Female garment workers in 1932.
Another Los Angeles institution is in line for a makeover, but several people in the Fashion District are wondering if the revamp will bring unintended repercussions.
The area has always been an important center point of the city's commerce. With large displays of clothing, accessories and electronics, the site attracts over a million visitors and yields $10-billion in revenue annually. Street vendors selling food and drinks take up the few spaces not occupied by store owners. A rich blend of smells and sounds work together to create a cultural hub that showcases the city’s diversity. The Fashion District represents an integral part of Los Angeles history and its growing community.
Many of the vendors established their businesses in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the neighborhood trade shifted from manufacturing to retail. After many changes through the decades, some family-owned businesses are finding it difficult to keep up with the escalating rent and loss of foot traffic due to online shopping.
Andy Jethwani, shop owner of Westside Design and a Fashion District veteran of 34 years, is closing his store’s doors for good at the end of the month. Pushed out by higher rent, he noted that much of his business has moved to online outlets. “If they are buying, they are only buying a little bit,” says Jethwani of his customers. “Street business is slow. There’s not too much demand.”
Several revitalization plans have sprung up over the years, and the City Market Project promises the biggest overhaul of the district. The 30-year plan will create a multi-purpose space that will combine a mall-like shopping area with restaurants, entertainment venues, hotels and other additional businesses. The proposed $1-billion project was approved in 2013. Construction began last summer.
The arrival of new lofts and hotels are already affecting the Fashion District. Some shop owners anticipate new changes, and believe that the new buildings will attract larger crowds. They approve of the neighborhood’s resurgence, which they say has made their shops more accessible and brought more revenue into the downtown area.
However, a number of vendors like Jethwani are concerned about losing their stores. Jake Damavani, a menswear store owner for 23 years, feared for the identity of the community. “The whole street is going to be gone...its all going to be retail and restaurants," he says. "They are going to demolish the Fashion District.”
Many employees may lose their jobs should store owners be forced to close. To offset costs, owners have hiked up prices, which has dampened the district’s reputation as a bargain hunter’s paradise.
The Fashion District’s rise began in the 1920s with the erection of the Cooper Building on the corner of Los Angeles and 9th streets. Originally known as the Garment District, the area sprouted warehouses that specialized in everything from men and women’s clothing to accessories. In the 1940s, the Cooper Building became a center point for Los Angeles’ fashion showrooms.
During the post-war boom, the district began shipping its manufactured goods abroad. Consumers flooded the district looking for good deals once it opened to the public as a giant outlet. The family-owned businesses flourished, and regional wholesalers used the opportunity to sell their products to both national and international clients from Latin America and Europe. During the 1970s, the Garment District lost its manufacturing edge and rebranded itself as the Fashion District to reflect its new identity as a retail haven.
Santee Alley, the original spot for wholesalers, is the heart of the Fashion District. Many consumers have been shopping at the Fashion District and Santee Alley for decades. Even after moving away from downtown, many customers return to take advantage of the deals and enjoy the atmosphere. “I always get good deals and unique stuff that other people don’t have, so I like to come out here,” says 27-year-old Ashley Isaac. “I actually live in the Beverly Hills area, but I drive down here because everything is close together, and it’s just easier to shop.”
Other local shoppers may disagree with Isaac. They remember a time when the streets were busier and argue that the surge in pricing has discouraged consumers from returning to Santee Alley. “We used to come here often when we were younger. Not so much anymore,” Gloria Gutierrez, 23, says. “You used to come here just for deals. Now, it’s the same prices as the mall.”
Listen to more from Fashion District shoppers:
Shoppers who once frequented The Alley, as it is commonly referred to, are now limiting their visits to once a month or less. They find the region’s original flavor fading as vendors have started selling generic pieces with higher markups.
Of the customers who regularly shop at The Alley, many say they would rather the area not change. “We are able to get bargains and deals, so once they renovate the prices will go up and it won’t be the same,” says Roxy Roberts, 40, another frequent shopper. “We’ll probably stop coming once the prices go up.”
Other bargain hunters have commended how much cleaner and safer the Fashion District has become. They believe that the changes over the last decade have made the area more approachable. These shoppers eagerly await the City Market Project as a necessary rejuvenation that harkens back to the Fashion District’s glory days in the ’70s and ’80s.
The Fashion District (shaded in pink) consists of 100 blocks of retail and wholesale business owners. Several vacant warehouses and theaters in the northwest corner of the District have recently been renovated into upscale loft-style residential complexes (black markers). The City Market project (shaded in green), will provide modern retail and entertainment for the increasing residential population.
Summer Basera, a 35-year-old mother of three, enjoys coming here now more than ever before. “I grew up here, so the changes around here have really made a difference,” she says. “It makes you feel more comfortable, like you want to come here and bring your family.” Basera remembered, “when I was little, I was afraid to come out here. Now it feels like home.”
The City Market Project aims to supplement the fashion theme of the area with varied amenities. The new hotels would attract and retain tourists. Officials involved with the project believe revenue brought in will far outweigh the drawbacks by displacing vendors. The plan aims to add 210 new hotel rooms and around 945 multiple residential dwellings within a ten-block radius. The construction will also include an educational campus, presumably for a fashion institute.
Head architect for City Market, Douglas Hansen, believes his project is an improvement and will not take away from the region's identity. “Each building is meant to look like a building in the neighborhood,” he says. “We really hope that this would become the heart of the Fashion Week in downtown Los Angeles. It actually has a home in the Fashion District.”
The changes that City Market will bring are meant to reflect the shift in urban planning toward a more lively downtown nightlife. USC Annenberg alumnus Ariana Gomez, now the head of marketing at the Fashion District Business Improvement District (BID), is optimistic about the construction in the area. “The District’s not going to disappear or get smaller,” she says. “It’s not going to get anything but better.”