I saw the sign, looked away, then back again.
Were they kidding?
"Two Suits $99."
Were they made out of cat hair? Do you wear them once and then compost them? Maybe it was an example of a loss leader, an item priced below cost to lure people into the store for other purchases.
I saw that sign on a recent trip to New York and when I got back, I began trolling the fashion district in downtown L.A. to see if anyone could match the offer and explain the economics of clothing that cheap.
The district covers 115 square blocks and has the economy of a small country. There used to be a lot of manufacturing there, but that has long gone to distant shores.
Today, the streets boast some 4,000 mom-and-pop shops and stalls, with 37,000 employees peddling more than $5 billion worth of goods annually from Asia and Latin America.
As for men's clothing, I saw numerous sandwich boards advertising three suits for $299. The deal includes three full sets of accessories -- shirts, neckties, hankies, socks, belts and sometimes even shoes and cuff links.
Not bad, but I kept shopping, and one day at Downtown Suits Outlet on 9th Street, I saw a price that beat New York.
One suit, $49.
Two, then, for $98.
"It's a great deal," owner Gary Sakayan insisted as I inspected the navy blue, chalk-stripe suit he had pulled off the rack from the 42 Long section.
I slipped into it and looked in the mirror.
Not bad. And the label said "Giorgio Fiorelli Uomo, Milano-Italy."
An Italian suit for $49?
"Italian-designed," Sakayan said. "It's made in China. Some of the other stores won't tell you that."
As you might have guessed, no sheep were harmed in the making of this suit. The label said it was 65% polyester and 35% viscose.
Isn't that oil?
"Rayon," Sakayan said.
So let's say I'm strutting down the street on a warm summer day and the temperature hits 90 degrees.
Will the suit combust?
Look, Sakayan said, at $49, it's not the best suit, but it's a great value. It probably cost $20 or less to make in a Chinese factory using a pattern transmitted electronically from Italy or the U.S. Then an L.A. wholesaler paid about $30 for it and sold it to Sakayan for between $35 and $40. Sakayan buys a couple hundred at a time, sells the bulk of them for $79 or so, then whacks the rest down to $49 so he can move them out and make room for the next shipment.
Business has slumped throughout the very competitive fashion district and some clothing shops have closed, but Sakayan worked many years to get where he is and said he's doing fine. He moved to the U.S from Lebanon in the 1980s, spent a year pumping gas, then trimmed windows in the fashion district for 20 years before opening his first shop. Now he has five, and he speaks five languages, which helps him survive.
Sakayan said that in the last year or two, he has been getting more customers who used to go to department stores or big chains but now want more for their money.
"I don't shop anywhere else," said Art Carson, a Jackson Limousines chauffeur who dropped by the store to pick up four suits he'd recently bought for $399, accessories included.
Jamal Brown, an accountant for the city of Inglewood, was buying four neckties for $40, and he said they'd start at $25 each at a department store. He said he had bought more than a dozen suits from Sakayan.
And Monique Blevins, a registered nurse, was shopping for a junior high graduation suit for her son, determined to spend no more than $120, including accessories.
Sammy Marina, a wholesaler whose showroom is a block away, told me there used to be a much greater demand for European suits that cost $300 to $500 retail. Now "the magic number is from $100 to $150," and the Chinese technology has improved so much in recent years, they turn out a pretty good suit in that price range.
Kent Smith, executive director of L.A. Fashion District, said reps from the Chinese factories roam downtown L.A. with catalogs, selling to wholesalers. The ships then steam into the harbor from overseas, logistics teams move huge shipments to distribution centers in Vernon or maybe Commerce, and a truck pulls up to Sakayan's store with the latest threads at the lowest prices.
All very interesting, but I had a dilemma. Should I go with the $49 special? Or spend $99 for a slightly nicer, shark-gray cut that came with a shirt, necktie, hanky, belt and socks? I tried on both under the watchful eyes of salesman Eric Carter, Sakayan and his father-in-law, who goes simply by "Pops."
"You look great," Carter said of the $49 suit.
When I tried on the $99 job, Sakayan said I looked like "a million dollars," or at least $300.
But let's say I'm out on the town for a big night. Maybe my wife and I are double-dating with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his new girlfriend. Would I look like a bum next to the mayor, who wears expensive threads?
I tried on the $99 suit, and Carter said I'd have nothing to worry about.
"You look good enough to run for office," he said, adjusting my sleeves to smarten the fit.