Lonnie Kane 

In a land of sweatshops, Karen Kane Inc. stands out by paying its workers full medical benefits even in hard economic times

Tuesday, Aug 12 2008

Years ago, a dinner-party guest asked Lonnie Kane what he did for a living. Kane replied that he was the president of a women’s-apparel business.

Kevin Scanlon

(Click to enlarge)

click to enlarge KEVIN SCANLON

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“Apparel business?” the stranger pondered, trying to decide what that meant. “Oh,” the man brightened with recognition, “you’re one of those sweatshop operators!”

Kane, 60, bristles at the perception that Karen Kane Inc., the company he and wife Karen founded, is a sweatshop. Their airy, sunlit Vernon factory employs 200 workers who receive full medical benefits, and is one of the region’s unsung sources of jobs and revenue. The couple began their business in 1979 out of their Studio City garage. They both had worked in the juniors clothing market, which they immensely disliked. With Lonnie as the operations man and Karen the designer, the two ventured into the then-new frontier of women’s “contemporary casual” apparel. Karen’s early design of a zebra head, silk-screened by Lonnie onto white-silk crêpe de Chine blouses, was an instant hit, and the company’s never looked back.

The Kanes’ operation has weathered both the collapse of local department stores, such as Orbach’s, I. Magnin and Bullock’s, and the tidal wave of cheap, Chinese-dominated imports. Not to mention that the apparel industry is one of the anti-immigration movement’s favorite piñatas. Like nearly every mid to large apparel maker, Karen Kane Inc. has had to rely upon a certain amount of foreign-produced fabric and assembly of its clothing. By and large, though, it mostly flies a local flag — an increasing rarity in the trade. Lonnie himself is a born-and-bred Angeleno, having attended Fairfax High School and San Fernando Valley State College before it became Cal State Northridge. His fondest memories include seeing the Los Angeles Dodgers, newly imported from Brooklyn, play in the Coliseum during the 1958 season.

“The majority of the public don’t know or care about the apparel industry,” he says stoically, and admits to identifying with the beleaguered garment manufacturer in Save the Tiger.

“One more season — just give me one more season!” he quotes from the film. “I can hear Jack Lemmon still saying that to me!”

Lonnie, who is president of the California Fashion Association, nevertheless is galled by the arms-length treatment he feels his trade receives from L.A.’s city government.

“We support 120,000 jobs in the county,” he says, “but overall, there’s a complete lack of support. Politicians avoid the industry because it isn’t unionized — they don’t want to offend organized labor!”

Today, Kane considers paradise to be the manufacturing enclave of Vernon.

“Vernon is really a utility that calls itself a city,” he says. “If a streetlight is out on the corner where my employees take the bus and I call this morning, they could be out there today. In L.A., I’m not sure what month they’d make it out.”

The massive Karen Kane Inc. complex rises above Vernon’s cookie-cutter concrete tilt-ups like a palace among cell blocks. Lonnie’s office, which overlooks his assembly floor, is filled with baseball memorabilia, including the framed jerseys of Jackie Robinson and Mickey Mantle.

“I got to grow up here when Sandy Koufax was pitching,” he says wistfully. “Those were the moments in life when there were no wars, no hatred and no business decisions. There were no issues in life.”

Lonnie’s hard-nosed realism shows a touch of optimism when it comes to November’s election.

“Americans have eternal hope,” he says, “because we believe it’s going to be better, no matter who’s elected. That’s our mentality — but it gives us the desire to go out and purchase again.”

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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