LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As the morning sun pours into his studio, designer Robert Rodriguez shows off luxurious lace dresses and silk tops with cascading flowers, a far cry from the street wear so prevalent on the Los Angeles streets outside.
His modern showroom and atelier reflect the upscale aspirations of this city’s apparel industry, which is yearning to raise its profile — even though it already dictates what much of the world wears every day.
“It would be nice for people to be more open-minded about designers in L.A.,” said Rodriguez, whose creations are sold in famous retailers like Neiman Marcus and Harrods. “They’re surprised the collection is from L.A.”
Los Angeles fashion insiders are tired of playing second fiddle to New York, which they describe as slow-moving and staid. Today’s fashion, they say, thrives in this city of palm-lined streets whose lifestyle is coveted the world over.
The City of Angels has carved out a niche for itself as a host for casual brands like American Apparel and as a manufacturer of quick-turnaround “fast fashion” and small orders for emerging designers.
Fashion is the city’s largest manufacturing industry, and employs more people here than in New York, they note.
“We are the merchandisers of the world at this point — not Paris, not the runways, and certainly not New York,” said Ilse Metchek, Executive Director of the California Fashion Association.
“What the people are wearing on the street — if leggings are in or out — is determined by California.”
Hundreds of makers of jeans, swimwear, surfwear or contemporary lines are here, drawn by a big talent pool from local design schools, cheap space, zippers, buttons and trim at the ready and relative proximity to Asian markets.
While 30,000 sewing machines whir away on any day, the city has no illusions about taking on Asian manufacturing giants like China. The bulk of manufacturing went offshore with the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 and today only 20 percent of goods are actually made here.
And while the number of people working in L.A. apparel manufacturing has declined by nearly half since 1997, sales from the industry have grown over 60 percent.
That’s because Southern California is now home to the creators, whether elegant dressmaker Sue Wong, street wear bad boy Christian Audigier, premium denim line True Religion or surfwear giant Quiksilver. When outlying areas are included, L.A.’s $23 billion in sales rises to $37 billion a year.
And behind them are legions of pattern makers, distributors, warehouse workers and advertising, marketing and sales staff.
For budding designers, small orders are easily handled by L.A.’s manufacturers. The same goes for fast fashion, where waiting for goods to arrive from Asian factories is no option — up-to-the-minute styles need to be in stores yesterday.
Allen Schwartz, a designer who left New York 30 years ago before launching his A.B.S. brand in Los Angeles, says L.A. hasn’t been properly recognized because of “New York horsepower and bully mentality.”
“There’s a fashion culture here that could never exist in New York. L.A. represents cool, hip, happening,” he said.
Not so fast, says New York, home of such giants as Liz Claiborne. Los Angeles may have street smarts, but its $23 billion in sales are just half of New York’s, its fashion calendar is way behind the curve, and most of its design work is for casual wear.
Fashion Week here comes weeks after its equivalents in Europe and New York, meaning that serious buyers head east for their first runway looks and bypass Los Angeles. Rodriguez, for example, shows in New York.
That means L.A. runway shows often include collections by B-level celebrities of dubious design talent that are attended by Hollywood wannabes drawn by a free bar.
This year, L.A. Fashion Week included a line by Robin Antin, founder of burlesque troupe Pussycat Dolls, while porn star Jenna Jameson did a promotion on the sidelines. Established names like Louis Verdad and Kevan Hall stayed away.
“They have a quantum leap to go,” said David Wolfe, creative director of trend forecasters The Doneger Group, which has offices in both New York and L.A. “They have a largely inflated ego that’s not deserved yet.”
Citing the fashion calendar as a major hurdle, Wolfe said Los Angeles fashionistas have an identity crisis.
“They aren’t happy with what they are. What they are is great — moving real merchandise and dressing the world,” he said. “They want to be commercial and cutting edge at the same and there’s no such beast.”
Sensing a void, IDG World Expo, the trade show organizers behind Macworld, is launching “REVEAL Los Angeles,” a series of semi-annual events debuting next March to showcase talent for global buyers while elevating the industry’s stature.
The fashion community needs to better leverage its relationship with Hollywood, Metchek said, and create something organic that doesn’t seek to duplicate New York.
“It can’t be a runway in a tent with a single model on the runway. That’s old news,” Metchek said.
Long-term growth will depend on how successfully this city markets its brands internationally. But in the short term, there’s that respect issue.
“We’re getting the recognition. Whether we get the respect or no,” said Henry Mandell, president of the Christian Audigier companies. “We’ll get grudging respect because we’re successful and, in the end, that’s what counts.”
Reporting by Alexandria Sage; Editing by Mary Milliken and Eddie Evans