Downtown L.A's Fashion District can be a daunting landscape of concrete and pedestrian traffic. The scene starts with the bustle of ground-floor businesses, most of them having something to do with apparel or accessories — some open to the public, some to wholesalers only. (And some of the businesses don't post "retail" or "wholesale" signs, which can prove frustrating to the newcomer.) In addition to storefronts for shoes, handbags, menswear and women's wear, the more than 4,000 businesses in the district include design offices, sales showrooms, fabric shops and manufacturing facilities that feed California's younger, fashion-forward apparel industry.
So what's the attraction?
For consumers, it's the bargain hunting, sample sales and room for haggling. Between the 150 stalls on Santee Alley that sell a wide selection including straw fedoras to knock-off Coach bags and the designer and denim sample sales held at various wholesale showrooms at the end of each month, downtown's Fashion District is worth the trip for anyone ready to hunt for savings.
There are more than 100 blocks in the district, which is bordered (more or less) by the 10 freeway, Broadway, 7th Street and San Pedro Street. Like everything in Los Angeles, the rules of navigation and knowing where to park are key in approaching the area, especially during crowded weekends.
Let's start with parking: It doesn't have to be overwhelming. Just look for the "parking" signs, which will usually lead you up a steep ramp to a lot on top of a roof. Rates vary from $2.50 per day (at a lot on 7th and Wall Street) to $6, and some charge $8 on weekends. If parking over by Santee Alley, be sure to jot down the exact address of where you left your car or you may have trouble finding it later. Many stores look similar and it's easy to get confused.
Once the car is parked, you can cover a lot of ground on foot, but anyone who plans to shop the length of the Fashion District can hop on the Dash (route E), which travels north and south on San Pedro and Los Angeles streets.
Shoppers looking for a geographically defined experience might start with the three blocks that comprise the pedestrian-only Santee Alley, a busy strip of sidewalk and stalls that sits on Santee Street and stretches from Olympic to Pico boulevards. At first, the Santee Alley experience may seem like sensory overload with packed stalls and a hodgepodge of merchandise including sequined bras, athletic socks, men's suits and electronics as well as vendors hawking their wares while blowing bubbles that waft in front of you as you walk. The quality of the merchandise can be iffy but the energy is vaguely reminiscent of the Grove on Christmas Eve.
Most stalls carry similar, if not the same, merchandise. At the moment skinny jeans, leggings and Ed Hardy knockoffs are the items du jour, and they can be seen hanging in the stalls for the entire stretch of the alley. Leggings and jeggings that are priced as low as $9.99 (or two pairs for $15) attract young women who admire the look of J Brand and Current Elliott jeggings worn by celebrities, but come to Santee for the low prices.
"If you want to see what is currently hot and what's on the minds of the consumer, go to Santee Alley," says Ilse Metchek, president of the California Fashion Assn. (Think Forever 21, but even cheaper clothing styles that run the gamut from barely-there club wear to bedazzled tween T-shirts and metallic gladiator sandals for toddlers as well as adults.) Much of the merchandise epitomizes fast fashion, clothing and accessories that are created quickly and are good for a few wears.
"The demographic of people shopping Santee on a Saturday is so varied you cannot imagine," says Metchek of the droves of bargain hunters and fashion lovers heading there each weekend.
The same goes for the hundreds of stores in the fashion district, which are efficiently grouped across the area by category. The website for the L.A Fashion District (www.fashiondistrict.org) has a comprehensive tool for shoppers to find almost any business in the area. By typing in what you're looking for, such as "bridal" or "athletic wear," the directory serves up a list of retail stores with addresses, phone numbers and websites, if available.
Women's wear retailers take up the most real estate, an area loosely bordered by Griffith Avenue, Los Angeles Street, the 10 freeway and Olympic Boulevard. Kid's wear is nestled in the middle of the district at San Julian and 11th streets and the menswear area is bordered by Maple Avenue, 9th Street, Broadway and 7th Street.