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California Dreamin: What Will It Take to Revive the Denim Industry in LA?

Despite the number of countries that produce and manufacture denim around the world, from Thailand to Pakistan to Japan to Turkey, there are only a number of true denim meccas. These are the places that denim lovers either long to go, or, if they’re lucky visit on a regular basis in hope of finding inspiration, business or production. These places are rare denim gems, known the world over, discussed and revered across communities. The city of Los Angeles is one of them.

LA is a true casualwear city; the home of skate and surf culture, the center of rock ‘n’ roll and ’80s hair metal and a gene-pool (pardon the pun) of impeccable vintage style. A typical denim shopping trip would include trawling vintage stores in Long Beach, Melrose, Venice and Silverlake, secret rag-houses on the outskirts of downtown, and a never-ending list of iconic stores such as American Rag and Mister Freedom. Not to mention, the famous monthly flea markets attracting buyers from all over Europe and Asia. But, as well as inspiration, there is real industry there, too.

DTLA and Vernon are home to dozens of wash houses, manufacturers and many major design headquarters. It is where the real industry denimheads hang out, creating new designs and samples, working on fits and finishes that could turn into next season’s Houlihan pant, Legion or WM3.

A thriving denim industry has been present for decades, a scene that famously exploded again in the early ’90s when brands like Citizens of Humanity, 7 For All Mankind and J Brand introduced us to the birth of premium denim.

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But this once industrious community has recently been in a state of flux. Industry news stories inform us of the decline of the denim super-power brands and there is constant talk of city taxes and manufacturing restrictions leading to multiple closures all over Vernon. The city is blighted with drought, and money seems to be drying up as fast as the water. Everyone you talk to has a story about struggle, lack of inspiration, frustration or despondency.

However, we all know denimheads. If you work in denim you live and breathe it. And, if you live and breathe it, you simply don’t give up. Among the stories of closures is talk of recovery, buzz about new brands and a return to investment in “Made in the USA” manufacturing. Is there a phoenix rising from the ashes? You bet your back pocket there is.

I couldn’t talk about LA denim without talking to the most noted denim resident in town: Adriano Goldschmied. He started working on his brand A Gold E in partnership with the famed Ron Herman back in 1993.

“At that time LA was still the place for mass production for many big American brands. Who can forget Koos Manufacturing who did massive production for The Gap with a staff of nearly 2,000 workers?” mused Goldschmied. “But in the late ’90s production migrated to more competitive countries in Asia and Central America.”

We’ve all heard that story before and know that this global production shift has ruptured the U.S. denim manufacturing industry almost irreversibly. The decline in U.S. manufacturing and the increase in overseas sourcing has really made a big dent in the amount of denim produced in LA. Between 2005 and 2015, the number of manufacturers in the city decreased by 33 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

George Wilson is an LA denim survivor, but times are tough. He’s been making denim in the city for over 26 years and described a “bustling” industry in the ’90s and early 2000’s. He explained some of the practical issues today’s manufacturers face. “For myself and most of the factories it has become very difficult to cover overhead and turn a profit,” he said. “In those days the average cuts were much bigger and most factories could work on piece work. The operators were paid by the piece so it was much easier to control and calculate the cost and turn a profit. Now, the units are much smaller and inconsistent.”

After huge corporations like The Gap moved into Asia, LA experienced a renegade reaction when the new premium denim lines emerged—building things up a bit. But as with all cycles, now that movement is taking yet another turn.

“We’re seeing the slowdown of that wave, and again, we face a new challenge,” said Goldschmied.

And who are some of the individuals who are going to take that challenge? Troy Streib is a freelance denim maverick, working for a number of brands and manufacturers all over the city. He’s never short of work and having moved back to to the U.S. after nine years in Melbourne, he’s hit the ground running. Why does he think the giants of the early ’90s are beginning to flounder and what can we learn from their mistakes?

“Large growth, celeb co-signs and global distribution have a way of homogenizing the romance right out of the essence of denim jeans. But, they are also very good for the pocketbook,” admitted Streib.

So, with success comes drawbacks. And the ’00s boom led to a great many brands losing the spark and innovation they entered the market with. Wilson feels the “so called premium brands are stale and have been for years,” but can you truly grow a brand without losing its founding essence? And again, there is the issue of smaller, more innovative brands making things interesting, kicking up other problems like limited orders and inconsistency.

Streib described a pretty bleak scene out there when it comes to work, too. “LA’s denim talent pool is still as large, diverse and creative as ever. I often compare it to the film industry, so many aspiring actors, but only a few roles to fill,” he said. The problem is the city is a ghost town compared to the good old days.

The rise of fast fashion, often driven by vertical companies, started its global dominance a few years back and with it, a new type of retail emerged. This led to yet another wave of mass-manufacturing overseas. LA has, by this time, altered its way of working; growing up into a highly sophisticated, artisanal denim center. The U.S. can never truly compete on price and size with China, Bangladesh or neighbors in Mexico. Does that matter? Not according to Streib.

“The big box guys do such a good job of robbing the planets resources to give us a cheap and cheerful product, let’s let them have that,” he quipped. “What we can do here is make product that they will copy, but never get quite right.”

That is what’s making our reality interesting: the people who are left fighting the good fight in LA are doing something that continues to set them aside from the rest.

