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.

Now what we are seeing is that people want to be a little more covered, they want a little more construction in their suits. But if I look at swimsuits from when I first started in the industry, they haven't changed that much in terms of what you wear on the beach. There's the bikini, and there are six or seven one-piece constructions.

Q: What's the biggest challenge facing the swimsuit business?

A: It's become more of an off-price business. The continual breaking of price earlier and earlier has turned it into a promotional business, so the profitability to the manufacturer and the stores has suffered. I don't know if that can ever be reversed.

Q: What other challenges are apparel companies in Los Angeles facing?

A: From a manufacturer's standpoint, the minimum wage in California being higher than the rest of the country is a challenge. That's increased our prices this year enormously. And we don't know what the effect will be at the retailer. It also puts us at an unfair situation against manufacturers that don't manufacture in California. You're just forcing people to go into business offshore.

Q: But your company has factories in Mexico as well.

A: The higher minimum wage has forced us to increase our operation over there. We have not increased the size of our operation in El Monte. We may be forced to move more (to Mexico).

This last increase over the rest of the country in minimum wage is going to make a lot of manufacturers look elsewhere. You go to the average consumer and tell them they can get something of the same quality for 25 percent or 30 percent less, but it is made elsewhere. They don't care. They want it for less.

The consumer is very smart today. She's very educated on fabrics and quality of workmanship, and, all things being equal, she's also very concerned about what she's paying in price.

Q: How did you get into the apparel industry?

A: My father had a millinery business, and a men's pant business. By the time I was old enough (to get into the business), he was out of business. So I went to BC law school for a couple years at night, and then went to New York and got into the apparel business.

Q: What area did you start in?

A: I started in sales, and then moved into the swimwear industry, also in sales. Then I opened my own manufacturers' rep business in New York, representing swimsuits and sportswear manufacturers.

Q: Whom did you represent?

A: Actually, one of the companies was Sirena. It was many years ago. After two or three years, the owner of Sirena asked me if I wanted to work for him exclusively, which I did. I became executive vice president of the company.

I stayed with Sirena for 12 years, and was asked to become president of Cole of California. I stayed there for nine years, then went back to New York to become president of the Puritan division of Calvin Klein, which made men's and women's clothing. Then I opened up a licensing division of the Cherokee Group, where I stayed for about six and a half years as president of corporate marketing and licensing.

Q: How do the apparel industries in L.A. and New York compare?

A: I think California is an easier place to design. The ideas, the play off the entertainment industry just the lifestyle creates a better atmosphere to design.

I think from the entrepreneurial side, it's much easier to start a company here because of the manufacturing base because of the ability to get skilled labor. So from the standpoint of starting a business, I think California, Los Angeles in particular, is much easier.

You kill yourself in New York just to get to your place of business. California is a different lifestyle, it's very relaxed. You go to the finer stores on Rodeo Drive, you still see people in relaxed clothing. You go to Fifth Avenue in New York, and people are dressed up.

Q: It's been a busy seven months for Sirena.

A: We've been very busy, as a matter of fact. When I took over we were just beginning our second quarter. Within a matter of three months, we had acquired Jezebel, which is an 82-year-old intimate apparel company. We acquired that company to have a 12-month-a-year business because of the seasonality of swimsuits. We were kind of myopic in our product because we were just making swimwear and the accessories that go along with it.

Q: You're already 65, and just took over a company. Ever going to retire?

A: I think I can still outwork just about anybody who works here. And that is either saying a lot for me, or nothing for them. (laughs) If I ever stop enjoying what I do, then I will leave.

But I'd like to stay here for another three years or so, then maybe consult. I would never stop working. It's just not something that is in my makeup. That doesn't mean I won't be taking longer vacations. Right now I am content in my life and am very, very happy here at Sirena.

Maurice "Corky" Newman

Title: Chairman and chief operating officer

Company: Sirena Apparel Group Inc.

Born: Fall River, Mass., 1933

Education: B.S. in economics, University of Rhode Island

Most Admired Person: Richard Owens, vice president of production at Cole of California. "This was an unusual man who died too young and was really quite unique."

Hobbies: Sailing, tennis, golf

Turning Point in Career: Deciding to leave sales and go into management

Personal: Widower; two daughters, three grandchildren

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