Photos by Kevin ScanlonThe much-anticipated renaissance of downtown L.A. is nowhere more evident
than in the Fashion District. Ninety blocks big and encompassing landmark neo-Gothic
and art deco skyscrapers as well as the Flower District, Gallery Row and part
of the Produce District, the Fashion District has never suffered from the ennui
plaguing much of downtown — where the powers that be are finally learning that
9-to-5 office culture does not a city make. And with the loft-building boom currently
rumbling through the city — with adaptive re-use projects under way at 11 historic
Garment District buildings — the Fashion District’s revivification as a real urban
neighborhood with sidewalk cafés and people on the street and art galleries and
shops is now.
Talk about street life: The 20 blocks that are devoted to low-end but extremely
high-volume retail sales are mobbed on weekends. This is where the immigrant underclass
shops, arriving on foot and by bus, buying everything from designer seconds to
overstock to bootleg DVDs and lovebirds, meantime eating sliced mangoes, watermelon
and cucumbers with lime, salt and chile, while the tantalizing smell of sausages
cooking with onions and peppers on sidewalk grills wafts over the crowd. The scene
along the series of alleys and covered passageways and sidewalks — where shops
spill out onto the street and vendors from all nations hawk their wares, some
even climbing ladders in order to maximize visibility over the elbow-to-elbow
hubbub — is vivid, tactile, like an outdoor souk or bazaar.
This isn’t the nice and neat American Way of Shopping with which Angelenos are all so familiar, but it sure is more interesting. There are no chain stores here. Ninety-five percent of retailers are mom-and-pop enterprises employing five or fewer people. Even St. Joseph’s Church has exploited its Fashion District location, having built out the circumference of its property with retail stores and paying its monthly dues into the local business improvement district. But while retail sales are estimated at an impressive $1 billion annually, it’s the $7 billion wholesale industry that booms.“The Intersection,” as it’s called, at Ninth and Los Angeles, has more square footage devoted to the fashion industry than anywhere in the universe — with the huge California Market Center, the largest apparel wholesale mart in the U.S., on one corner, and the Cooper Building, the Streamline Modern Gerry Building, and the New Mart on the other corners. Southern California has lost 30,000 manufacturing jobs, mostly to China, but they’ve been replaced with higher-skilled, better-paying jobs in the wholesale business, and L.A. now has more apparel jobs than New York City. It’s an industry supported by two big design schools — Otis College of Art + Design and the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM), located in the next-door neighborhood of South Park — both of which have classrooms in the district. Interspersed throughout are textile shops catering to clothing designers as well as costume and set designers from Hollywood, Las Vegas, even Broadway.There are several ways to measure the health of a neighborhood, and the Fashion District succeeds by at least three of them: Pedestrian counts are higher than on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade (higher even than on 42nd Street in New York City, the shopping street always held up as an example of success). Developers and investors are betting their money on the Fashion District, and are building 1,000 lofts, flats and live-work spaces here. And ground-floor rents for retail shops approach rents in Beverly Hills.Is the downtown renaissance for real? Pretend you are a tourist and see for yourself — yes, your hometown has a real downtown:
Café (top)

1. Have brunch on the tree-shaded upstairs or downstairs
patios at the Frenchified Angelique Café, a bistro in a triangular
building at the intersection of Spring and Main (840 S. Spring St.). There
are 70 restaurants downtown, ranging from the venerable Paul’s Kitchen,
a Chinese lunch counter across from the Produce District at 1012 S. San Pedro,
to the soon-to-open Tiara Café, 127 E. Ninth St., where Fred Eric (Vida,
Fred 62) is also opening his version of NYC’s Dean & DeLuca, both on the ground
floor of the New Mart.
2. Check out the mob scene along Santee Alley on weekends, where
it’s maybe more fun to visit than to actually shop. For serious shopping,
try “The Intersection” and its 1,200 showrooms the last Friday of the
month, when samples from the most recent collections go on sale from 10 a.m.
to 4 p.m.
3. Visit Michael Levine’s vast textile empire, which sprawls
on both sides of Maple Avenue (917 and 920 South Maple), and where you’re
likely to hear 10 languages. One building houses fabrics for apparel as well
as a humongous button and trim selection, while the building across the street
has upholstery and drapery fabrics, and there’s a 14-story warehouse for set
designers and party planners who want fabric but need, say, 500 yards.
4. Look into a loft at Santee Court, at the corner of Los Angeles
and Seventh, the biggest and most ambitious loft project downtown and possibly
in the U.S. — where 550 for-sale, for-rent lofts (both affordable and market-rate)
are “coming on line” in nine historic buildings arrayed around a city-block-size
courtyard. On the rooftops are a putting green, basketball court, mini driving
range, pool and citrus grove connected by walkways; around the courtyard will
be shops, a food court, bar, coffee house, market, and there’s a Rite Aid
that’s already open for business.
5. Buy some art at Gallery 727, 727 Spring St., or at least
begin your downtown art walk there. James Rojas has turned this venue into
a hothouse for art, poetry, urban design and architecture, and the powerhouse
Latino Urban Forum is based there. Experience “Sole and Soul” August
4-6, a weekend focusing on the nexus between thinking and walking, with free
shoeshines. Visit the 14 galleries on Gallery Row, along Main and Spring from
Second to Ninth, from noon to 9 p.m., the second Thursday of the month.

MAPPING L.A.: Fashion District

LA Weekly