Los Angeles is a region better known for Hollywood, but it actually has more manufacturing jobs than any other metro area in the U.S. Of the more than half-million manufacturing jobs in the region, about 50,000 of them are in the garment industry.
Fashion is a big part of LA's identity, and you feel it in the Fashion District downtown. It has changed a lot since the late 1980s, when plain beige towers called California Mart bustled with all things related to the garment industry.
Brian Weitman grew up around the garment industry and remembers Cal Mart's heyday.
"It was first-generation migrant workers working their butts off all day long on a sewing machine or cutting tables, and these buildings were just humming. And there were racks rolling in and out all day long. These freight elevators, you'd have to wait to just load your garments in them to get them into a truck to get them to ship out to a store," Weitman says. "But everyone wanted to be around here because this was the hub. This was the only showroom center in LA."
He says back then, workers could spend all their time here. "It was amazing energy, and also, inside of this building, you could almost like live in there and never leave except for sleep," he says. "They had a barbershop, dry cleaner, 15 different restaurants you could eat in, a dentist."
Weitman owns a company that makes the things that go on the inside of a garment — waistbands, pocket lining, shirt collar lining, dress linings. When you reach into your jeans for your keys and rub your hand against the lining of the pocket — there's a chance Weitman's company made that material.
But times have changed in the fashion industry here in LA. Weitman, a board member of the California Fashion Association, says the Cal Mart building "is probably at 50 percent occupancy."
The fashion industry here has been bleeding jobs for years. A lot of low-end work has moved overseas. Decades ago, you could work here and raise a family — getting paid per garment — even though it was difficult work.
Back in the 1980s, when business was booming, Esperanza Monterrosa came to LA from El Salvador. She raised four kids on income she earned sewing pieces at home. She told NPR last year that her manager would drop off the material to sew along with diapers for her kids so that she wouldn't have to leave the house.
By the mid-'90s, the garment industry was changing, and some big factories closed and sent work overseas. Economists say that when factories go overseas, it forces wages for unskilled work down. While the garment industry has helped keep LA as a manufacturing city for longer than other American cities, economists agree this industry is not the way of the future.
One bright spot here has been high-end denim. A lot of $30 jeans are made in Mexico or China, but designer jeans almost always come from LA. That's because hot trends come and go — and designers can't really send stuff abroad and wait for it to come back. They're still using the talent and expertise here in LA.
They're doing it at places like Blue Creations, a wash house that puts finishing touches on designer jeans.
These are serious finishing touches. Designers send their instructions, and employees here cut those perfect designer rips, and they iron and sand. They load jeans into ozone machines to distress them, or they stuff them into massive dryers with a bunch of golf balls.
"Throw the golf balls in with the jeans, and it tumbles. It softens it up," says Oscar Quintero, whose family runs the wash house. With all those cheaper jeans being made overseas, Quintero deals with some fancy designer stuff. Jeans that cost $200 or $300 come through a wash house with really humble roots.
Quintero's dad, Raul, brought the family to the U.S. from Mexico in the '80s. He worked in this wash house and then bought it in 2004.
"In the beginning, when I take over the company, I [was] doing everything — sales, driving, answer the phone, everything," he says. "I [didn't] have money to bring somebody to help me."
Raul Quintero mortgaged the house to buy the company. The previous owners were selling, he says, because clients wanted to move production to China.
"But in that time, I didn't know," he says. "So maybe if I know what happened, maybe I don't take it, I don't know."
But he took a risk and is still in the game today.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
American Made, that's what we're calling our series this week looking at manufacturing. While there are far fewer manufacturing jobs in the U.S. today, our country is still making stuff. We wanted to meet some of the people who were doing that. Los Angeles is a region better-known for Hollywood. But it actually has more manufacturing jobs than any other metro area in the U.S., more than half a million total. When we heard yesterday from our colleague David Greene, he was high above LA in a helicopter.
DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: I bet we could reach out and touch some of the skyscrapers of downtown LA right now. This is - we are very close to downtown and literally in the shadow of these buildings. There's Staples Center, the major sports arena in Los Angeles. I mean, we just look off to our left, then, and there's a lot of factories.
Now, a lot of those factories we were seeing from that chopper, they make clothing. Fashion, it's always been part of LA's identity. And you certainly feel that when you visit the fashion district downtown.
BRIAN WEITMAN: So the building across the street here was the old epicenter of the garment industry.