“In my opinion there are two things that give new brands a competitive advantage and set LA apart from anywhere else in the world: their unorthodox manufacturing methods and of course the washes,” Streib said. “Here in LA you can still find manufacturers that are doing it the old-fashioned way. Creasing pockets with an iron, marking and setting them by hand, every garment marked with chalk lines for placement, the use of shirred sacrificial stitches for sleeve caps and generally techniques that most of the developed manufacturing world would shirk at.”

He added, “This sentiment goes the same for the laundries, there are processes, especially dry processes that can sometimes take 30 minutes per garment in LA laundries. And the clever handwork and touch ups after wash, the laying out of hundreds of pieces to make sure they all look aesthetically congruent… the lamentation and brooding over blue pants is a true thing of beauty to witness. Frankly this is something that a lot of the other major manufacturing capitals don’t make time for, with the exception of course of Japan.”

Erika King has worked at American Rag for over 10 years, five of them heading up the Denim Bar. She feels “Made in America” is becoming increasingly important again.

“We see customers, daily, that specifically ask for denim that is either made in America or made in Japan. Even Italian mills such as Candiani have opened development centers here, showing their growing interest in the states,” she said. “Los Angeles has become the denim capital of the world.” She also adds that her women’s denim business is at its strongest.

So, what’s doing well these days and why? It seems like LA denim has moved away from its more ostentatious past. Gone are the blingy back pockets of the late ’90s, the over-the-top branding and even the more recent jegging.

Denim does seem to be returning to its roots in rigid heritage. If this next resurgence does happen, it’s going to happen in a much quieter, more authentic way. A lot of the brands that are buzzing right now are tapping reworks of a classic jeanswear attitude. For example, Amo denim and its Twist slim, Eve Denim with its vintage inspired raw indigo, all the way to ‘Re-done’ Levi’s.

A store that’s hitting all the sweet spots in its denim buy is new addition to La Brea, Shop Super Street. Run by Lucy Akin, the store also heralds the return to authenticity, stocking Re-Done, Bliss and Mischief, The Great and R13, among others.

“As far as denim goes, I definitely think LA is having a resurgence. We really spear-headed the vintage Levi trend,” said Akin. “With brands like Bliss and Mischief and Re-Done, it made it possible to find the perfect fitting vintage jean for your body. And then… it blew up.”

LA hasn’t led the way in denim design since the early 2000’s and it’s exciting to think the area could once again drive a new movement.

“I think we have influenced the fashion scene heavily for the past couple of years and that spans beyond just denim—when Hedi Slimane was at the helm of Saint Laurent we entered this whole grunge movement that was inspired by LA,” Akin said.

So how can the West Coast really harness its newfound power? There’s a buzz, that’s certain, but with the area’s manufacturing issues, can LA really pull itself from the ashes? What do they need to focus on to make it work? As a manufacturer, Wilson has direct contact with many of the buzz-worthy brands and explains the multiple issues he faces with expectations versus reality.

“It might look cool and awesome on Instagram, but most of the brands are clueless and not in touch with the actual reality of how difficult it is to pay a living wage to employees, keep all of the legal requirements in order—garment license, workers’ comp, liability insurance. Then pay overtime on rush orders and turn a profit,” urged Wilson. “It has become almost impossible.”

“I think that the small-medium scale premium/luxury product is where LA can make its niche,” said Streib. “And those are the brands that thrive here. Brands that prefer exclusivity over saturation, and quality over bottom dollar.”

The problem is, we still have the practical issue of industry. Maybe brands can build a new scene but will LA ever be able to grow its manufacturing back to the glory days of the ‘90s? Especially when we’re celebrating the smaller, niche brands and safeguarding the more artisanal qualities of our depleted factories.

“My short answer is, not in the same way that it was ‘back in the good ole days.’ But I think that if you look at it under the microscope there are many more LA brands (and New York brands made in LA) nowadays that are producing far superior product to the brands of ‘the good ole days’,” said Goldschmeid. “They are just smaller.”

So maybe the question isn’t ‘can we’ maybe it’s ‘should we?’ Maybe, as Streib said, we should now focus on what we do best and that’s premium denim, designer level innovation and uncompromising quality.

Goldschmeid has a plan. “I think that we should open LA to the luxury design brands that are very into denim,” he mused. “I think that LA should find the way to promote denim to the top American designers that unfortunately at the moment do not have the same sensibility in denim as the European ones. LA should be home for all of them, starting from Gucci, Stella, Vêtements and so many others.”

Wilson has his own businesses plan to offer. “There is a fix where it could be a win-win for everyone: things are going in the direction of direct-to-consumer, so if the manufacturers look at it as a partnership with the producers we could make it work,” he said. “I use the analogy of a pie where everyone involved gets a fair slice; the brands turn a larger profit on direct sales. They need to eat some of the margin on the distribution, and wholesale balances it out with profits and spreads it out to everyone that should get a slice. It’s a simple fix but the majority of brands don’t care to look at that.”

With so many smart minds in Los Angles, so much talent and passion, it’s heartbreaking to ponder LA’s current state of denim. Experiencing a buzz that hasn’t occurred since the late ’90s, LA has the capabilities on-hand and has built a niche for itself where quality rules over quantities. The days of The Gap and mass manufacturing may have gone, but what we’re left with is actually a more sustainable, less damaging, better business. One that has become more flexible while maintaining artisanal capabilities. With a future that is becoming more direct-to-consumer and transparent, maybe LA is actually in a better place than most. Maybe this is the struggle before the stability.