Byline: Katherine Bowers

LOS ANGELES — Hammered by low-price suppliers south of the border and overseas, a handful of textile representatives and jobbers here are taking a page of out Darwin’s book and evolving to serve a growing niche in the marketplace: newcomer contemporary designers.
Dan Sassower, who owns importing firm New West Textiles, said catering to the new crew of startups is part of the game now.
“The giant textile firms are dealing with the junior lines,” said Sassower. “And the smaller reps are going the way of the dodo bird. They’re just disappearing, unless they can reinvent themselves.”
To Sassower, the new generation of contemporary lines — labels doing less than $1 million a year catering primarily to boutiques in Southern California, New York and Chicago — provide a ripe opportunity for reinvention.
“I’ve never seen so many startups as in the last six months,” said Sassower, who sells both to wet-behind-the-ears lines like Chelsea Davis and to relatively established Los Angeles designer Michelle Mason. “With such old-guard [players as] Chorus Line and Carole Little gone, these new companies are jumping into the breach with new and creative styles.
“It’s definitely a growing genre,”
he added.
These new designers — whether locally trained at one of the area design colleges or striking out on their own from a larger manufacturer — need a few things: small minimums, immediate availability and variety.
“I’m so small I don’t plan a season or two ahead. As the orders come in [from retail accounts], I place orders for fabric,” said Julie Park, designer and owner of three-year-old label Miah Y. Despite the small size of her business, Park sells her men’s wear-inspired pieces to some of the areas’ trendiest and most influential stores, including both Fred Segal locations, Curve, Planet Blue and Yellow.
Chelsea Davis Lynch, whose year-old Chelsea Davis line was just picked up by Henri Bendel, said she sourced 100 percent of her fabrics from local representatives. Like other contemporary designers, Lynch said she is willing to pay more for fabrics — goods for her fall line ranged from $8 to $20 per yard — because she likes having the fabric immediately on hand to be sewn up by the local contracting base. She said she’s a fan of vintage prints and would like to work with a local converter, but hasn’t been able to find one that has a minimum she can meet.
“They want [a commitment for] 1,000 to 5,000 yards and that’s way too big for me,” she said.
The day when she can meet a converter’s usual minimum is likely a few years off. Lynch said she expects the line to triple its sales to $300,000 for fiscal 2001.
Rubin Schubert, who owns Ragfinders, a textile jobber operation based here, said he’s seen his business grow 20 percent in the last year from new designers like Lynch and Park.
“[Consumers] are really looking for something different from what’s being fed to them from the [chain] stores,” said Schubert, who carries everything from fur to linen in a 48,000-square-foot warehouse. Ragfinders has a 20-yard minimum, which is among the smaller minimums in the industry and which allows new lines to sample a variety of looks for retailers.
Ragfinders’ sales representative Conne Crebbin estimated that she works with a least one startup each week and often acts as an informal consultant, merchandising trim with fabric selections and giving referrals for cutting, contracting, dyeing or other services. She said she has even partnered with local nonprofit Fashion Business Incubator to connect with local fledgling design talent.
“It’s a growing industry for sure,” commented Barney Volk, vice president of Los Angeles-based jobber B. Black & Son. Volk said he’s seen his business with new lines grow 20 percent from last year, citing Richard Tyler and William B. as two established designers who have sourced from him.
Sassower said he has signed on 15 new lines over the past year, mostly picking up business by word-of-mouth. Though he points out that smaller “boutique contemporary” lines make up only 25 percent of his volume, he conceded “that 25 percent is a nice cushion.” Plus, “you never know which line is the next Laundry or Guess.” He added that he used to sell to designer Monah Li when she produced her own line and hopes to sell to Li now that she heads up design for San Francisco-based retailer Bebe Stores Inc.
Sassower said he has been able to better cater to new lines by carrying a broader range of price points. He used to carry matte jerseys starting at $12 a yard, for instance, but now he carries jersey starting at $8 a yard.
Despite the growth of his client base, Sassower said he has not exactly seen his revenue bloom. But he’s satisfied with holding steady, he said, because he’s seen too many other representatives losing ground.
But whether textile companies seize the opportunity the contemporary designers present, boutique retailers said they aren’t likely to stop looking for the newest niche labels anytime soon.
Gabrielle Zuccaro, owner of the trendy boutique Bleu, said she has added about 50 new lines last year alone.
“I don’t really like department store brands. If [a line is] that established, I just won’t buy it,” she said.