Los Angeles fashion scene fuels industry

By Moriah Costa

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The focus on fashion in Los Angeles has led to a strong manufacturing and design community around companies like Guess and Levi’s. (Moriah Costa)

From well-known fashion labels to small designers just starting their business, Los Angeles has a vibrant manufacturing and designing community.

The city is home to the Los Angeles Fashion District, the famous fashion street Rodeo Drive, and apparel manufacturers American Apparel, Guess and Levi’s, among others.

In 2011, apparel manufactured in California was estimated to be worth $6.1 billion of shipments, according to a report from the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. The information was based on data from 2009.

As of October 2012, the same report stated the fashion industry in Los Angeles employed 70, 900 people, down 3.3 percent from the previous year.

For fashion designers Gerry Kelly and Sharron Valk, Los Angeles provides them with the opportunity to create their own small business designing the clothes they love.

Inspired by the desert

San Francisco based denim line Sonas Denim was founded by Gerry Kelly in 2010 after years of seeking a replacement for a pair of patchwork pants. He bought the pants in 2001 from vintage store in San Francisco to wear to the Burning Man festival, a week-long arts and musical festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. Unable to find another pair, a friend of Kelly’s suggested he have them made by a local seamstress.

“My wife and I would sit on our living room floor, placing different patches in different areas, and then I’d bring them over to another person’s house and she’d sew them into blankets and we’d cut the pattern out of blankets,” he said.

Kelly said he started wearing the pants to parties in San Francisco and got a lot of interest in his design. At the same time, his real estate firm went out of business and he thought, why not turn this into a business?

Kelly started working with Skyblue Sewing Manufacturers, the only denim factory in the Bay area, and sold his jeans at local trade shows and house parties.

“They were still very ‘festival,’ they weren’t for everyone,” he said.

It wasn’t until Kelly went to the FOCUS Showcase at the L.A. Fashion Market that his jeans started to receive attention. Despite spending thousands of dollars for a 10-by-10 booth, Kelly didn’t sell one pair of jeans. Instead, a reporter for the California Apparel News wrote an article on his jeans called “Patched Pants.” It was just a story about an Irish guy who wanted to start a denim company, Kelly said.

“And the following week I got a phone call from a guy, back in San Francisco, and this guy calls me up and says ‘my name is Allan Chevalier, you’ve probably never heard of me but back in the ‘70s and ‘80s I had some very successful companies. I specialize in women’s pants. I think you’ve got something going on but it needs to be cleaned up a bit. I’d like to meet you,’ ” Kelly said.

Chevalier, who had worked with fashion designers Fred Segal and Ron Herman in the ‘70s, stayed at Kelly’s house for five days discussing different cuts of jeans, he said.

Two weeks later, Kelly stayed on Chevalier’s couch after there were production difficulties with Skyblue producing his jeans. In four days, they had designed eight different types of jeans and had them produced in Los Angeles.

“Things are starting to really take off,” Kelly said.

He does all of his production in Los Angeles and sells to stores in San Francisco, Los Angeles and online at Sonasdenim.com. Most of his customers are from the San Francisco area, he said.

He said he recently met fashion icon Janice Dickinsen, who modeled a pair of Kelly’s jeans. Other stars that have worn Sonas Denim jeans include Laurie Holden from “The Walking Dead,” Sofia Milos from “CSI: Miami” and Romi Klinger from “The Real World.”

“As much as I hate to say it, (in the fashion business) you have to be in the entertainment business as well, because a lot of trends and a lot of fashion is dictated by Hollywood,” Kelly said.

He said the hardest part of being in the fashion industry is marketing his product.

“You can have the best jeans, the best skirt, the best dress, the best anything in the world, but if nobody knows about it, it’s no good,” he said.

Exotic swimwear

Sharron Valk said there is a good profit margin in making bikinis, but that there is also plenty of competition from other companies. (Moriah Costa)

Sharron Valk started her swimwear and yoga line, Sharrari, after her father suggested she could make a profit from selling bikinis.

“He was thinking of like little string bikinis, selling for like $150 for a top and a bottom. So yeah, there’s a really good margin but there’s a dozen companies that just do that, so it’s not really original stuff. I was more into the design aspect,” she said.

Valk was already designing clubwear for herself and her friends in Colorado, so the transition seemed to make sense. She said she was always looking for fun, shiny fabric that also had a lot of stretch, a problem she continues to face in the swimwear market.

“Very cheap fabrics are only going to stretch so much one way. The higher the content of spandex, the more expensive it is. So not a whole lot of fabrics are made with a lot of spandex content,” Valk said.

Valk said she first came up with the name Sharrari in 2005 but didn’t start the line until 2008. She said it took her awhile to figure out where to go and how to produce her products. After going to Texas and New York City and realizing there wasn’t a market for swimwear there, she moved to Los Angeles in 2010.

“Within a couple weeks I had found my team and everything was really smooth, it was the easiest transition and it just fit. It fit like puzzles just matching together; it was just absolutely perfect,” she said.

She said it’s easy for smaller designers to produce in Los Angeles because manufacturing can be done in the city and doesn’t have to be outsourced to China.

“I feel like L.A. is actually the only one area in the Unites States that can actually produce,” she said.

For the past year, Valk has been developing her swimwear line. Her bikinis are European inspired; small and sexy and define the female body. She said she would go to designer stores in the area and spend 15 minutes showing them her designs and then would send a shipment to them herself. She said sales were good this past year and all of her customers were based in Los Angeles.

Most of her swimwear sales in the future will most likely be in coastal areas, Valk said.

“There’s so many types of lines that I’d love to design, but I think the key point when you’re first starting out is just pick one thing and become super-specialized in that one thing,” she said.

This year she is starting a new line of yoga clothes.

Valk, who is a yoga instructor, said there aren’t a lot of options when it comes to yoga clothes.

“Whenever I wear my samples in the classroom, I get tons of people stopping me, saying hey wow, where did you get those? That’s so cute, I want to order one,” she said.

She said she plans to continue expanding her swimwear to have “a more a futuristic edge to it,” and see where her yoga line takes her.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen but I think it will definitely be big,” Valk said.