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Children's clothing makers in panic over lead testing

As buyers converge on the L.A. garment district to decide what to stock in stores, already struggling manufacturers are scrambling to have kids' items tested to comply with federal law.

January 16, 2009|Alana Semuels

Jennifer Taggart's testing gun seems an anomaly in this California Market Center room filled with pink tutus and flowery white baby gowns. She holds a laser gun, called the XRF Analyzer, to a tiny dress and waits.

The scanner beeps: The garment doesn't contain any lead. Its designer sighs in relief.

On Friday, clothing buyers from retail boutiques start pouring into the downtown Los Angeles garment emporium to decide which items to stock. Preparations for the year's first market day are always hectic, but they've been tinged with panic this week.

That's because hundreds of clothing manufacturers from across the country have been scrambling to test their children's garments for lead and anxiously awaiting the results, hoping they comply with a new federal law designed to protect kids from tainted products.

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, passed last year, bars the sale of goods aimed at children 12 and under that contain more than 600 parts per million of lead. The law takes effect Feb. 10.

Retail giant Neiman Marcus, the San Diego Zoo and a few small boutiques have already said they won't even look at any children's goods that haven't been certified. The trouble is, many of the independent testing labs around the country are too backed up to return items by the deadline.

Manufacturers also are concerned that retailers will use the law as an excuse to send back previously shipped garments that haven't been selling -- which these days are quite a few.

Many clothing makers say they didn't hear about the law until last month, and now they're busy trying to get everything tested before the deadline.

So as Taggart moves the gun to a blue mother-of-pearl button on the back of a dress, the owner of a Canoga Park company that made it looks on nervously, drumming her fingers on the table.

"We wanted to be proactive," said Yolanda Powers, owner of Cassie's Creations. "If something doesn't pass, we'll have to change it somehow."

The requirements are crippling businesses already struggling in a slow retail climate.

A blow to L.A.'s fashion industry would be another hit to the local economy, affecting jobs in mills and ports as well. Los Angeles County has the nation's highest number of apparel-manufacturing employees, according to the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., with 56,617 in the second quarter of 2008, the most recent figures available.

"It's going to really hurt our business, and we're already struggling because retail is not doing very well," said Anastasia Backstrand, the owner of children's clothing manufacturer Tralala Inc., based in Orange.

A children's clothing manufacturer sent its whole line back to India to be re-appliqued with glass instead of crystal, because it feared the line wouldn't meet the lead standards, one showroom owner said.

Taggart, who is paid $100 an hour for her testing service, had to inform a Midwestern maker of onesies that the snaps on her garments had failed. She then fielded a call from the weeping owner, who said she needed the income from her clothing business to survive.

"It is just devastating," said Ilse Metchek, president of the California Fashion Assn.

The testing requirements are holding back shipments of garments, she said, which means they sell for less at retail because stores demand a discount of at least 20% if items arrive late. Some retailers cite the delays in rejecting the goods entirely.

On Wednesday, local manufacturers and showroom owners gathered in a packed conference room at the Market Center to hear a lawyer explain how to comply with the act. The mood, said people who attended the meeting, was one of hysteria.

"We were blindsided by this," said David Gardner, director of sales and marketing at L.A. children's clothing maker Charlie Rocket, which expects to pay $10,000 to $20,000 to have its line tested. "Let's at least have a grace period."

To avoid having their goods rejected by retailers, many manufacturers are scurrying to get certified before their meetings with buyers, which is a nearly impossible task.

"Everybody waited till the last minute, and it's not a short-term test," said Ari McKee Sexton, marketing communications manager for Stork Materials Technology, which runs a lab in St. Paul, Minn., that tests toys and clothing for lead.

Starting in August, only labs that have been certified by the Consumer Product Safety Commission will be permitted to offer the testing. The labs charge an average of $800 per test. Manufacturers are absorbing the costs, knowing that they don't have a choice.

"With the economy the way it is, you can't pass the cost on to the customer," said Joanne Yamamoto, owner of Mimi & Maggie, a Los Angeles maker of girls' clothes.

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