GREENE: That's a guy named Brian Weitman. Every time you reach into your jeans for your keys and you rub your hand against the lining of the pocket, there is a chance that Brian's company made that material.
WEITMAN: We supply pocket linings, inner linings, linings, waistbands, all the things that go on the inside of a garment.
GREENE: You're the pocket-liner guy, if I may.
WEITMAN: I'm the pocket-lining guy. I also do inner linings. So it goes inside the collar of your shirts. Plackets, dress linings, I...
GREENE: Brian and I were standing below these beige towers - think total '60s, '70s architecture. It's a complex that's known as the California Mart. And it's a place that was once buzzing.
WEITMAN: It was first-generation migrant workers working their butts off all day long on a sewing machine or cutting tables. And these buildings were just humming. And there were racks rolling in and out all day long. These freight elevators, you'd have to wait to just load your garments in them to get them out to get into a truck to ship out to a store. But everyone wanted to be around here because this was the hub. This was the only showroom center in LA.
GREENE: There's a cool energy in this building.
WEITMAN: It was an amazing energy. And also, inside of this building, you could almost, like, live in there and never leave except for sleep. They had a barbershop, drycleaner, I don't know, 15 different restaurants you could eat in, a dentist. People just spent all their time in this building. It was pretty unbelievable.
GREENE: Now, you keep talking in the past tense.
WEITMAN: Yeah, so today, that building right there - and I'm probably being generous - is probably at 50 percent occupancy.
GREENE: And that tells one side of the story here. The fashion industry in LA has been bleeding jobs for years. A lot of low-end work has moved overseas. And this is impacting lives. My colleague in LA, All Things Considered host Kelly McEvers, has done some reporting on this. And I met her a few blocks away in a different part of the fashion district.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: We're sort of in the part where there's these very plain storefronts. But some of them, behind these steel, corrugated doors that, you know, come down with a big loud chain, are actually garment factories, places where there are tables lined up. There are women sitting at these tables, piecing together garments.
GREENE: And I remember the story that you did last year that aired on our program. I mean, you were actually meeting some of the people who were working behind these doors that we're looking at.
MCEVERS: I met two women, actually - one who had worked in this industry decades ago. She came here from El Salvador. She was able to raise four children on the money that she made doing this work, even though it was difficult work. And I met another woman, who works in the industry now. The first woman, her name's Esperanza Monterrosa. She did this work out of her house a lot of the time. She got paid per piece of garment that she sewed to another piece of garment.
GREENE: Let's listen back to some of your piece from last year, if we can.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
MCEVERS: Esperanza saved up, bought an industrial-sized sewing machine. A manager would drop off material at her house.
ESPERANZA MONTERROSA: (Speaking Spanish).
GILBERT MONTERROSA: She said sometimes, they would deliver the kids' diapers with the material that they would bring to her. They didn't want her leaving the house. For seven days straight, she would work and work and work, piece after piece after piece.
MCEVERS: That's Esperanza's oldest son, Gilbert. He even worked back then, removing lint for 3 cents apiece. By the mid '90s, the garment industry was changing. Some big factories closed and sent work overseas. But still, immigrants kept coming to LA to do the work.
MONTERROSA: (Speaking Spanish).
MCEVERS: Esperanza says that's when the pay and the quality got worse. So did her eyesight. The kids eventually said they would support her if she quit. Gilbert now manages the Genius Bar at an Apple Store. Another son is a welder at SpaceX. The youngest daughter is in college. And the other daughter - well, listen to how this guy describes her.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Cynthia Florez is the daughter of a single mom who worked as a seamstress and a housekeeper, the first in her family to graduate from high school, the first in her family to graduate from college.
MCEVERS: So even though the work for Esperanza Monterrosa was grueling, she was able to raise four kids on her own. Now you can't even do that. Economists say that's because when factories go overseas, it forces wages for unskilled work down. While the garment industry has helped keep LA as a manufacturing city for longer than other American cities, economists agree this industry is not the way of the future.
So it's still dark. It's 6 in the morning.
ELIA REYES: (Speaking Spanish).
MCEVERS: It's early, and Elia Reyes is heading downtown. Elia is a trimeadora. She cuts pieces in garment factories for as low as 8 cents apiece, like almost half what Esperanza was making in the '80s and '90s.
We make it to downtown and drop Elia off at the factory. It looks like just another storefront on a dirty street. We can't go inside. So we wait.
REYES: (Speaking Spanish).
MCEVERS: (Speaking Spanish).
