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He's a Godfather of Sole

Imports are wearing down Los Angeles shoemakers, but Seymour Fabrick, 88, refuses to walk away from the business.

October 06, 2003|Leslie Earnest | Times Staff Writer

Seymour Fabrick moved slowly across the floor at the World Shoe Assn. expo in Las Vegas. After seven decades in the business, moving fast wasn't in the cards.

The glittery high heels and sexy thong sandals didn't catch his eye. On this day he was looking for survivors. Guys like Jack Berlin, 74, who has been selling shoes for nearly half a century.

"I said, 'Was that Seymour Fabrick who just came by?' " a smiling Berlin said, pumping Fabrick's hand when the 88-year-old salesman stopped by his display booth. "This was worth coming to the show for."

Fabrick is a reminder of better days. Days when his Vogue Shoe Co. still operated 10 manufacturing plants in the Los Angeles area. Days when a dozen suppliers made heels in California. Days before China became America's favorite shoemaker.

Today, 98.5% of all shoes sold here are made overseas. Only a few closely held family businesses still produce women's dress shoes, slip-ons and sandals in Los Angeles County. Even so, that makes the county one of the biggest hubs for shoe manufacturing in the United States.

The leaders include Magdesian Bros. Inc. in City of Industry, Tate Shoes of Sun Valley and Dezario Shoe Co. of North Hollywood. Then there's Beverly Heels Inc., which put Fabrick back to work after Vogue Shoe was shuttered in 1991.

"They are the last of the Mohicans," said Fawn Evanson, vice president of the American Apparel and Footwear Assn., an industry trade group based in Arlington, Va.

Like Fabrick, they keep selling, and looking for the market niche that will protect them from the tide of imports. A turnaround looks impossible. But survival, who knows? Some say it's doable. Especially if you can quickly design, assemble and ship up-to-the-minute fashions to mail-order houses and retailers.

"I can develop the same day, the next day," said Alex Kats, owner of J&A Shoe Co. in Gardena, which makes the Callisto, Athenia Alexander and Lia Bijou brands. "Everything is speed."

Some produce unusual widths and sizes. Dezario didn't do so badly this summer with its thong sandals with a poufy flower at the toes; Nordstrom sold them in 10 colors for $89.95 a pair. Art Magdesian, whose dad and uncles launched Magdesian Bros. from an East L.A. garage 52 years ago, says he's done well this year with his comfort shoes. "I don't have those pointy toes at the feet that are going to hurt people," he said.

Still, the spots of good news hardly reverse the sorry trend. U.S. production of women's shoes plummeted 85% from 1995 to 2002. Census figures show that about 20 companies still were producing women's nonathletic footwear in L.A. County as of 2001. Only two had more than 100 workers.

If anybody knows what a vibrant shoe industry really feels like, it's Seymour Fabrick, who says that at one time he employed 800 workers and raked in $22 million in sales.

"We built a new industry here in California," he said.

It's not something you give up on easily.

At LAX recently, waiting to board a flight for the Las Vegas trade show, Fabrick showed off a photo of himself taken in 1932, when he first hit the road selling shoes for his uncle in Milwaukee. He wore a dapper three-piece suit -- just as he does today -- his 6-foot-2-inch frame leaning against a Model A that he bought for $165 and drove for 80,000 miles.

"I had dreams about selling a lot of shoes to big people, like J.C. Penney, Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck," Fabrick said. "Those were the biggest people in the shoe business."

On his travels, California intrigued him -- the bustle of San Francisco, with all its shoe stores, and the cobblers on Olvera Street in Los Angeles, turning out woven leather sandals that they called huaraches.

"The guys were hammering and pounding," Fabrick said. "They were making crappy-looking shoes. But they were selling.

"Every time I came there, I would think about opening my own factory," he said. So in 1941, with $500 to bankroll his future, he took the leap. He opened a shop on the third floor of a mostly empty office building in downtown L.A. where the rent was $15 a month.

Fabrick made a variety of styles, including shoes with a huarache-style top on a felt wedge or wooden platform. The Hollywood Skooters brand was born.

When war forced the rationing of leather, Fabrick produced shoes with cloth tops and wooden soles, hinged to bend. "I was the only guy making nonrationed shoes," he said. "The thing took off."

When the war ended, Fabrick hired many concentration camp survivors who had made their way to America, recalled Jerry Potashnick, 84, an account executive for Tate Shoes.

"He taught them how to make shoes," Potashnick said.

Business boomed in the early 1950s. The Southland was setting trends in women's shoe design. Fabrick opened a 50,000-square-foot plant in Monterey Park and a 25,000-square-foot factory and headquarters downtown. By 1960, he had 10 plants making 10,000 pairs of shoes a day, and 14 salesmen on the road.

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