Inside a sunny showroom stuffed with brightly colored blouses, scarves, jackets and dresses, Ernesto Mantilla shuffled layers of purchase orders left by buyers eyeing his latest spring and summer clothing collections.
A brand new retailer setting up a shop in the San Joaquin Valley’s Visalia, Calif. had just dropped $5,000 for tops and scarves. The new retailer, Virgilio Sanchez, had traveled 190 miles from his hometown to visit Los Angeles Market Week, held Jan. 16-20.
For Mantilla and his partner, Rosanne Tritica, the steady stream of store buyers to their Betty Bottom Showroom at the California Market Center was a welcome development given that the last two pandemic years have been anything but easy.
“When Covid hit, we lost $3 million in orders in two weeks,” said Mantilla, who sells to small specialty stores as well as major off-price department stores including TJ Maxx, Ross Dress for Less and Burlington.
While many showrooms in Los Angeles’ Fashion District closed their doors or decided to operate out of home offices, the Betty Bottom Showroom owners stuck it out, arming their 3,000-square-foot space with video cameras, lights and O rings to pivot to a new sales format. Often, Tritica acted as a kind of online QVC host, holding up selected clothing pieces while talking about detailed qualities and wholesale prices. FaceTime meetings and email blasts became more frequent when buyers grew fearful of venturing out. “It has changed the way we do business, and I can’t say it is all bad,” Tritica said.
But the market weeks have been challenging for the California Market Center showrooms inside the large complex that had been under renovation for more than two years. “Access to the building became very difficult,” Mantilla said.
The Betty Bottom Showroom owners are just one example of how the Los Angeles Fashion District has spent the past two years struggling to survive the pandemic. But things are moving forward in the fashion-oriented neighborhood, which was on a roller-coaster ride even before the pandemic because online shoppers and direct-to-consumer websites were nibbling away at the fashion world’s traditional way of selling clothing.
A giant reappears
The Fashion District’s fortunes weren’t helped by the fact that the enormous California Market Center, which decades ago packed nearly 1,000 showrooms into its three 13-story buildings, had been under extensive construction with most of the complex closed. But just in time for Los Angeles Market Week, the building unveiled a major $250 million overhaul.
Highlighting the big reveal was an announcement that Adidas will occupy 107,000 square feet of space on the top two floors of two interconnected buildings for its marketing, sales and design force, becoming the complex’s anchor tenant.
“For over 50 years, CMC has served as a historic cornerstone for L.A.’s most forward-thinking entrepreneurs in the fashion industry,” said Bert Dezzutti, executive vice president of the Western region for Brookfield Properties, which acquired a controlling interest in the complex in 2018. “Now, the new CMC has been reimagined to appeal not just to fashion-focused commerce but also to creatives from the technology, entertainment and media industries.”
Still not officially announced, but widely known among the real estate crowd, is that Forever 21 is expected to be moving its Los Angeles headquarters into the gigantic complex, possibly occupying more than 100,000 square feet, according to various commercial brokers who asked not to be named. Brookfield Properties declined to comment on the deal.
During the first phase of remodeling the 1.8 million square foot complex, the CMC revamped one building where all the fashion showrooms are now housed. Despite being open for more than two years, this structure still only holds no more than 30 fashion and textile showrooms scattered over seven floors. The Ross Dress for Less buying-office headquarters occupies the top three floors.
Opened in 1963, the California Market Center rose up as a massive modern concrete structure in a district populated by mostly historic brick buildings developed in the 1920s. The brutalist-style structure covering one square block loomed over the area like an ugly giant but didn’t repel people in search of space. There was a time when tenants paid key money, or an extra fee, to secure a showroom lease.
But things changed as more showrooms disappeared in the days of e-commerce and digital sales. To give the complex a new look, Brookfield Properties worked with design firm Gensler—the force behind South Korea’s Incheon International Airport, L.A.’s Banc of California soccer stadium and the American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog—to develop a cleaner and sleeker appearance to attract creative types searching for a modern work spot in downtown Los Angeles.
