A Los Angeles Primer: The Fashion District

Heading south, it always surprises me how quickly downtown Los Angeles gives way to raw industry. The average building height drops precipitously as the average building width expands enormously, into proportions befitting warehouses, factories, cold storage facilities, and "suppliers" of every kind. Such a streetscape may appeal only to the sort of urban photographer inclined toward gray desolation, alienating scale, and smoking loading-dock workers, but it soon presents a sight that, while still dreary in its way, will strike even those who've never before set foot in the city as reassuringly familiar: the American Apparel factory, the very seat of the company's claim to sell garments "sweatshop-free, made in downtown Los Angeles." I must admit I've always appreciated their billboards, which, while seedy, bring a refreshing kind of seediness to the city, one different from those that permeated it before. More to the point, I've also appreciated the versatility and (if it doesn't sound like too much of an oxymoron) modern timelessness of their clothing, at least when it doesn't go self-consciously retro. But rarely, anywhere in town, can I bring myself to pay full retail prices for it.

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Go down Alameda Street to American Apparel's mothership, though, and there you can buy at a pleasing discount, thus participating in the same pursuit that brings thousands to the Fashion District each and every day: getting a deal. Despite bordering on hopeless Skid Row, with its scarce goods and services mainly of the charitable variety, the Fashion District itself explodes with commercial energy. On one level, it has established itself as a dizzyingly robust resource for garment-industry professionals: if you fail to find a particular textile, button, or zipper there, it doesn't — can't possibly — exist. On another level, if you need suspiciously cheap suits in suspiciously high quantities, seek there and you'll find, repeatedly: $199 each, one tiny storefront advertises; $129 each, offers the next; two for $99, insists the third. If you need a bootleg, everything bootlegable surely appears somewhere in Santee Alley, a series of narrow blocks where the sellers and the buyers grow even thicker on the ground. This sounds like one of those whispered-about, faintly menacing urban crevices with its own set of laws, and in some sense it does qualify as one. The larger neighborhood has, however, grown wise this very appeal, and above Santee Alley has hung banner after banner announcing that "THE LA FASHION DISTRICT WELCOMES YOU TO SANTEE ALLEY."

As if that didn't already water down the feel of illicitness, the place also has its own reasonably slick web site. Nevertheless, the Fashion District itself remains a center of pure sensory stimulation, and for this reason merits its branding as an attraction in league with — even out of the leagues of — an Olvera Street or a Farmers Market. This obviously goes for the garment-industry professional, but it goes just as well for the outsider. While I myself do possess, and often find myself possessed by, an interest in menswear, that interest manifests itself for the most part avocationally, and I couldn't actually construct anything wearable if my life hung in the balance. But when I recommend that someone new to Los Angeles visit the Fashion District, and I recommend it often, I don't do it out of concern that they know just where to get their fabrics by the yard and threads by the industrial spool; I do it out of concern that they sense just how heady a social convergence can happen here. If you can find a major nationality not present on, say 9th Street or Olympic Boulevard between Main and San Julian Street on any given day, you've paid more attention than I have, and even that space, full as it may feel, constitutes only ten blocks of a total ninety.

As a representation of Los Angeles' much-vaunted ethnic diversity, then, the Fashion District certainly rises to the occasion. But this risks reducing the appeal to that of an old Benetton ad, when an equally intriguing variety occurs in the dimension of purpose: even if the neighborhood's habitués all do something related to clothing, their occupations could otherwise have in common nothing at all. You'll spot, for instance, immigrants hardened by forty years in the snap-fastener trade striking deals with teenage students from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. Make for a flighty element in the downtown bars though they may, FIDM's branded bag- and toolbox-toting professionals-in-training keep the area youthful. Their campus, which technically resides in the South Park neighborhood just to the east, functions as something of a satellite and repays a visit if only to cast a contrast of slickness against the almost developing-world makeshift look and feel of the Fashion District proper. These elements balance each other, but even a downtowner, especially one who gives everything south of 8th Street or east of Main a wide berth, may lack the full awareness that both of them exist nearby.

Say "the industry" in the Fashion District, and you more than likely mean that which produces clothing; say "the industry" outside it, and you more than likely mean that which produces entertainment. (If you do, feel free to speak the word with its implied capital "I".) But their concerns do overlap — film and television characters need costumes, after all — and a spirit of focused labor, the kind engaged in by those dedicated to a craft, unites them. Los Angeles' large industry and its even larger Industry do attract and endure unceasing streams of flaky aspirants, but most of their participants turn up expressly to work hard. So it also goes with the scientists and engineers, so it went with the region's formerly flourishing aerospace sector, and so it seems about to go again with the nascent private spacecraft industry. Even British expatriate Christopher Isherwood, author of the indispensable Los Angeles novel "A Single Man", disavowed any claims to Southern Californian hedonism. "We are working people," he said of himself and his partner, the painter Don Bachardy, and indeed, most Angelenos must believe the same about themselves. Don't let the presence of a beach, sixteen miles though it may lay from a place like the Fashion District, fool you; you don't come to Los Angeles to relax.


Photos by Colin Marshall.

About the Author

Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. These columns present essays adapted from his book-in-progress, "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City."
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