I Love L.A.

Is L.A. the Next Nucleus of US Fashion?

The city’s extraordinary manufacturing might is the perfect foundation upon which to rebuild its force in global fashion. Here's why.

Los Angeles is enjoying its moment on the fashion stage, and the city is quickly gaining traction as the USA’s next emerging fashion destination. Following NJAL’s recent expansion into the US and last year's collaborative workshop with the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) in Los Angeles, here NJAL outlines the future of LA as the next nucleus of American fashion and manufacturing, and why its ready to redefine the tectonic shifts in global fashion topography.

Fashion is the most under-appreciated industry in L.A., despite the fact it is a field with global reach and potential. With a bourgeoning arts scene, a powerhouse of retail momentum and a GDP of more than $825 billion, it's a growing force in the global fashion network. Los Angeles is shedding its misconceptions, long stained by vapid stereotypes and stark dichotomies of glitz and glamour, a superficial style, its “special light”, and #raw #vegan #everything. It’s become ripe ground for real creative action in today’s economic reality, and its newfound pop cultural clout means young creatives are scrambling out of their overpriced NYC, London and Paris enclaves to enjoy LA’s cultural diversity and relative affordability.

The art market industrialists have steadily trickled into L.A. in recent years, with many N.Y.C. galleries opening up LA outposts to capitalise on both an affluent audience, as well as the city’s unique mix of popular culture and subculture that’s attracting creative classes to live and work there. Now it seems, the fashion world is finally set to follow and industry impresarios from Tom Ford, and Burberry, to Louis Vuitton have all decamped runway showcases to the L.A. region this year alone. “What is cooler than the lifestyle that we are exporting?” questions Josh Willis, Creative Director of NJAL's Article N° and SECOND/LAYER, who refuse to shy away from an authentic connection to Los Angeles. For Jessica Kelley of LA-based jewellery brand Cast & Combed, it's an even deeper connection to L.A. that affects the aesthetic outcome of her finished pieces, "some of the main elements of my jewellery is a resin that's most often used in surfboard applications and you can't get more Californian than that!"

While L.A. provides no shortage of aesthetic inspiration, it's certainly interesting to ponder whether the climax of the city's fashion heat will actually be beneficial to its wider creative eco system. Kelley certainly seems to think so, and underscores that "the more talent L.A. attracts, and the more talent that is here means the more everyone will raise their game." Clearly, L.A.’s renewed cachet of “coolness” is infectious, and even distinctly European designers such as Bernhard Willhelm and Hedi Slimane choose to live there full-time. There’s no doubt that Los Angeles is the place to be and be seen. 

Fashion has a firm fixation with L.A., and NJAL is the CFDA’s anointed catalyst to find out how this energy can be propelled, and directed efficiently to grow both its creative eco-system, at the very roots of design and manufacturing, and to consider how LA’s buzz can be sustained to create an infrastructure that readily supports and serves its talent. It’s no secret that L.A.’s multiplex of fashion weeks get little to no buzz, and are openly criticised for their collective disorder. If you simply Google "L.A. Fashion Week", you'll come up with at least half a dozen sites announcing past or current involvement in the event. "Nobody's figured it out," says Ilse Metchek, president of the California Fashion Association. Instead of detangling the cosmetic side of “showcasing” fashion, NJAL partnered with the CFDA to consider how LA’s foundations in fashion, which remain rooted in the manufacturing sector might be able to be strategised for further growth. For a detailed report of #NJALinLA: A Focus on Manufacturing with the CFDA, read here

In a logistical sense, the city is America’s largest manufacturing centre, employing more than half a million manufacturing workers, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics. L.A. leads the race for becoming the next leading fashion capital as indicated by its economic strengths, with a total of $48B in apparel imports and $6.4B flowing towards local workers, and the city currently ranks at number six in the world from an economic standpoint. Its ports are accessible to Asia, so it’s a totally sensical partner and distribution hub foreign-made goods. As such, there are sustainable reasons for the industry to provide a platform where fashion designers can become the essential link between the manufacturing district of Downtown L.A. and the entertainment industry of L.A.’s wider regions, and that was exactly NJAL’s mission for its mind-mapping session with designers at Chrome Hearts’ showroom in West Hollywood.

