To be fair, Los Angeles had more than cheap labor - it had a unique niche in the national market. Its warm climate and casual life-style made it the perfect home for women's swimwear companies like Cole of California and Catalina, and other manufacturers of resort and warm-weather fashion.
By 1990, Los Angeles has more workers employed in the garment industry than any other city in the country.
The downtown Los Angeles Fashion District is an area bordered - roughly - by 7th Street to the north, the 10 Freeway to the south, Main Street to the west and San Pedro Street to the east. In this area are design showrooms, manufacturers, suppliers and sellers of fashion clothing, accessories, and textiles.
You can find high-end fashion at some of the big wholesale markets and sample sales if you really want to score some fancy threads, but one of my favorite experiences is to go shopping on the cheap, at the smaller stores and markets on the traffic-choked streets.
The streets north of Olympic are lined with wholesale fabric stores that also sell retail. Bolts of fabric are displayed right on the sidewalk, and the brilliant colors shine in the hot summer sun.
One of my favorite fabric stores is Ashanti Fabrics, an importer of African crafts and fabrics. Manikins wearing colorful agbadas and kaftans are displayed outside the narrow store, and inside bolts of fabric line the walls. You can buy kente cloth or Dutch cotton batik - also known as "wax". There are also bolts of elaborately cut and brightly colored lace, much prized for making clothes for celebrations and ceremonies.
I've bought "wax" here before - they sell it in pre-cut lengths of six yards, and display it in neatly folded packages on the floor. For $5.99 a yard, I made a curtain to screen an open closet, quick and easy.
There are also shops that sell trims, buttons, and millinery supplies. Here's a display of tassels.
And the most vibrant area to shop is Santee Alley.
This narrow alley runs between Maple Avenue and Santee Street, starting south of Olympic. It's a crowded and chaotic space, crammed with displays and people, where the vendors agressively hawk their wares. In addition to the storefronts, there are individual vendors on the street selling everything from DVDs to bottled water to ice cream to illegal pet turtles. Everything's for sale in Santee Alley.
The stores and stalls that open onto the alley hold the steepest discount items. There are displays of womens' shoes - everything from five-inch platform heels to flip-flops. I sat debating over some sandals, flat-soled and decorated with chrome studs and rhinestones - mine for only $15, all plastic and sure to make my feet sweat! The moment passed and I moved on.
If you're in the market for cheap sunglasses, you can find them here. Counterfeit bags, sexy lingerie, cast metal belt buckles, rolling luggage in fanciful print colors - you got it. This year the bright and intricate designs of Ed Hardy seem to be popular - whether counterfeit or real, you can see Ed Hardy-esque merchandise displayed all along the alley.
People are packed in here, and the flow of the crowd carries you along. You can hear multiple languages and accents. The vendors cry out prices - "Fi' dolla, fi' dolla, fi' dolla!" and there's always music playing somewhere - usually straining the ability of the cheap boom-box speakers. It's a great scene for people-watching. There are families with kids in strollers, and vendors display toys that quack or squeak or yip, adding to the din.
Here's a short video clip that gives you an idea of the scene.
Here a family has bought their little boy a toy gun that blows soap bubbles. They float in the air among the shoppers.
There are a lot of strolling vendors, too, but only those who can carry their wares with them can sell in the alley itself - it's far too narrow for push carts or display stands. We saw a woman selling videos, standing in the middle of the alley, letting the crowd flow around her like river water flowing around a rock. Another guy wore a bright jester's hat and sold pennants for a Mexican futbal team.
Vendors with pushcarts stake out the sidewalks on Maple Avenue, or on the cross streets. Here a well-equipped cart cooks the ubiquitous bacon dogs that downtown Los Angeles is famed - or notroius - for. No county health inspectors around today. There's nothing like a bacon dog after a long day of shopping.
The area is also notorious for other illegal sales, including unregulated pets. Although I've never seen them, there is apparently a flourishing trade in birds and live turtles that is illegal, and frequently these vendors get busted by the community safety officers that patrol this area.
I'm not sure how legal this vendor is. She had two puppies for sale. I asked if I could take their pictures, and she cheerfully agreed. They looked healthy enough, and I was charmed by how cute they were, but since I believe in adopting shelter dogs, I took a pass.
Like I said, you can buy anything here.
A common sight here are the paleteros, or ice-cream push-carts - you see at least three in every block. These hand-pushed coolers sell paletas, Mexican ice-cream bars made with fruit and milk, or frozen chopped fruit. Paletas come in a wonderful assortment of flavors, including more exotic flavors like coconut, mango, and mamey. Some are flavored with chiles and cinnamon, or have chunks of fruit or nuts and seeds frozen in them. The palateros in the garment district also stock some American-style treats like Drumsticks and Strawbery Shortcake bars.
The boxy carts are the size of camping coolers on wheels, and each cart is equipped with a set of bells mounted us under the push handle. They jingle when the cart is in motion, or when the paletero flicks it with his hand to make it sound. The bells are brass and have a bright, loud sound that adds to the music of the street.
Here's a clip showing two paleteros on the corner of Maple and Olympic - the seller to the left has a lot of customers, so the seller in the hat has decided to move on down Olympic to look for new territory.
There's just something about the sound of the bells I really like.
If you don't mind crowds, and you enjoy shopping in a different environment from a typical shopping mall, a trip to L.A.'s garment district is fun and interesting. Bring cash, and watch your belongings, but come to enjoy it.