More stories from our 2012 Fashion Issue on dressing ethically: *West Hollywood's New Fur Ban *Does L.A. Still Have Sweatshops? *Yael Aflalo's Reformation Makes Vintage Cool *Santa Monica's Main Street, a Green Fashion Hub *Three L.A. Designers Who Do Eco-Fashion Right
"Sweatshops," says Ilse Metchek with obvious distaste. "That word. You don't even hear it anymore."
President of the California Fashion Association, Metchek is a shrewd and charming woman in her 70s, known in garment-industry circles as "the class historian." Holding court at a manufacturers luncheon in an upper floor room at the California Market Center (aka "the CMC") building downtown, she greets everyone by name and with a kiss on the cheek.
Sweatshops are fashion's dirty little secret. For years they supplied the majority of the clothes being manufactured worldwide. But the answer to whether they still exist in Los Angeles depends on whom you ask.
And to ask in a room full of manufacturers is to insult the bride at her own wedding: uncomfortable, vaguely repulsed expressions all around. In fact, the California Fashion Association started 17 years ago because of sweatshops. Specifically, the El Monte crisis of 1995.
El Monte was a horror: 72 Thai garment workers imprisoned in a suburban apartment complex, forced to sew clothes for American department stores. They slept on the floor and were deprived of food, toilet paper and any days off.
The federal and state governments came down on Los Angeles as the sweatshop capital of the world. Mayor Richard Riordan was "very, very unhappy."
The CMC building, with its hundreds of wholesaler showrooms and offices, is the beating heart of L.A.'s fashion biz, and Metchek at the time was its manager. Lacking an industry group, she and 50 or so manufacturers formed an association.
Laborers testified in Sacramento in support of groundbreaking legislation — Assembly Bill 633, the sweatshop reform bill. They told lawmakers about working for less than $2 an hour, 13 hours a day. About never being able to buy the clothes they made with their own hands.
AB 633 was signed into law in 1999, and with it, manufacturers became liable for any labor violations by their contractors.
"We all fought this like crazy," Metchek says. "Because in essence, a manufacturer became responsible for workers he or she did not hire, and is not in contact with."
While manufacturers hated the new law, she says, it turned out to be a blessing.
It is a tale of a nefarious industry come clean, and Metchek tells it well. "They've looked under every rock," she says. "But there hasn't been a child-labor issue. There's never been a death. Maybe somebody cut off a top of a finger. There have been many, many issues of the workforce not being paid, but not in the registered community."
Anyone who wants to operate a garment manufacturing business in Los Angeles is required to register with the state Office of the Labor Commissioner.
"Now, do we have a whole slew of people who aren't registered?" Metchek asks. "Absolutely. So you have two worlds."
In some ways, the garment business is like the entertainment business. There are the movies, and there's porn — a billion-dollar industry using the same production methods, and occasionally the same people. "But they have done a fabulous job of separating it from mainstream entertainment," Metchek says. "And that's what we have. We have a huge underground economy."
Paris, Milan and New York may have cornered the catwalk experience, but Los Angeles dominates the business side of American fashion. Downtown's Fashion District is made up of roughly 3,000 businesses doing $8 billion in economic activity every year. These are mostly wholesalers showing clothing to retail buyers — everybody from Macy's to Forever 21 to the one-of-a-kind boutiques in Portland, Ore. Finished garments pour in from overseas through the Port of L.A., get marketed downtown and are shipped out to stores across North America.
"The clothing's being made overseas, but the talent on the design and logistics side, and the ability to market it to retailers, that's all here," says Kent Smith, executive director of the L.A. Fashion District. "The cutting and sewing stuff is almost gone from our district."
When cutting and sewing happens in Los Angeles, it is for clothes that are extremely sensitive to fashion changes — women's and juniors apparel. Order sizes are smaller. Turnaround is quicker. It can take four months to get a new item from China. Staying local shortens production time to a few weeks. Also, plenty of denim dyeing and washing takes place in what Smith calls "the outlying areas": Vernon, Industry, the Inland Empire, Carson. Rents in these places are cheaper. Buildings have higher ceilings and sprawling floor space, the better to accommodate the large, high-tech machinery used in modern apparel manufacturing.