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Fashion Steps Into the Streetlights

By Eric Richardson
Published: Thursday, September 02, 2010, at 10:44AM
Elmer Ave Coy Koehler

Model Katie Virden poses in the window of Elmer Ave's 4th street retail showroom.



After a century of relative obscurity, Downtown fashion is stepping out of the wholesale markets and into the public eye. A handful of hybrid showroom-boutiques in the Historic Core are on the leading edge of a trend to bring the central city’s creativity down to street level. Those in the industry say that the new Downtown and fashion are meant for each other.

Making clothes is nothing new for Downtown. As early as the 1910’s, apparel companies had already begun to cluster near the corner of Los Angeles and 8th. The area’s role as the garment district was cemented in 1963 with the opening of the California Mart, the first phase of the massive showroom development now known as California Market Center.

Taking a walk through the Fashion District in even the early 2000’s, though, one could be excused for thinking that the area offered nothing more than the designer knock-offs sold in Santee Alley. The creativity was hidden, upstairs and out of view.

It was only in the last three years that the showrooms started to meet the street. Fremont Apparel Company was one of the first to make a move into the Historic Core, opening a retail space and showroom on 4th Street between Spring and Main. In early 2009, avant-garde label Skingraft opened its own retail-showroom space across the street, and punk-inspired [Elmer Ave]( took Fremont’s space when the label moved to become part of a new fashion cluster at 7th and Main.

Jonny Cota, Skingraft’s Creative Director, says that he was initially reluctant to make the retail move but has seen it pay off.

“Moving beyond the typical showroom and being able to connect directly to our clientele has been an amazing experience for us,” he explains. “We get to see how real people interact with the garments and how much better they understand the entire line when they can experience it all at once within the world we create.”

The line is manufactured in Bali, but Cota says the designs are very Downtown-centered. “Skingraft’s aesthetic is often times hard, slick and armor like, and I think downtown is a perfect reflection for that.”

Devin Carlson, Partner and Creative Director of Fremont, says that the biggest appeal of a Downtown storefront showroom is that “it feels as if you’re in the center of a city that is really starting to find its identity.”

Staying near the Fashion District also gives easy access to necessary services. “It comes in handy having a great manufacturer within walking distance for the occasional last minute fix,” Carlson says.

The retail move can be an intimidating one for labels not used to the extra overhead it can bring. Carlson says that it may not be a move for everyone. “It takes a lot to get a buyer to come even two streets away from the marts on Los Angeles and 9th,” he explains. While retail may be appealing, store buyers are still typically the ones paying the bills. “For brands that have not come from a background in the market, I would strongly suggest getting into a showroom to maximize their wholesale visibility.”

While most of the manufacturing that used to take place in Los Angeles has shifted overseas, retail presences make it easier for small labels to offer personalized production. “It’s a sort of old-school tailoring feel,” explains Jonny Day of Elmer Ave. “On the design side we are able to test samples with customers and even offer special limited runs.”

In the Fashion District, Kitson recently opened a high-profile street-level showroom at 9th and Los Angeles, a corner that is rapidly turning from industrial to chic. Los Angeles Street as a whole is primed for a reinvention, says Kent Smith, Executive Director of the L.A. Fashion District Business Improvement District. He cites money that the district recently received from Metro to renovate streetscape and add trees and lights between 7th and Olympic. “We’re at the darkness before the dawn,” he says of Los Angeles Street’s current state.

The two districts’ futures are linked, says Smith. “All this stuff happening in Historic Downtown is so important to us,” he explains. “It gets the Downtown name out there.” In the end, though, it will be the quality of the product that makes or breaks Downtown’s new fashion and retail future. “If you have the right product,” Smith notes, “people will come.”

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