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A Los Angeles Primer: The Fashion District

Heading south, it always surprises me how quickly downtown Los Angeles gives way to raw industry. The average building height drops precipitously as the average building width expands enormously, into proportions befitting warehouses, factories, cold storage facilities, and “suppliers” of every kind. Such a streetscape may appeal only to the sort of urban photographer inclined toward gray desolation, alienating scale, and smoking loading-dock workers, but it soon presents a sight that, while still dreary in its way, will strike even those who’ve never before set foot in the city as reassuringly familiar: the American Apparel factory, the very seat of the company’s claim to sell garments “sweatshop-free, made in downtown Los Angeles.” I must admit I’ve always appreciated their billboards, which, while seedy, bring a refreshing kind of seediness to different from the ones that permeated it before. More to the point, I’ve also appreciated the versatility and (if it doesn’t sound like too much of an oxymoron) modern timelessness of their clothing, at least when it doesn’t go self-consciously retro. But rarely, anywhere in town, can I bring myself to pay full retail prices for it.

Go down Alameda Street to American Apparel’s mothership, though, and there you can buy at a pleasing discount, thus participating in the same pursuit that brings thousands to the Fashion District each and every day: getting a deal. Despite bordering on hopeless Skid Row, with its scarce goods and services mainly of the charitable variety, the Fashion District itself explodes with commercial energy. On one level, it has established itself as a dizzyingly robust resource for garment-industry professionals: if you fail to find a particular textile, button, or zipper there, it doesn’t — can’t possibly — exist. On another level, if you need suspiciously cheap suits in suspiciously high quantities, seek there and you’ll find, repeatedly: $199 each, one tiny storefront advertises; $129 each, offers the next; two for $99, insists the third. If you need a bootleg, everything bootlegable surely appears somewhere in Santee Alley, a series of narrow blocks where the sellers and the buyers grow even thicker on the ground. This sounds like one of those whispered-about, faintly menacing urban crevices with its own set of laws, and in some sense it does qualify as one. The larger neighborhood has, however, grown wise this very appeal, and above Santee Alley has hung banner after banner announcing that “THE LA FASHION DISTRICT WELCOMES YOU TO SANTEE ALLEY.”

Read the whole thing at KCET Departures.

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