While L.A. is proud of its position as manufacturing magnate, there’s a veil of anonymity surrounding LA’s fast-fashion underbelly that deters many designers for producing locally. Josh Willis attributes it to quality, and this point was certainly echoed by CFDA members at NJAL’s L.A. workshop in 2015. Willis tells us that, “The level of expectation [when it comes to quality] from designers/brands producing in LA over the past 20/30 years has been very low and that affects the quality of production.” It seems that both Willis, and similarly levelled designers find it difficult finding factories to understand a certain level of quality and their expectations. “When we approach a vendor, we start by talking about quality and the smallest of details first that make our brand what it is, before we even mention price,” adds Willis.

Beyond L.A.’s hip zeal, there are many benefits for manufacturers and retailers to set up West. As of August last year, Los Angeles County employed 131,800 people working in apparel manufacturing, textiles mills, clothing and accessories stores, as well as the wholesale business for apparel and piece goods. It would seem there’s tremendous value to operating a fashion company in Los Angeles, and such attractive financial draws are clearly seducing both mass market and luxury retailers. However, in its more opaque niches and corners, L.A.’s manufacturing industry is made up of undocumented workers, and Asian and Latino immigrants, making it difficult to organise them for lobby management and for fair pay to be regulated. Yet, strict immigration legalisation also makes it difficult to even hire the plethora of skilled workers available in Los Angeles, many of which are undocumented immigrants, thus immigration reform is intrinsic in sustaining L.A.’s growth in manufacturing and domestic production in general. Despite the fact that every garment manufacturer has to register with the state, meet federal safety and health regulations as well as pay workers’ compensation benefits, these rules are too often loosely interpreted, contributing to the lack of “quality”, which L.A.’s growing number of high-end designers require. In fact, a 2012 US Department of Labour report confirmed minimum wage, overtime, and other violations in 93% of the 1,500 garment factories it inspected.

For certain brands such as Reformation, a slew of manufacturing headaches forced its founder Yael Aflalo to reinvent the wheel for her business. In an interview with The New York Times, Afalo recounts her struggle to figure out where in L.A. she could make her clothes with the sort of the sustainable materials she wanted to use. “I was constantly fighting with the factory,” she said. "You didn’t do it right, it’s late, give me back 20 percent.’ And then it was a feeling of like: I don’t want to fight with these people anymore. I want to control how our clothes are made.” Reformation’s solution was opening their own factory with their own workers, which provided the flexibility for business and brand to develop. Reformation has also become iconic for incorporating sustainable practices throughout their supply chain to make beautiful styles at a fraction of the environmental impact generated by most fashion brands. From their factory’s heat-reflecting roof and use of renewable energy, to the recycled hangers in their stores, and 100% recycled packaging for every order shipped—sustainability is at the core to Afalo’s business at every level.

Unfortunately, such utopian solutions are not readily available to young designers with sustainable visions, but they need to be if L.A.’s manufacturing centre wants to address the contemporary needs of local designers. “As a designer, it’s very important for me to have direct access to the technicians that are working on each step of the process,” says Misa Miyagawa who strives to produce Botanica Workshop’s sustainable intimates locally. For Misa, and many other emerging designers, they choose to live and work in L.A. because it’s a strong connection to the city that goes deeper than simply producing clothes. “It’s about working with the local community and striving to create commerce in L.A. We are able to work with our Latino community and share in the creation of something new and exciting. Our venders are not only business associates but they are our friends,” adds Josh Willis. In order to ensure that every design can be sourced, cut, sewn and finished in L.A. remains a difficult feat for younger brands, despite constant development. However, for Misa the greatest thing about living in L.A. inside these limitations, “has been meeting so many inspiring independent creators, who are often willing to share resources and collaborate so that our community can grow and thrive.” 

As attention turns to redefining Los Angeles’ place on the fashion axis, along with the current nexus of climate change policy, land use planning and public transit investments in Los Angeles in particular, it’s a pivotal moment to not just carve out L.A.’s fashion cache but establish an internationally relevant model for urban manufacturing that generates jobs, reduces greenhouse emissions and stimulates creativity with adequate support and funding across the arts, for more sustainable and diverse urban communities. NJAL is now in LA, ready to taken action, and support its design talent, as they remain the most important agents of change in this field to solidify Los Angeles’ status as a creative capital.