America at work
The Rise of the L.A. Fashion District
Free Enterprise Staff | February 10, 2016

Fashoin week.001.jpeg.001In a field dominated by big designers backed by even bigger fashion houses, one small part of downtown Los Angeles is shaking up the fashion industry.

The 100-block LA Fashion District, home to more than 4,000 businesses and around 1,500 showrooms, prides itself on fostering a creative, entrepreneurial spirit that helps lesser-known designers thrive. Take Bri Seeley, for instance. The native Minnesotan brought her brand from Seattle to the City of Angels in 2013.

“My grandmother taught me how to sew when I was about seven, so this has been something that’s just been in my blood,” said Seeley. “Being a fashion entrepreneur is a lot less about being a fashion designer than it is about being an entrepreneur.”

While LA may lack the international profile and couture designers of New York or Paris, its fashion district is a major manufacturing hub that acts as a home base for dozens of factories that cut and sew for the entire industry. It also contains wholesale and part-time retail markets, the largest flower district in the country, the Merchandise Mart, and of course the world famous Santee Alley—a three-block outdoor market made up of garage-like retail spaces, where cheap underwear fights for attention with handbags and cellphone cases.

In other words, much like the New York Diamond District or the Tokyo Fish Market, the LA Fashion District is where the industry gets down to business. When all the prototype dresses get unzipped and peeled off after the big fashion shows, designers phone in orders to their manufacturing reps who consider the district their office space. Once filled with only noisy factories, the district now houses artists’ lofts for ambitious designers who manufacture their work in-house, as well as huge showrooms that hawk mainstream name brands.

“Los Angeles is where the business of fashion happens,” said Ariana Gomez, marketing and PR manager for LA Fashion District, an organized collective of property owners that pool their resources to help foster development in the local community. “Where New York is known for its runway shows, Los Angeles is the center of manufacturing and wholesale. It’s also where a lot of designers get their start, as it tends to be more cost effective for small businesses to operate here.”

Buyers converge from all over the world to check out new designers, see clothing lines, and pick up loads of ready-to-wear apparel to sell at larger retailers. Since about 70 to 80 percent of the district is comprised of wholesale businesses and showrooms—giving new designers a direct line to retail buyers who can put their designs in shops around the country—it’s the hottest destination for startup fashion and retail entrepreneurs who want to carve out their piece of the $300 billion industry. Many well-known designers, like Trina Turk and Tarina Tarantino, got their beginnings here.

The district found its calling in the early 20th Century, when the port of Los Angeles became a bustling trade hub. “The Fashion District is where all these goods are distributed throughout North America,” Smith said. “We call it the ‘creative center’ for the world of fashion. We have not only all the fashion designers represented, but all of the wholesale showrooms.”

Of course, the district isn’t all about fashion. As the downtown itself revitalizes, the fashion district has become a destination in its own right.

“In the past two years, we’ve seen more residential, dining, and high-end retail come into the district, which is really a part of Downtown LA’s renaissance,”

said Gomez. “We’re home to boutiques like A.P.C., OAK NYC, Tanner Goods, Aesop, Skingraft, Pskaufman, and Daniel Patrick. We’ve also seen a number of online market places and e-commerce sites move or open in the district, like paleviolet.com, FashionGorilla.net, and THRSTLA.com.”

For up-and-coming designers, the district remainsthe perfect place to set their dreams in motion.

“The fashion industry has always been a low capital-intensity industry,” said Kent Smith, executive director of LA Fashion District.  “All you need are some great ideas, an incredible work ethic and an entrepreneurial spirit to get going.”