Byline: Nina Farrell

The Southern California trademark of easy, eclectic style is not lost on Jamaican-born Barbara James, whose new 1,200-square-foot showroom is a testament to the simple life, lived well.
Barbara James & Co., a three-year-old wholesale business dealing in contemporary fashion, recently moved from the CaliforniaMart to a larger, more airy space in the New Mart.
A very open space that is awash with light, the new showroom is a good fit for James’s own personality: grown-up, classy, but not without a sense of enjoyment. The dark cement floors, stark white walls and industrial clothing racks convey the image of an upscale boutique, but the wrought-iron fixtures and vintage mannequins make for an inviting space, just the right canvas for the intriguing designs and uncluttered fashion that have become the Barbara James’s signature.
The blend of simplicity with the right bit of personality is what drives James’s company, from the space in which she works to the way she does business. And her efforts are no more plainly revealed than in the clothing she reps, which ranges from a novelty T-shirt line to a collection of refined, Asian-influenced dresses.
What seems to work well for James is the idea that clothing can be hip without being trendy, sophisticated without being pretentious. The four lines she reps are young contemporary and, according to James, the very essence of what’s being worn on the West Coast, but not necessarily what’s on every retail rack.
Her designs tend to feature simple shapes that are popular, such as knee-length skirts and flood pants. However, they also have a sense of fun through the use of both color and fabrication, with twists like textured fabrics or offsetting a simple cotton top with bright coral or blue. This, James said, is what allows her to offer retailers fashion that’s sought-after, yet subtle and enduring.
“Because I don’t do trendy fashion and because I have a rather broad demographic, ages 21 to 45, I am able to run a well-balanced showroom that covers all aspects of the market,” said James.
Among the lines in James’s showroom is Geisha, a somewhat bohemian collection of tops, pants, dresses and skirts that pairs vintage looks with classic silhouettes. Wholesale prices range from $24 to $80 for a dress. The colors are straightforward pinks and reds on embroidered, beaded fabrics brought in mostly from the European market. For fall, this line concentrates on vintage styling, taking its cue from the Mod tradition with plaids and stripes in both brown and taupe.
James said Geisha does extremely well in stores like Fred Segal, Anthropologie, Bloomingdale’s, Rinaldi, Shauna Stein, Arden B and Rag Factory, a higher-end specialty store with three locations in the Los Angeles area.
James also reps a well-priced novelty collection of sweaters, called Sisters. Mohair, cashmere, silk/cashmere blends mixed with textured accents have earned this designer quite a following, she said. She describes the look of this line as anywhere from sexy, body-hugging shapes in pastels to cardigans you’d see at a Fifties cocktail party, complete with clusters of appliqued flowers. Wholesale prices for the line are in $16 to $55, and it sells to retailers such as M. Frederic, Nordstrom, Fred Segal Santa Monica, Arden B., The White House and U.S. Mail, a Memphis-based store.
Sky by David Park represents the more minimalistic side of the Barbara James & Co. lineup. This contemporary collection of pants, dresses, skirts and tops is “all about shapes, details and darts,” James said. With a sexy, Asian influence and clean fabrications in cotton and cotton blends, Park’s line manages to be modern and appealing without being too provocative.
Retailers such as Nordstrom, Rampage, Fred Segal Santa Monica and Windsor, a chain of 30 stores throughout the Southland, usually purchase large orders of this line, James added, due to its unusually strong statement with so little to work with, such as slimming, sleeveless tops enhanced with bright coral or periwinkle and ruffled hems. This collection is priced $22 to $60.
“I generally target better-end specialty stores with my lines,” James offered. “The product in my showroom is sophisticated and works well at higher price points. This is beneficial to the retailers because they’re taking a higher markup on lines that don’t cost a lot at wholesale.”
James’s showroom rounds out with a line of T-shirts by Klik, which wholesales from $18 to $24. These pieces lean toward novelty, but nonetheless, their hip, subtle colors like burnt earth shades, soft yellows and off-whites, mixed with clean styling and rayon and Lycra spandex blends, allow them to pair extremely well with the other designs she carries. Bloomingdale’s, The White House, Arden B, Nordstrom and San Francisco-based specialty store Villians are among retailers who consistently request this line.
“I really have a nice package of designs in my showroom,” James explained. “All of my lines have their own personalities and they don’t compete, which is why I’m very picky about the lines I bring in.”
Part of the process of developing the look and feel of James’s business is working closely with designers to create clothing everyone feels good about — something she has learned well in the course of her career.
James began in the fashion industry selling dresses for Rampage, and then after two years, moved on to other companies in the wholesale business. Working as an independent rep for Richard Gabor, who originally owned the showroom in the CaliforniaMart, she started developing a strong taste for clothing that was both functional and stylish.
After Gabor announced plans to move to New York, he offered to sell his business to James, who was already running most of its operations. Once in control, she gradually changed the target customer base to a more contemporary market.
Today, the fun sophistication of her lines plus her cool personal style add up to a very successful business. With sales last year — her best year yet — totaling between $4 million and $5 million, it’s no wonder she outgrew her CaliforniaMart location.
“CaliforniaMart was a wonderful place to grow my business. However, it was no longer the right representation for me,” James explained. “I really outgrew the old showroom in both size and feel and was looking for more of an understated space that would give off the right impression.”
The transition was smooth, James added, which is unsurprising considering her relaxed way of doing business.
“I strive to be an honest, ‘no pressure’ person,” she said. “I don’t want my life being driven by this business. That’s taking away the whole point of what I’ve created here. It’s important to me to have fun and to enjoy what I do, because that’s ultimately what comes through in the showroom.”
As for bringing in additional lines to her new space, James said that she’s content working with the ones she has. Anything else might throw off the balance.