Ben Naim is an observant Jew who regularly attends Saturday morning services. Like most men at synagogue, he wears a conservative suit and sits apart from the women, who dress modestly in white or dark-color suits. "In the synagogue, everything is covered," he explained.
On Sundays, it's a different story. Naim often pops into services at the West Angeles Church of God in Christ on Crenshaw Boulevard. There, the men are still in suits, but the women praise Jesus in blue, pink, green and orange bedazzled dress suits and hats.
It's not that Naim isn't faithful to his religion. As co-owner of L.A. apparel company Sancor Inc., he just wants to keep up with the latest styles. Sancor, as it turns out, is one of the nation's leading producers of church clothes aimed at African-American women and it's a sizable niche.
Sancor is on pace to book over $15 million in sales this year, an increase of about 40 percent from when the company started selling the Benmarc International brand in 1993. Brasseur Inc., another L.A.-based company with the labels Donna Vinci, Lisa Rene and DVC, is expected to generate revenues this year of $8 million, up 10 percent from last year.
Combined, that's nearly a quarter of the estimated $100 million market.
But as with everything in fashion, styles change. Churchgoers have tired of traditional boxy fashions and have ventured into slimmer-looking outfits that can be worn for other occasions. Some are even wearing pants, practically a sacrilege in the old days.
"We noticed that they don't want to wear something their age," said Danny Golshan, chief executive at Brasseur and, like Naim, an Iranian immigrant. "They want to look sexier and younger, that is what it comes down to."
Then there's the size thing. While many women who buy church clothes are large, they want outfits that are stylish and bring out their best features.
"They used to do suits that would conceal if someone had a problem waistline or a big butt," said Paula Philip, advertising and marketing coordinator at New York-based church apparel company Gar-Mor Inc. "People are becoming more comfortable with who they are. They are wearing clothes that fit them, whether they are a size six or a size 30."
Size 12 and up
Sancor and Brasseur specialize in dress suits, usually colorful two- or three-piece numbers that are heavily decorated with embroidery, beads and rhinestones. They can be purchased in ensembles with matching hats and purses.
Women size 12 and up make up most of the customer base, which has a heavy concentration in the South. Prices generally range from $200 to $700, depending on the fabric and the trimmings. (A Donna Vinci suit with a fox fur trim will cost $600, three times more than a suit without fox.)
As of late, Golshan said he's been selling curvier skirts and shorter jackets. For spring, he will be introducing a line of knit skirt suits with 24-inch to 28-inch skirts, shorter than the usual 32 to 36 inches.
He's also tried to raise more awareness of his brands by bringing on celebrity spokesperson Dottie Peoples, a Grammy-nominated gospel singer. "She is down home and a lot of black women relate to that," said Jann Swann, an Atlanta-based sales representative for Brasseur. "They dress up because Dottie dresses up for church."
At Sancor, Naim is doing more chiffon skirts and relaxed jackets. Sancor suits are mostly sold under the Benmarc International brand, but the company also has Fifth Sunday, Misty Lane and Marcelle Couture.
To keep costs down, merchandise is made in China. While detailing on the suits makes them pricey, it's also what sets one churchgoer apart from another.
Charles Blake, pastor of the West Angeles Church of God In Christ, said African-American women traditionally have worn fancy clothes to church because it was a break in their everyday drudgery, where drab clothes were the norm.
"Church was just about the only thing they had that they could dress up for," he said. "It was a high moment of their week."
At Elegant Lady Fashions Inc., a small retail chain, Donna Vinci and Benmarc are the most popular brands.
"Even though the older women are going for the youthful look, it still has enough of the traditional look to make them feel comfortable," said owner Shirley Hollins.
And when customers buy, she explained, it's often in bunches because they don't want to be seen wearing the same outfit each Sunday. Plus, there's Easter and Mother's Day each year.
In the beginning
Golshan and Naim have learned a lot on the job.
Brasseur was started in 1981 by Golshan's father Ebrahim, who had been in the garment industry in Iran before coming to the United States. He began by selling wholesale junior and missy apparel at the low end, where prices topped out below $100.
In the 1980s, the company began importing linen suits that found their way into boutiques that specialize in African-American church clothes, a surprise to the Golshans. By the early 1990s, they had detected a strong African-American base.
Naim tells a similar story. He began in the clothing industry after getting a job with his cousin, who worked as a fabric salesman. He started importing goods, and in the early 1990s hooked up with a vendor out of Hong Kong who made embellished suits.
"I was just trying to make a mother-of-the-bride suit line, which I guess I was not successful at," said Naim. "Basically, I did not go to school to train myself or get trained to make fashion for African-Americans. I was just trained by force of trying to make a buck."
Today, Naim says that the competition has become fierce, with the market growing from four companies when he got started to over 40. That explains why he spends so much time at church. "I learn about trends," Naim said. "I see colors. I see fashions."
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