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Following several years of the “grunge” and “basic-black” looks, apparel fashions in 1998 will be new and different and that bodes well for L.A.’s apparel industry, which is increasingly dominated by young, cutting-edge designers.

Clothing retail sales were less than stellar in 1997, according to the California Fashion Association, primarily because apparel makers did not correctly anticipate the shift in consumer tastes.

Based on the strong economy, consumers have plenty of discretionary money to spend, but the clothing selection has not been adequate to tap that market potential.

Local apparel manufacturers, primarily women’s wear makers, tried to target a wide range of consumers in 1997, rather than focus on one particular niche. That approach backfired, resulting in lower-than-anticipated sales.

Clothing retailers posted only 1 percent to 3 percent sales gains in 1997 over 1996. They had projected 5 percent to 8 percent increases.

Meanwhile, designers and specialty stores specializing in “retro” and MTV-style clothes did extremely well, according to industry observers.

The apparel industry is waking up to a shift away from grunge and other casual wear, and toward retro clothing, which is more flashy and trendy.

Expensive lessons learned in 1997 will induce apparel makers to spend more time on market research in the coming year and less on guessing what people want.

“You better believe (the apparel makers) are paying attention,” said Ruth Bregman, founder of Bregman & Associates, an L.A.-based buying and consulting firm. “They know they need to correct it.”

Consumers’ strengthening demand for innovation will likely spell opportunity for the ranks of new L.A. designers who pride themselves on creating cutting-edge fashion.

The result, say industry observers, will be a bigger year for innovative apparel makers.

The new year will not be without its challenges. The apparel industry may face downward pricing pressures in 1998 and regulations could increase as more labor violations come to light.

These and other factors have spurred a number of garment-makers to move their manufacturing operations south of the border, and that trend will likely continue. The result is that L.A.’s apparel industry is becoming less manufacturing-oriented and more design-oriented.

More than 1,400 small apparel companies were launched in Los Angeles County between 1979 and 1996, according to the California Employment Development Department.

Meanwhile, the California Fashion Association is busy teaching local designers about accounting, labor law compliance and production financing.

Efforts are also being made to help L.A.’s apparel industry expand its presence in the global market, particularly Europe.

“Our goal in 1998 is to really get a fashion message out there to a worldwide marketplace,” said Susan Scheimann, president and chief executive at the California Mart.

Hildy Medina

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