you spent and whatever image the designer is currently pushing. With bespoke, you hide the label--the label, in a sense, is you.

Hidden away in a six-story building downtown, deep in rag-trade territory on 6th and Los Angeles streets, B. Black & Sons preserves the bespoke tradition, promising the city's "largest in-stock selection of 100% wool" available for retail sale. And L.A.'s fashion-forward know the address. "B. Black is a wonderland," says Rick Owens, the Hollywood-based designer and winner of the 2002 Perry Ellis Award for Emerging Talent given by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Owens, who's known for using exquisite fabrics that softly drape, was introduced to the store by tutors at Los Angeles Trade Technical College.

"I was doing things with wool that were, for lack of a better word, deconstructed. The fabrics at B. Black already give your garment credibility--there's something traditional and stable about wools. When you start abstracting from those, it makes a nice balance. And B. Black is the only place in the world I've found that has this ribbon I use for my labels."

"Designers usually do mass production or they do true couture," says Melissa Masse, whose store, Masse Made to Measure, on Melrose breaks new ground between those extremes. "We custom-make everything but we also wholesale to about 30 small high-end specialty stores." For Masse, the range of materials carried by B. Black & Sons is beyond compare. "I started using the place eight years ago when I was a designer at Richard Tyler. I travel the world for fabrics, and I still go back there. That store is as Old Hollywood as it gets."

Stepping over the threshold at B. Black & Sons, you immediately sense you've entered a throwback era. A huge stuffed sailfish overlooks the strip-lit shop floor. Below the trophy, which is a memento from proprietor Irwin Volk's holidays in Mazatlan, are tightly packed rows of fabric "bolts," or rolls.

Volk, 69, has been running B. Black & Sons since his father stepped down as president in the mid-1950s. The company goes back further. "We're the oldest woolen jobber in Los Angeles," Volk says. "The business was started by my grandfather, Barnett Black, in 1922. There used to be seven jobbers like this on the street, selling to tailors and manufacturers."

Barnett Black emigrated from Russia to New York, then Chicago, at the end of the 19th century. "My grandmother had asthma," Volk says. "The doctor told her if you can't survive another Chicago winter, you better go west. We've been in this building since we opened. They brought my dad in when he married my mother. He and my two uncles ran the place," until Volk's return from service in Korea. "It's an old family business, four generations."

Hollywood costume designers have been using B. Black & Sons for years. The fabric for the suits in the mob drama "Bugsy" and "Men in Black II" hail from the store, as do the nun's habits from "Sister Act" and many of the textiles used in costumes for "Titanic" and "Minority Report." "We don't tailor anything--we sell to tailors," Volk stresses. "Anything a tailor needs to make a suit, he can buy and take it back to the shop. Some still are master tailors who can make a suit for the average guy from 3 to 3 1/2 yards of fabric. The other guys want 4 to 4 1/2."

The decline in traditional custom tailoring could have sounded a death knell for B. Black & Sons, but a new breed of buyer has been courted by the resident modernizing influence, Andrew Volk. Andrew is Irwin's nephew and the driving force behind B. Black's renaissance. Habitually dressed in a T-shirt and bespoke plaid pants, which he made himself from choice B. Black fabric, he works between the shop floor and his PC.

"Andrew has really breathed a new life into that place," Masse says. "He knows all the young designers. A lot of their customers are these old tailor-shop types, but I'm 29 years old. I love dealing with the older guys because they're hilarious, but it's good to have Andrew's point of reference."

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