At first glance, Maurice "Corky" Newman, who is old enough to collect Social Security, doesn't fit into the ultra-hip apparel business. No matter especially since he is heading one of the largest swimwear manufacturers in the United States.

Last October, the 65-year-old Newman became chairman and chief operating officer of South El Monte-based Sirena Apparel Group Inc., which makes swimsuits under its own label, as well as those of Anne Klein, Liz Claiborne, Hang Ten and others.

Newman took the job after spending more than three years at CaliforniaMart, downtown's primary fashion showcase, where he helped increase the occupancy rate from 67 percent when he took over to 78 percent when he left.

Q: What are the big changes you've seen in L.A.'s apparel industry over the last few decades?

A: I've seen Southern California move into being the largest production area in swimsuits in the United States, which has been a real good trend. I've also seen a lot of California lines of clothing become national and international, such as some of these new lines like (women's dress designer) Mica.

For the first time we've got national and international labels coming out of here. When I first came out here, except for swimsuits, no one had a "designer line" come out of here.

There's a bunch of new manufacturers in California over the last four or five years that have come into national or international prominence, and I think that has been a major push for Southern California. I think this could become a major market for most buyers. It's No. 2 only to New York, and it's done well, but I think it can do better.

Q: What's it like working in a section of the industry which sometimes makes some pretty skimpy clothing?

A: People laughed out here when a designer came out with the topless swimsuit. It just caused a brouhaha, and every store had some. Every runway show had to have a model who walked down in a closed fur coat and flashed the audience when she got to the end of the runway.

I don't think too many of them were sold. However, the following year, the bikini business doubled or tripled as a result of the topless business. A lot of people started to realize they could wear a skimpier suit.

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