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HOW I MADE IT: Eric Martin and Kristen Aguilera

Owners of Park LA showroom fashion their own success

As representatives of several designers, they sell clothing wholesale to boutiques as well as giant stores and collect commissions on the sales.

February 15, 2009|Ken Bensinger

The gig: Co-founders and co-owners of Park LA, a wholesale showroom in downtown Los Angeles' Fashion District. Park LA, which opened in mid-2006 with only a few clients, now represents 15 brands, including Converse by John Varvatos, LaFine and Trunk Ltd. As representatives of the designers, they sell the clothing wholesale to boutiques as well as giants such as Barneys New York and Fred Segal, collecting commissions on the sales.

Personal: Martin, 35, and Aguilera, 29, were "just friends" when they went into business together. That lasted all of six months. Now they are in the process of buying a home together in Big Bear, where they can "retreat to the mountains and get back to our roots," Aguilera said.

Education: The two have a Colorado connection. Martin, originally from Portland, Ore., studied business at the University of Colorado at Boulder, while Aguilera, a native of Fort Collins, Colo., studied fashion design and production at Colorado State University.

Background: After a few years of working at dot-coms, Martin landed what was then his dream job in sales for Burton Snowboards. That led to gigs in the action sports realm before he was lured by "better commissions and bigger sales territories" in the fashion showroom game. Aguilera, meanwhile, bought a clothing boutique even before she graduated from college. Later, while working in the Bay Area, she got a job offer in an L.A. showroom -- for a huge pay cut. "I don't know how I did it," she said. The two met on the job, clicked, and soon decided to start their own showroom, with the help of a hefty loan and a helpful landlord.

Walk softly, carry a big Rolodex: In the world of fashion merchandising, it's all about how much the buyers love you. "The key is to keep in touch with people and make them remember you. I spend a lot of time sending thank-you cards," Aguilera said. It also means paying dues on the social circuit. "We go to a lot of dinners. We throw parties three or four times a year with a band that attracts maybe 500 people," Martin said.

The lifestyle: Can be exhausting. Martin and Aguilera travel to more than a dozen trade shows a year, visit major buyers and take regular trips to New York. They also have to deal with a fair share of the drama that the fashion business is famous for, including "lots of screaming" Aguilera said.

How to survive a recession: Martin and Aguilera are well aware that the bad times are hurting retailers. Although Park LA is still going strong, the two have offered buyers special discounts or deals that allow more generous retail markups on clothing. "People price-shop in this economy," Martin said.

Hopes and dreams: Boyfriend imagines living on a tropical beach, perhaps in Mexico or Costa Rica, teaching people to surf for a living. Girlfriend wants to lead a country western band, reviving one she was in during high school called Sterling Silver. "I was famous when I was 16," Aguilera said. Not much market for country music in Acapulco.

What's next? When she was in college, Aguilera trademarked "K Allyn," hoping to someday make a brand out the name (which is her first initial plus her middle name). This April, the first K Allyn line of women's T-shirts is hitting stores. Martin and Aguilera hope to make it a full line of women's clothing, and love the fact that since they do the wholesaling, they "get to keep the commissions."

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ken.bensinger@latimes.com

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