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Apparel Design and the Fabric of the Creative Economy

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In partnership with Otis College of Art and Design: Artbound explores the latest Otis Report on the Creative Economy with online articles and video segments culminating in a broadcast special airing on KCET.

Though it's not a traditional "fashion city" like New York, London, Paris, or Milan, L.A. has a rich fashion history. Silent movie actresses Gloria Swanson and Louise Brooks flapped their way into becoming influential fashion plates in the 1920s, and red carpet gowns and dresses have shaped the world's idea of glamour ever since. Fashion design courses at schools like Otis College of Art and Design and FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising) churn out prominent fashion designers like Monique Lhuillier and Lubov Azria. The history of surfing and skateboarding, and the apparel that accompanies it, has deep roots in L.A. since the 1950s. And, since 2000, American Apparel has been a global leader in basics.

The fashion industry generates billions of dollars in labor income through thousands jobs in Los Angeles and Orange County, according to the Otis Report on the Creative Economy of the Los Angeles Region.

Although L.A. may not be known for couture yet, it plays an important role in key segments of the fashion world. Central to L.A.'s fashion industry is premium denim. In fact, according to an NPR article in 2013, approximately 75 percent of what is considered "designer jeans" sold throughout the world are made in California. A lot of that production happens south of Downtown in areas like Vernon and South Gate.

Sam Ku has a unique position on both the business side of the industry and the creative side as the president and creative director of AG Jeans, a brand that started in 2000. AG's parent company Koos Manufacturing, currently employs approximately 1,000 people in their South Gate manufacturing plant, and an additional 1,000 in Mexico. Ku explains that the years of L.A. being a denim hub makes for the city a fertile one for jeans-makers.

"One of the biggest advantages is the expertise that we have here," says Ku.

"There's been a denim industry here for many decades. With that, you get experts in the field, whether it's wash technicians to people that are good at designing a whisker pattern--there's decades of know-how here. Denim is a blend of science and art, and you really have to be knowledgeable to create a good pair of denim. I think that there's always been good wash houses and good sewing factories. It creates a thriving environment for brands to be able to develop the best premium jeans."


As both a businessman and a creative individual, Ku gets to see both sides of the coin when it comes to denim manufacturing. Ku explains that AG are beloved for their signature styles, as well as their ability to stay current, as evidenced by their recent collaboration with fashion It-girl Alexa Chung.

"It's always important to bring something to the market that's pushing the envelope," says Ku. "But pushing the envelope may work and be genius, but it may flop and no one cares for it, but it's important for the collection that you have room for that exploration. We work with our merchandising team to make a plan for a certain amount of vintage washes, a certain amount of basic, and a certain amount of fashion. With that business blueprint, we give this to our design team, and they can be creative. Planning is definitely key to balance business and creativity."

Also situated south of Downtown, in Vernon, is apparel brand The Hundreds. Started in 2003 by Bobby Kim and Ben Shenassafar, The Hundreds now employs approximately 90 people in their Vernon office/warehouse, their printshop, and in their four flagship stores. Though they are a completely independent brand, the Hundreds are one of the leaders of the streetwear segment of the apparel industry. It's a mixture of creativity and business-savvy that Kim says is necessary in all of today's creative industries.

"Today, we are living in a world where you have to have a little bit of both to really make it," says Kim. "A businessperson needs to be innovative and have the creative ingénue to understand what's going on in the creative marketplace, whether it's within culture or amongst youth. I think we're living in this interesting time where you have to be everything. You have to be your own publicist, CEO, and creative director. The guys who are walking that fine line between those introverted attributes and also extroverted skill sets, they're the ones who are going to win."

Kim has seen the streetwear, skatewear, and surfwear industries turn from a homegrown niche market to major competitors in the apparel industry, with a growing number of companies partnered with drink brands and X-Games. A number of brands can be found in malls across America, the Hundreds among them. For Kim, being located in Los Angeles has a lot to do with the Hundreds' ability to grow, but there are other perks to living in L.A. as well.

