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For their Sunday best, black women turn to Jewish clothier from Iran

Church-going customers know they'll find what they need at Ebby Tabarai's shop, Divas, in downtown L.A. (But don't come on Saturday.)

May 08, 2013|By Doug Smith, Los Angeles Times
  • Ruby Smith tries on a hat at Divas, Ebby Tabarai's clothing store in downtown Los Angeles.
Ruby Smith tries on a hat at Divas, Ebby Tabarai's clothing store in… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

On occasion, my wife and I have taken out-of-town visitors on Sunday outings to the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles to expose the uninitiated to the joy of a live gospel choir.

I sometimes wonder how I stand with that power greater than myself while intruding on a house of worship solely to observe a spectacle.

But we're always received so warmly that I quickly lose myself in the music and forget where I am.

In that state, I've paid little notice to hats and shoes and dresses.

That changed when I met Ebby Tabarai. He owns a building in the 800 block of South Los Angeles Street. I went there recently with two other reporters for a story that had nothing to do with church. We were asking about historic buildings in downtown Los Angeles

Ebby, a dapper man in his mid-50s with lightly graying hair, led us up a steep open stairway to his office overlooking a large showroom.

Our questions were about building plans, city ordinances and price per square foot. He told us he had bought the 1926 five-story office building in 2006 to save his business when a loft developer wanted to buy it.

I learned that he was an Iranian Jew sent by his family to New York in the late 1970s to study. After the 1979 Islamic revolution made life problematic for Jews in Iran, Tabarai got his parents out. Eventually they resettled in California.

But through all this questioning, I found it hard to concentrate. My attention was drawn to the shelf on one wall of Tabarai's office. From floor to ceiling it was lined with hats. Not dainty hats. These were HATS.

There were hats a foot tall and just as wide, hats with satin floral arrangements, hats with brash feathers and pleats, red hats, black hats, brown hats and white hats and hats with bold woolen weaves.

"What exactly is the nature of your business?" I finally asked, no longer able to resist.

A smile came onto Ebby's face. "I sell clothes to black ladies," he said softly.

It all came back. I could see the pews at AME filled with those hats and the women swaying with the music in flowing dresses.

That day I had to put the images out of mind as a distraction from our purpose. But I knew I would return to talk to Ebby about clothes and black ladies and the path that brought a Jew from Iran to intersect with them in downtown Los Angeles.

On the previous visit I had approached Ebby's building from the west on 8th Street, seeing little of its milieu. On my return I came directly south on Los Angeles Street, finding myself drawn into a five-block arcade of streetside fashion.

In contrast to the street's sartorial mix of tattooed, jeans-and-T-shirt urbanites and the truly down and out, the open shops all beckoned with evening wear highlighted by the afternoon sun. It was a wedding procession of mannequins in dark silk suits and bright long dresses with an occasional intrusion of bras and panties.

Nearly every store had a pint-sized mannequin looking so smart in suit and tie that you just wanted to buy one for your grandkid's elementary school graduation.

Ebby's storefront was probably the most conservative on the block, sporting a signed poster of the Obama family as its central visual cue.

Behind the plain window of Divas, Ebby's showroom spread back almost 100 feet through rack-upon-rack of blue, yellow, red, saffron, silver and black. Dresses displayed along the high walls were in petite sizes, and just a little daring. But it was evident from the amount of cloth visible on the racks below that his clientele was both fuller and more conservative.

Standing behind a cluttered counter in a gray blazer and blue slacks, Ebby was in the middle of a sale when I arrived. A black woman, a senior, had put a white satin hat and a pair of matching shoes on the counter. Ebby typed some numbers into the adding machine, mentioned a discount and ripped off the paper.

"Hundred and eighty-nine dollars," he said.

The woman haggled. He haggled back. Finally, she took the shoes for $49.

"It's not a straight sale here," Ebby said when she was gone. "Each item that we sell we make a deal."

It turned out that Ebby was not a terribly introspective person, perhaps because even after more than 30 years in the U.S. his English is still imperfect. The story of his remarkable journey came in the most mundane details.

His got his start in the garment business in New York, making clothes. In the 1980s, he saw an opportunity and went into business for himself.

"I found the demand for large sizes." Ebby said. "I went for that group."

A cluster of women just then approached the counter with shoe boxes.

Ida Martin — that is, "First Lady Martin of the Greater Victory Church of God in Christ, San Bernardino" — had made the trek with friends on a Thursday afternoon knowing that Divas would be closed Saturday, the busiest shopping day on Los Angeles Street. It's Ebby's Sabbath. He's at Temple Sinai.

Martin said she comes regularly to Divas, and it's not unheard of that she'll leave with several shoes or dresses.

"I got six closets," she said.

Her friend Evelyn Tahairo said it's a matter of size.

"You have to come here," Tahairo added. "He carries those big girls' sizes."

But Martin said there was one overarching reason for the women's loyalty: "Even though he's got a lot of business on Saturday, he won't open," Martin said. "He goes to church. He has his religion and he sticks by it. I like that."

After Martin left, a happy customer, Ebby said to me: "This is very interesting that I'm Jewish and I cater to the Christian clients," he said. "We have an understanding of each other. We both happy from each other."

It was as clear a statement of what it means to live together as I've ever heard.

Leaving Divas, I returned to the bustle of the sidewalk and made my way back to the office.

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