The outside of the building was reclad with floor-to-ceiling energy-efficient windows and attractive plants opened up a front patio populated with tables, chairs and umbrellas. The building is mostly empty and the ground floor is completely vacant, but an Urbanspace food hall with 19 vendors will be coming soon.
Many fashion entrepreneurs are hoping the renovated complex will jumpstart business in the district, which has seen scores of showrooms close and surrounding retailers and restaurants struggle to hang on.
“This area has been very hard hit,” said Lorena Tomb, the founder and chief executive of Urbanlime Real Estate, a company that focuses on urban real estate in Los Angeles. “It is great news to know that 100,000 square feet of office space will be occupied here, bringing more bodies to the area to live, work and play.”
Buyers make an appearance
Across the street from the California Market Center sits The New Mart, a 12-story brick building whose large paned windows lend an artsy studio vibe popular with fashion tenants. For years, the edifice housed several garment manufacturing operations until the building was converted in 1980 to a showroom site.
The New Mart was near capacity before the pandemic. Now the building is only 85 percent occupied with nearly 100 showrooms, said Tom Keefer, the building’s general manager. “The corporate showrooms such as Joe’s Jeans, Hudson Jeans, Lacoste Footwear, Johnny Was and Sanctuary have done better than the sales rep showrooms,” he said.
With more vacant space, the building owners decided to set up more amenities for fashion people, Keefer said. The second floor houses a podcast studio, a photography/videography studio and a large space with private meeting rooms, offices and a presentation area where companies can develop their products.
On the third floor, an event area used by the Designers and Agents trade show, is being revamped now that the show meets there twice annually instead of four times a year. The walls have been taken down to the bare brick and a fashion runway enhanced at the back of the 15,000-square-foot space. It can accommodate up to 500 people for an event. “But the showroom side is the backbone of our business,” Keefer said.
That was seen during L.A. Market Week, with a number of buyers waiting in the lobby for one of The New Mart’s two elevators. Showroom owners were pleased to see a steady flow of retailers looking for new merchandise but still weren’t seeing pre-pandemic numbers. “We’ve had two years of weirdness, but this market surprisingly is more busy than the last two years,” said Rande Cohen, whose Rande Cohen Showroom carries several casual lines including PJ Salvage, Wooden Ships, Oats Cashmere and Old Gringo Boots.
PJ Salvage, a California contemporary brand known for its luxe pajamas and lounge wear, has been on fire as stay-at-home workers shift their clothing styles, Cohen said.
Heather Worth, the retail director for health spa and resort Cal-a-Vie near San Diego, was looking at the PJ Salvage collection for her company’s in-house boutique. She said people have been eager to get back into shape after hibernating at home and away from the office.
They are packing the spa that offers a seven-day stay with meals and spa treatments for more than $10,000. The spa store has been selling mostly activewear and leisurewear. “Our sales are up 25 percent over last year,” the retail director said.
Up another floor at the LK Showroom, store owner Camille DePedrini was checking out several lines for her store that has been in business for 24 years. Sales during the pandemic, she said, have been up and down.
During the first days of the pandemic, she had to close for a few months, and she started selling online for the first time to reach customers. “But we had one of the best Christmases in years,” said DePedrini, whose South Pasadena, Calif., store called Camille specializes in upscale casual.
At this point, her sales are about even with what they were two years ago.
Sales rep Joyce Christensen, who represents the Los Angeles brand Karen Kane, said showrooms started to see an uptick of traffic in October, but store owners still are challenged with a labor shortage that keeps them closer to their boutiques. “This is preventing them from coming to market and leaving their stores unattended,” she said.
At the Cooper Design Space, another major showroom building in the Los Angeles Fashion District, buyers were abundant on some floors and scarce on others. Ginny Wong, who co-owns the Co Op Showroom with Andrea Plsek, had counted on a more robust market until omicron hit.
“We have had steady appointments, but traffic is not what it used to be,” Wong said. “A lot of people are waiting to go to Coterie in New York where everyone breaks their fall lines.”