"For one, there's the quality of life," says Kim. "That seems like it maybe nothing to do with business, but then it has everything to do with business. So many of the people that we work with and work against as competitors, they always look to L.A. with envy. You can find somewhere affordable (to build the business), and everyone's happy here, and everyone's beautiful. We have a 90,000 square foot warehouse office facility and screenprint shop, and it's not cheap, but comparatively to most major cities, we have a pretty good deal going on here. And there so many different kinds of people here from so many different backgrounds, that's led to a inspired atmosphere."

Amber Halford, who owns one of Los Angeles' most talked about new lifestyle brands, 69, agrees with the idea that L.A. offers a multitude of incentives.

"First of all, the weather is a lot nicer," she says. "It's cheaper to live here, it's cheaper to get things done here, and you can actually have your clothes made in the United States, and have them not be so overpriced that people can't afford them. It's great for me, because my studio is downtown, and it's relatively affordable, and a block away is the factory that I use. I wouldn't want to do it any other way."

Halford started 69 in 2011 as a denim-only label, but a unique one. The designs are flowing, unisex, and innovative -- think a denim nun's habit and a backless bib -- and her recent presentation at art gallery Gavin Brown's enterprise in New York attracted the attention of international press like i-D Magazine and Dazed. She tentatively sees a growing focus on Los Angeles as an important place in fashion.

"I keep getting inquiries from different publications wanting my feedback on the L.A. fashion scene," she says. "At this point, I'm convinced because of this buzz that there is some sort of rising development. It would be cool if there was some mass movement of the fashion industry to come to L.A. that important people like buyers and press would pay attention to, but I just don't really see it, because it's so far away from everything else."


Despite its economic impact, L.A. fashion hasn't translated to worldwide respect. In fact, recent history dictates that the L.A. garment industry is snakebitten. Mercedes Benz endeavored to replicate their New York Fashion Week in Los Angeles in the early 2000s, attempting to attract buyers and press to the Standard Hotel. That idea fizzled -- no one wanted to make the 14-hour flight from Milan to Los Angeles. Today, Los Angeles Fashion Week exists, but it mainly offers localized fare and shows by "Project Runway" contestants, and is rarely noticed by editors or buyers.

And just last year, much of the L.A. fashion district, Santee Alley, was busted in a sweep by a coalition force of the FBI, DEA, ICE, DOJ and the office of California Attorney Kamala Harris for laundering Mexican drug cartel money.

And though the growth in the industry has slowed a bit, there are more eyes on the L.A. fashion industry than ever, with major players like Tom Ford, Bernhard Willhelm, and St. Laurent Paris either moving here or putting on their seasonal shows here. Tom Ford's show, held during Oscars weekend, was notable for its front row filled with A-listers like Scarlett Johansson and Beyoncé. And recently, it was announced that Dior will show its 2016 cruise collection in L.A. this May.

While L.A. Fashion Week isn't currently a destination for the fashion jetset, there are sectors of the industry that are thriving. Intertwined with the history of Hollywood glamour, action sports, and denim, there will always be a sense that L.A. is at least fashionable if not a "fashion city." But with a substantial direct labor income of the creative industry, the fashion industry in Los Angeles remains a vital element of our economy.


The 2014 Otis Report is available for download online at Otis' website. View it here.

Read previous installments of our "State of Creativity" Series:

What Is the Creative Economy?
The creative economy is a vibrant and vital force in Los Angeles. Artbound provides deeper engagement with the Otis Report on the Creative Economy through an editorial series exploring the roots and effects of creativity.

How Arts Education Fuels the Creative Economy
Education, particularly in the arts, will play a pivotal role in preparing students' creative capacities and sustaining a creative economy.

How Creative Placemaking Plays a Role in the Creative Economy
The concept of "creative placemaking," the integration of a community's artistic and cultural assets in community planning and revitalization, is gaining momentum in places like Boyle Heights.

Southern California's Interconnected Art Ecosystem
With an economic output of $93 million in 2013, L.A. and Orange County's galleries are punching far above their weight when it comes to their economic impact.

How Art, Science, and Technology Interact in Southern California
Over the past few decades, artists and scientists have helped bring focus to the art-science-technology track of Southern California's present creative economy.

Artbound Special Episode "State of Creativity"
A special episode on the Otis Report on the Creative Economy.

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