L.A. FASHION WEEK: LOOKING FOR A MAJOR PROMOTIONAL PUSH
Byline: Rose Apodaca Jones
LOS ANGELES — As Fashion Week gets set to start here this Friday, the status of the market is once again the talk of the town.
At issue is whether the city should put on a show — from the showrooms to the runways — worthy of an industry that ranks among the top employers in the state and receives worldwide attention as a trendsetting force.
There’s more to fashion here than the Hollywood red carpet, say critics, who believe not enough is being done to promote the homegrown industry and energize Los Angeles Fashion Week.
Most don’t expect to turn this city into a destination that can rival weeks in New York or Europe. But they shared strong opinions that something needs to happen to attract international buyers and media.
“California needs a better marketing job,” observed industry vet Sandy Richman, a principal of Directives West, a buying office in the CaliforniaMart. “We need more promotion, not on a national, but international, level. The awareness of what’s happening on the West Coast, besides Hollywood, is lower than it should be. If you go back some 15 years, it was phenomenal.”
Back then, magazines, their advertisers and the CaliforniaMart backed events that brought buzz and enormous turnouts to parts of downtown, in warehouses and historic theaters, most of which had never been used for such events.
When the state economy dipped in the late Eighties, the party came to a crashing halt.
“Everyone’s always relied on the CaliforniaMart, but it’s just one entity,” said John Cherpas, who designs a signature men’s wear line as well as the contemporary Josephine Loka line and women’s denim collection Fever with partner Kellie Delkeskamp. “[Fashion is] among the largest industries in L.A. Yet the city does nothing to promote the art of it. You go to New York and the city and corporations are behind it.”
The pair are among a mini movement of young designers hoping to keep buyers, stylists, media and fans busy every evening over this five-day market with runway shows staged throughout downtown and Hollywood (see calendar, page 10).
The shows first began happening three years ago in nightclubs and makeshift locations when a collective of designing friends, among them Cherpas and Delkeskamp, formed the Coalition of Los Angeles Designers, also known as CLAD, to provide support to one another and demonstrate there are more than mass-market monoliths in Los Angeles.
It was during a CLAD event last year at a new subway station here that Imitation of Christ made its debut.
Despite the group’s sunny enthusiasm to generate attention, it has limped through seasons because its members are stretched thin enough in running their own fledgling firms. Many original members now present their own shows. Still, the group is managing a collective presentation with Monah Li, Lisa B., Belly and other designers this Saturday night.
First CLAD president Cynthia Vincent believes the group has brought about a sense of cohesiveness, albeit on a small scale. But, she conceded, the cause requires full-time attention.
Vincent, who’s five-year-old line took CaliforniaMart Rising Star honors in 1998, has contacted both the New Mart and CaliforniaMart, the mayor’s office and those individuals in government and the public at large who pop up in the media every few months declaring they will be the ones to lead the charge.
“There are definitely people who want to help, but I don’t think there’s a unified voice at this point. They really need to want to do this. The potential is tremendous,” said Vincent, who, besides running her label opened Aero & Co. last year with a partner. Aero is a boutique in bohemian Los Feliz selling new, edgy lines, many locally based.
The Mart, she pointed out, is responsible to its tenants. But the tower that defines downtown’s fashion district could bode well by reviving its role in the fashion community, she added.
“It’s very indicative of the city. We’re spread out geographically, so we’re spread out organizationally. Everyone says ‘How can we help?’ But there’s no one to glue the pieces together.”
Before the Nineties, the CalMart was the glue, noted Sheri Mobley of Mobley Marketing Communications Inc., a local industry regular since 1978 who worked stints in retail and manufacturing before shifting to public relations and marketing a decade ago.
“They had money. They had clout. They corralled everyone into one building and they took on the job to promote California fashion,” she said.
But like other marts around the country, the CaliforniaMart has had problems of its own. Tenancy dwindled during the Nineties, adding to financial troubles, and many believed management became out of touch with tenant and industry needs.
The struggles bolstered occupancy levels across the street at the smaller New Mart.
But a change in the business model also contributed.
“The whole idea of showrooms in big buildings doesn’t happen anymore. We’ve seen it in Atlanta, Dallas. The marts have fewer people, less of a budget. The business changed, and our industry didn’t replace who was going to lead. Things are going, but without focus,” added Mobley.
“It’s not going to go back to the good ole days, the days before the retail consolidation,” maintained Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Association. “No longer do buying offices or showrooms write the kind of paper they did then.”
But Metchek is quick to add that buyers still find the downtown marts, which now includes the slowly reviving Cooper Building, necessary.
“The reason the buyers come here is to see what’s new, what’s next. You can have less people, but it can be successful. You can no longer rate market success by the numbers who attend. This is a market that takes place 52 weeks a year — not a week at a time.”
Amii English has depended on the downtown showroom circuit to stock her contemporary Laguna Beach boutique, The Little Bohemian, for the past eight years. When it comes to Market Week, she said: “I try to avoid it. I’m not much for the crowds.”
What’s more, a growing number of firms are willing to visit her. “It’s so convenient for me not to go,” she said.
