After decades of empty factories, Los Angeles has regained its status as a hotbed for fashion and footwear design and production, brought on by younger consumers and their preferences for purpose-driven brands.
“Millennials are putting more pressure on brands to be ethical,” said Alexander Zar, who opened his footwear and handbag factory, LaLaLand Productions, in East Los Angeles in 2001 and works with clients such as Diadora, George Esquivel and John Geiger. “The trend is toward localized, environmentally conscious production. People don’t care as much as they used to about price, so long as it’s from the right manufacturer.”
Lifestyle sneaker label Comunity turned to LaLaLand for its production when the brand launched in 2017, partly for its own ethical reasons.
“We wanted to do local production where there’s a depressed or lost manufacturing base and there’s a need; I saw this in our own backyard,” said co-founder Sean Scott, whose office and showroom is based in Downtown’s arts district. Indeed, some small progress is being made in revitalizing the manufacturing economy. Los Angeles County employs 24 percent more workers in the fashion industry compared with New York City, according to a 2019 report by Otis College of Art & Design.
And while the exact number of footwear manufacturers in the state is unclear, estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Footwear Distributors & Retailers of America suggest there could be more than 80 in operation.
The Home Advantage
Aside from the feel-good element, domestic production offers other benefits.
In particular, it gives emerging designers and startup brands a chance to manufacture at a smaller scale and get a more hands-on approach to the process. And local factories can be a one-stop shop for services as well as hard-to-source components.
Jaclyn Jones is a relative newcomer to operating a shoe manufacturing business. The founder of her namesake footwear label bought a Van Nuys shoe factory last year from its former owners, husband- and-wife team Salpy and Kevork Kalaidjian. (She also acquired their Salpy footwear brand.)
Today, the company, renamed Clover & Cobbler, produces shoes for several labels, ranging from vegan to luxury brands.
“On average, we have four to five prospective customers each week,” Jones said. “The majority is from California, as well as an array from across the U.S. We also get a lot of people who make their brand in Mexico and want local distribution.”
Jones said her company offers something that overseas manufacturers can’t. “[Clients] work with us without language or cultural barriers,” she said.
And her facility serves as a full-service hub for designers and other manufacturers. “We buy all of the raw materials and make our insoles from scratch. If you want it 1 millimeter thick with foam or no foam, we make it all in-house.”
Melissah Bridge, founder of the whimsical women’s footwear brand Louise-Bridge, joined the Clover & Cobbler client roster when the factory relaunched under Jones’ helm.
“Clover & Cobbler has made every step of the way, from sampling to production, accessible,” said Bridge. “Making product in the City of Angels is what this brand is most proud of. I believe it is incredibly important to support ethical and sustainable manufacturing close to home.”
Measuring the Costs
But as is the case with many U.S. industries, numerous issues have hampered the full-scale return of localized shoemaking — notably the high cost of salaries relative to Asian markets, plus a shortage of qualified workers.
The cost burden will increase for all industries in L.A. on July 1, when the city- and county- mandated minimum wage rises to $14.25 per hour, from $13.25.
However, L.A. factory owners appear undaunted by the change. “I don’t care that it’s the highest-paid minimum wage and we are reaching $15 in the next six months — that’s fine because California is expensive,” said Zar. “All our employees are way above minimum wage, and we are proud that we employ people with a decent salary.”
Overseas manufacturers, particularly in Asia, pay factory workers significantly less — often below the poverty line in some countries — but Jones said the savings can feel more like a deficit of compassion.
“Labor is more expensive in the U.S., but our goal is to have a happy working factory,” she said. “We don’t want to be like those other countries with people crammed in a space with poor working conditions — all of that shows.”
The Otis College report found that footwear manufacturing saw a 40 percent rise in wages from 2010 to 2017 — the highest increase in the fashion industry — but it remains one of the lowest-paid subsectors. Average salaries in 2017 were just under $40,000. (Apparel manufacturers didn’t fare much better, though, earning around $43,000 annually.)
Low wages are one reason that U.S. workers haven’t migrated back to manufacturing. Another is that shoemaking requires a high level of training and experience that fewer individuals possess.
However, finding a skilled labor force in Los Angeles doesn’t pose as many challenges as in the rest of the country. In 2017, nearly 35,000 artisans were employed in footwear, apparel, leather and specialty manufacturing, according to Otis College.
And factory owners are finding ways to address the issue. For instance, by purchasing her Van Nuys factory, Jones gained an experienced workforce. “The artisans have been working here for 15, 20 and some for 30 years,” she said.
Clover & Cobbler also has creative hiring practices. “We posted an ad, and what we attracted were carpenters or craftsmen applying [their skills] to make wood heels because they are architectural and detailed,” Jones recalled. “We had someone from the movie prop industry, and now he takes that [experience] into shoes. It’s interesting who comes out of the woodwork to be here.”
As they look to grow, L.A. companies are relying on strategic alliances.
“Because we are a partner with the CFDA, we are promoted in the U.S. manufacturing genre, and we get a lot of elite clients from CFDA,” Zar said.
In fact, luxury conglomerate LVMH recently audited his factory to subcontract with his handbag division. “Daily, we refuse customers,” Zar said. “I’m looking to open additional facilities.”