Tuesday, November 10, 2009

My Guide to Los Angeles vol. 1: the Garment District

As my days as an Angeleno are officially numbered, I am starting to get a little wistful about the local things I love but generally take for granted. First on my list, and the topic of today’s post, is L.A.’s Garment District.

In my humble, unchecked opinion, the Garment District is the downtown area roughly bordered by 7th, San Julian, Pico and Los Angeles Streets. Tourists beware: if you read the street banners in the Garment District, they would have you believe it is called the Fashion District. Calling the Garment District “the Fashion District” of the same metropolitan area that includes the Melrose shops and Beverly Hills and so forth is like calling Tijuana “the Cultural Center” of Mexico or calling the armpit “the heart” of the human body. While fashion may be manufactured, bought and sold in the Garment District, there is nothing remotely fashionable about it.

So why would you go to the unfashionable Garment District? To buy lots of cheap stuff with which to make your own fashions, which you can then wear elsewhere. There are hundreds of fabric shops in the Garment District, most of them small and family-owned and catering to resellers. You can find plenty of shops where you can haggle on the price and get things for $1 per yard, but you will still leave feeling like you’ve been had by the nine-year-old granddaughter of the store’s proprietors who conducted the entire sale. Also, you will get home and unfold your fabric and discover it has fade marks or embedded dust or other defects that you didn’t notice in the store. For this reason, I have learned to stick with Michael Levine, a warehouse of a fabric store at the heart of the district. Michael Levine doesn’t sell the cheapest fabric, but it has the largest variety and the highest quality. I’ve never tried haggling at Michael Levine’s but the prices are clearly marked and I’m pretty sure you can’t.

Another GD fave is United Bead. They only sell like ten things at United Bead, but one of them is grosgrain ribbon in a variety of colors that you buy in 50-yard spools for about $5 total. Compare that to the ribbon you get at mainstream craft stores and you’ll see what a deal it is. United Bead recently moved to a larger location that is on the outskirts of the Garment District, but they have their own parking lot which is free for customers.

Which brings me to parking: my favorite place to park in the Garment District is at Moskatel’s. Moskatel’s is now part of the Michael’s chain, but I like that it has refused to gentrify the name. It’s about three times as big as your average suburban Michael’s location and I regularly get lost there. The parking is free for a couple of hours so long as you buy something at Moskatel’s—and if you already bought fabric or craft supplies to start a new project, then surely you can think of something you need at Moskatel’s to finish it. The only downside is that you have to drive on one of the craziest streets in downtown to access the lot—San Julian. I have seen people dealing crack and smoking crack and being crazed on crack and sleeping in tents and sleeping in the street and walking around like zombies in broad daylight on San Julian. It is good to go there if you are feeling like your life is hard, because you will realize it most certainly is not. But, you know, maybe leave the kids at home.

The Garment District is also chock full of shops selling rhinestones and beads and jewelry made of rhinestones and beads, including gaudy tiaras and other wedding / quinceaƱera / drag queens’ ball accoutrements. And for whatever reason, the gaudy tiara will have a price tag of, say, $245 and you will tell the clerk it’s too much and soon you’re talking $100 and just as soon you are talking $12 and she’s offering to throw in a strand of Buddhist prayer beads that in no way go with the tiara. It is artificial markup at its finest.

Finally, one cannot mention the Garment District without speaking of Santee Alley, which truly feels like a back alley—in a Third World country, that is. You would specifically go to Santee Alley if you were in the market for any of the following:
*stripper shoes
* “designer” handbags, watches, athletic jerseys, luggage, wallets and
sunglasses of questionable authenticity at low prices
* DVDs of American movies in Chinese packaging
* contact lenses that make you look like you have cat eyes
* live tree frogs in little plastic habitat containers
* cheap clothing made out of the same cheap fabric you saw a few blocks
* booty-licious mannequins
* bubble machines
* really, really, really cheap jewelry
* souvenir t-shirts for non-L.A. locations

I don’t know why this particular menagerie of goods is available in Santee Alley, but it is—in every single store! If you venture into Santee Alley, be sure to bring your best bargaining voice but leave all valuables, personal space requirements and sensitivity to body odors at home.

One of my fondest L.A. memories is from a few years ago, when a group of about 15 friends had a Saturday Morning Santee Alley Scavenger Hunt. We split up into several teams and each had a paltry amount (like $10) with which to find and buy something in predetermined categories for the entire team. It was a mad dash, and at the end we reconvened on a street corner to compare our loot. A few of the teams got overly ambitious with their bargaining and were able to buy extra stuff, so we held a good old fashioned crap shoot to determine who took it home. As it turns out, a bunch of girls rolling dice on the sidewalk and screaming attracts quite a crowd downtown, and soon half the Alley was gathered round, choosing sides and commenting on who got the best stuff. Good times.

So, unfashionable Garment District, I will miss you dearly. I know every major city has its area zoned for the selling of cheap wares, but none of them have your selection of wholesale-priced fabric and gaudy tiaras. Having never been a beauty queen, I don’t think I would have ever owned a tiara were it not for you (much less three).


  1. You KNOW I love Michael Levines. I am envisioning a trip there ... perhaps this month.

  2. If your new novel is set in LA, you have GOT to plagiarize this post and make a chapter out of it. I just love your writing.