But there are many buyers who continue to benefit from market week and the showroom model.
“I end up spending a lot of dollars [during Market Week],” said Gabrielle Zuccaro, owner of the local boutique Blue. “Designers & Agents has been a great help. I always add more to my buys.”
Designers & Agents in the New Mart and ENK in the CalMart are two niche shows credited with kindling recent market interest.
And in the last two years, Zuccaro has noticed that rep appointments are being being booked faster and the fashion shows have improved.
“We used to have the worst shows. They’re getting a lot stronger. There’s hope,” she said.
“It’s still important to write with the showrooms. We have a lot of good relationships with our Los Angeles reps. We’re loyal to them,” shared Chanita Harris, who, as buyer and general manager, has shopped the marts over the last dozen years for Backseat Betty in San Francisco and its newer stores, Sybil and Sybil East.
While Harris believes the last two markets have been slow for must-have product — a problem that has affected orders everywhere — she picked up “a lot of new lines at D&A and ENK. The fashion shows are going to be better this time around, too. It seems like Karen’s really trying to make an effort.”
She refers to Karen Mamont, the Mart’s colorful new executive marketing director, promoted in August after five years in marketing, trade-show producing and leasing at the building.
Now, under new ownership and restructured management, the 1.9 million square feet of rentable space is at 82 percent occupancy, according to Mamont.
In her short tenure, she has contracted out a revamping of the marketing and advertising campaign and the Web site, set to launch next year. The site is one step in expanding awareness of the market beyond the region, she said.
She is aggressively pursuing costume designers to place Made-in-California fashions in TV and films.
Mamont’s also hoping that the first step in a new era at the Mart starts Friday evening with the opening-night party of the Look Show, another niche exhibition during market slated to feature nonmart tenants such as Tommy Hilfiger and edgy youth lines Private Circle, Lip Service, Sugar, EC Star and others in the second-floor mezzanine.
The Friday party is a Lollapalooza-styled bash on the roof of downtown’s L.A. Athletic Club, featuring performance art, a rockabilly-goth band and techno deejays until 4 a.m., following a contemporary fashion show in the Mart lobby.
Part of the second-floor mezzanine has also been extended to seven designers under the auspices of the Fashion Business Incubator. It’s significant because FBI also keeps an address at the New Mart, and both buildings have acted more like rivals than neighbors.
FBI co-founder Frances Harder calls the link “a great leap of faith” for CalMart. “I think it shows the vibe is really changing here. But we need to have more buzz. Why aren’t we doing fashion shows all day long? The [city] or some entity should be sponsoring some kind of formal fashion week and happenings.”
“I have so many plans,” Mamont said, noting that one of them is to unite the forces outside the building. “The CaliforniaMart is the granddaddy of the fashion industry in L.A., and these are all our children.”
But don’t wait for the Mart or the city to pay for it. City officials did not return phone calls for this story, but sources said there are no plans under way to promote the local fashion industry. Metchek said, “Look at New York: No one building pays for it. That’s not to say we should use New York as a model. In terms of leading: Yes, the Mart should get involved. They are marketing themselves as the focal point of the industry. But they don’t have to pay for it.”
In fact, not everyone believes that the CalMart or the city needs to take the lead, although their participation can be mutually beneficial. The inevitable question, of course, is who is going to pay for it?
Corporate sponsorships, a regular part of New York Fashion Week now, are only one piece of the puzzle, most concur.
Nokia and Ford have stepped in to cosponsor Gen Art, and Samsung is assisting Michelle Mason with her show at Union Station Saturday night.
Mobley and Megan Griffith, a show producer who founded the Look Show as a trade show in 1996 and is currently producing the West Coast installation of Gen Art at the Shrine Expo Monday, believe it has to become a separate business.
“It can’t be an association or a building, which has to report to its members,” Griffith.
Griffith, Mobley and Pam Roberts, who headed press week at the CalMart during the Eighties, are developing a plan to create such a business.
“A center needs to be created — we can use the CFDA and other sources as models, including the old California Fashion Creators group, which was started by Anne Cole’s father, Fred Cole, after World War I,” said Mobley. “There’s a lot of good role models and lessons learned from the past. I almost feel like we have to do this for everybody.”
D&A co-founder Barbara Kramer isn’t so sure Los Angeles “should or could become the Seventh Avenue experience. But the more momentum we can build in Los Angeles — in downtown — the better.”
The New York-based niche trade show arrived five years ago at the New Mart with 12 companies. Now, more than 100 brands, from Daryl K to two of FBI’s fledgling designers, occupy the entire third floor. It’s become a first stop among many buyers, media and stylists.
“People really are recognizing L.A. as a force,” Kramer said. “There’s really a fashion scene of its own. And people are doing more business.”
Julie Zamaryonov, owner of NYSE in Los Angeles, admitted the local market “was always an afterthought.” But bland offerings at other markets have left her with plenty of dollars to spend.
“This one I will be depending on more. Because of a lack of [must-haves], I’ve been holding out. There’s a definite buzz in the last two years regarding the talent. It would be wonderful if there was a fashion week that includes major fashion shows and other activities. The bottom line is, it creates excitement.”