No work today, Elia says. She smiles, shrugs and asks us for a ride to the next factory down the street.
GREENE: So that is from a piece last year from Kelly McEvers, host of All Things Considered, who I'm standing with in downtown LA. And Kelly, that's amazing. I mean, it sounds like a couple of decades ago, you could actually survive and raise a family. But now...
MCEVERS: I mean, Elia Reyes was living in a one-bedroom of the back of a house here in LA and barely getting by - I mean, not enough to send money home, hardly enough to feed herself.
GREENE: So manufacturing in LA is changing, and not always for the better. But there are success stories. Inside many of the buildings we flew over, people are working on high-end denim. That's been a bright spot. A lot of $30 jeans are made in Mexico or China. But designer jeans almost always come from LA. It's because hot trends will come and go. And designers can't really send stuff abroad and wait for it to come back. They're still using the talent and expertise here in LA.
OSCAR QUINTERO: She's distressing all of the edges along the pockets.
GREENE: They're doing it at places like Blue Creations. It's a washhouse that puts finishing touches on designer jeans - serious finishing touches. Designers send their instructions, and employees here cut those perfect designer rips. They iron. They sand. They load jeans into ozone machines to distress them, or they stuff them into massive dryers with a bunch of golf balls.
O. QUINTERO: Throw the golf balls in with the jeans, and it tumbles.
O. QUINTERO: Yeah, it softens it up.
GREENE: How loud is that?
O. QUINTERO: Very loud - yeah, every loud.
GREENE: That's like a million times worse than having just a zipper that's clanging around in the dryer.
O. QUINTERO: Yeah (laughter).
GREENE: That's Oscar Quintero. He and his family run this washhouse. With all those cheaper jeans being made overseas, Oscar is dealing with some seriously fancy designer stuff.
O. QUINTERO: Yeah, yo, check these out. These jeans were made from a chemical from Japan, a special dye...
O. QUINTERO: That's heat sensitive.
GREENE: I don't think I would wear this color pink. I - wait. What are you - you're blowing on the...Whoa. You blew hot air on the legs, and it just changed the color.
O. QUINTERO: Yeah, you go into the sun, and it'll change the color...
O. QUINTERO: To a blue.
GREENE: So who's wearing this stuff?
O. QUINTERO: Kim Kardashian wears some of the jeans that we wash here. Kanye West has been seen. Drake has been seen. Rihanna has been seen - a lot of different artists.
GREENE: And so jeans that cost two, maybe 300 bucks, they are coming through a washhouse that actually has really humble roots. Oscar's dad, Raul, who was also sitting with us, brought the family to the U.S. from Mexico in the 1980s. He worked in this washhouse, and then he bought it in 2004.
RAUL QUINTERO: In the beginning, when I take over the company, I doing everything - sales, driving, answer the phone - everything. I don't have money to bring somebody to help me.
GREENE: And you mortgaged your house - right? - to buy the company.
R. QUINTERO: Yes. I did. I asked to the bank for to lend me some money. So that's how I started.
GREENE: Why was the previous owner selling the company?
R. QUINTERO: Because they know that some of the clients, they want to move the production to China. So that's why they sold the company. But I decided to stay here, and God helped me.
GREENE: That was a big risk.
R. QUINTERO: Yeah. But at that time, I didn't know. So maybe if I know what happening, maybe I don't take it. I don't know.
GREENE: It's amazing. The people he was buying the company from didn't even tell him about all those clients fleeing for China. Here's this ambitious entrepreneur from Mexico who was unaware of that China narrative. He took a risk. And he is still in the game today.
Did you worry about your dad when you were in high school, watching him mortgage your house and take...
O. QUINTERO: Yeah, of course, it's a huge risk. There's a lot of money involved. So I was worried, to be honest. I was really worried (laughter). But I have a lot of faith in my dad. And he's made it possible all these years.
GREENE: And Oscar feels a lot of pride when he's strolling by those loud machines and his dozens of employees working on these fancy jeans, the niche he and his dad have found to keep this company going. Oscar's holding one pair of hot pink jeans.
What do you think personally of this design?
O. QUINTERO: Personally, it's not my taste. But, I mean, there's a market for everything.
O. QUINTERO: I like more of a raw, more - nothing crazy. It's kind of funny. I'm here creating a bunch of different things, but I like the simple stuff.
GREENE: We're meeting LA manufacturers this week, people like Oscar Quintero, in our series, American Made.
WERTHEIMER: That's our colleague David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.