LOS ANGELES — A sea of blue denim greets visitors at the Ozoo Inc. factory, purring with the sound of sewing machines and the bustle of busy sewers. It’s hard to imagine that a decade ago, the same facility was facing a denim drought of sorts, one that led to the company’s consolidation.
“Those were the up-and-down times,” said Rocio Mujica, daughter of Felix Chavez, who owns Ozoo Inc., where she worked at the time.
Mujica credits one denim player with the rebirth of her family business, and that’s Seven for All Mankind, considered one of the key pioneers in the premium denim business that has spawned dozens of competitors, mostly based in the Los Angeles area.
The advent of premium denim lines has been a boon for local sewers, many of whom watched the apparel business eviscerate in the mid-Nineties, as manufacturers sought out cheaper labor in Mexico and Asia. But pricy denim, along with contemporary clothing, has kept some local shops alive. In spite of the roller-coaster ride of the denim world, which often thrives more on buzz than on substance, companies such as Ozoo are back and booming.
Chavez has run Ozoo for 22 years, 12 of which are in the current location in Vernon, where it employs 210 people. A native of Oaxaca, Mexico, Chavez’ life in the States began as a sewer before he opened his own factory with funding from his contacts at Bongo. The juniors’ denim resource and Paris Blues turned into his primary customers.
But when the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994, Paris Blues migrated its manufacturing business south of the border. Then Bongo entered a joint-venture deal with jeansmaker Azteca Production International, leaving Ozoo scrambling for new customers. The company had to close its other 15,000-square-foot facility and lay off 120 employees.
Orders then started trickling in from Lucky Brand Jeans (at the time Lucky Brand Dungarees), a higher-priced line of denim begun in the early Nineties by Bongo founder Gene Montesano and Barry Perlman.
Ozoo’s real break, however, came when Lucky Brand designer Jerome Dahan left the company and partnered with Michael Glasser in 2000 to launch Seven. Dahan asked Chavez to start making samples of his new line, but the new business came at a price.
“When Lucky found out we were working for Seven, they stopped sending us work,” Mujica said. “We thought we were stranded. We had no idea about Seven’s future production needs. It was scary.”
Their partnership, however, proved fortuitous. Seven rang up double-digit sales in its first year and brought in nearly $200 million in 2004.
The turnaround in the quantity of business, which now averages 20,000 to 22,000 units weekly, led Chavez to invest in a second facility again, a 20,000-square-foot space he opened in 2002 located 10 minutes away from Ozoo and employing about 150 people. He had hoped to secure extra business from Seven for the new factory, called Jeans of America, but it didn’t materialize. Save for some bundling and screen-printing business, the 100 sewing machines often sat idle. By December, Dahan and Glasser had left the company and sued their financial partner, L’Koral Industries. They’ve since settled.
“We didn’t know what was happening,” said Mujica, who is now the chief operating officer of Jeans of America. “We knew Seven was a big company and would continue, but we were a little uneasy.”
The concern didn’t last long. Seven’s pace didn’t abate, and Dahan came calling again in early 2003 looking for space for a new line. He and Glasser began using and eventually buying 20 machines for samples and working long hours to launch their line, Citizens of Humanity.
When they moved out of the space in 2004, they took much of their business with them. Business at Jeans of America barely missed a beat, though, when in stepped Paige Premium Denim. With Paige’s focus on fashion denim, Jeans of America had to ramp up from its basics focus, purchasing different machinery.
These days, Mujica said operations are at capacity and sales have climbed 40 percent in the last two years. Jeans of America is churning out 15,000 units a week since Citizens has boosted its orders again.
Mujica is still looking to bring in new companies for the family’s third and newest 13,000-square-foot space.
“Thank god, we’re in a position where our name speaks for itself,” Mujica said. “Gratefully, we’re in a place where we can turn down business.”