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FROM FIRST AND SPRING | [An Editor`s Note]

One Fashion Trend That, Sadly, Won`t Fade

February 26, 2006|Rick Wartzman

The sizzle-to-fizzle, hot- to-not fickleness of the fashion world has been known to leave many a career in tatters.

Even the four twentysomethings behind Trovata, the Newport Beach

label that is all the rage these days, are keenly aware that their business comes with certain risks. It's simply the nature of things that their signature style--casual togs with classic tailoring--could suddenly "crash and burn" on the runway, as Sorina Diaconescu notes in her profile of the company ("The Boys in the Brand," page 18).

But it's not just changing tastes that can bedevil apparel makers.

Another part of Southern California's clothing industry has long been hit by a trend that shows absolutely no signs of fading: shriveling profits for those trying to compete with low-cost sewing contractors across the globe. A new report from the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. indicates that there are now fewer than 62,000 apparel manufacturing jobs here, down from more than 92,000 six years ago.

I first wrote about one struggling Los Angeles garment firm, Jack Sr. & Sons, in 1999. The owners, the Mehserjian family, had run a thriving clothing business in Lebanon until they were chased away by war. They landed in L.A. in the late '80s, and eventually opened a 14,000-square-foot sewing shop near downtown. At its peak, the company posted sales of about $5 million.

By the time I had caught up with them, though, economic realities had led the Mehserjians to a place they preferred not to be--Mexico. They had no choice: In Guadalajara, they could pay their workers an average weekly wage of about $60, versus $300 in L.A.

Their strategy was to stitch together knitwear for J.C. Penney and the like in Mexico, and then produce higher-end clothing in Los Angeles. They hated shuttling back and forth, feeling like gypsies. But "you either go to Mexico," Harry Mehserjian told me at the time, "or you die."

After reading of Trovata's success, I thought about Harry again, wondering how he and his family were faring. I called the number I had for him. It just rang and rang--and I knew.

When I finally tracked him down, Harry filled me in on the unraveling of the business. He and his brother had hung in there until 2003, but by then, Mexico was no longer low-cost enough. Their losses had mounted until the only option was to shutter both the L.A. and Guadalajara facilities.

For a few years after that, "we couldn't function," says Harry, 39. "We were completely traumatized." He is now studying Internet marketing and hoping for a fresh start.

As for the rag trade, he's done. Harry says he briefly thought about China. But then what? "Are we going to go to Mars or Venus," he asks, if labor is cheaper there? It's an excellent question, one that should trouble us all.

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