Carolina Crespo, co-founder of a young Los Angeles apparel brand called Everybody.World, had spent the previous day stuffing ethically manufactured cotton laptop bags with paper tags for a San Francisco client. “My fingers hurt because the zippers — opening and closing them. And when they come out of the dryer, they’re hot,” Crespo said.
“But we’re not complaining!” said her business partner, Iris Alonzo. She pressed a tape measure against a square of cotton twill fabric.
Alonzo, 37, and Crespo, 39, launched with the aim of creating the fashion equivalent of farm-to-table cuisine. The brand’s cash cow is its “trash tee,” invented after the duo found a way to make yarn from 100 percent recycled cotton jersey without using virgin cotton to increase tensile strength. The heavyweight tee sells for $25.
Their company’s brand ethos requires producing its sweatshirts, ponchos and jackets locally with factory workers who earn at least the L.A. minimum wage of $12 per hour. Ferreting out factories in the souk-like streets of Los Angeles’ garment district has become a hobby for Alonzo and Crespo. They met while working as creative director and graphics director, respectively, at American Apparel, a brand that pioneered the Made in Los Angeles concept but recently closed its factories there.
“You can’t go to Yelp to find a factory,” Alonzo says. “You have to go in the building and knock on doors.”
To reach factories, they leave Alonzo’s MacArthur Park loft apartment — which also serves as Everybody’s offices — and head downtown to L.A.’s 100-block apparel district. Employment statistics there vary wildly, but some suggest this manufacturing hub employs 110,000 people — roughly one-quarter of all U.S. garment workers. Mom-and-pop apparel factories specializing in embroidery, screen printing, garment dying and cutting and sewing spill from converted office buildings, warehouses and strip malls in the neighborhood, alongside suppliers of fleece, silks, buttons, zippers and other notions.
Finding new factories became trickier, Alonzo says, after Donald Trump became president in January. Many garment producers, fearful of immigration enforcement, began locking their doors. Some posted instructions on what to do if authorities attempt to enter.
Alonzo and Crespo get design ideas from acquaintances, who earn a slice of the sales for items like the “Margot & Ed All In Flightsuit,” a brushed-twill jumpsuit. It sells for $180 on the company’s website — and sometimes from the trunks of Alonzo’s Prius or Crespo’s BMW.
To build business, the pair recently decided to make the flightsuit more forgiving. “You add an inch and you open up a whole new market,” Alonzo says. So, their freelance pattern maker created looser patterns for six unisex sizes from XXXS to XL.
Alonzo and Crespo drove downtown to make the first batch. Crespo packed her SUV with the new patterns and a sample of the flightsuit in green. The first stop was Zip-Up Zipper Unlimited on Wall Street to buy zippers in six lengths, from 19 to 26 inches. They briefly discussed zipper brands with the shop’s owner, Sam Badvin. He preferred heavier YKK brass zippers.
They headed toward Spring and Seventh. Alonzo lifted a truck’s loading ramp to free up a covetable parking spot, and they entered a dimly lit, 14-story brick building.
Marble hallway floors and transom windows over hardwood doors suggested the building was once an elegant office building. It is now a warren of garment factories like the one run by Rudolfo Osorio, which they discovered by word of mouth. Osorio would cut and sew the flight suits from a cluttered suite piled high with fabric rolls and Juki sewing machines. Spreading the new patterns on long tables, Osorio estimated the largest size would require three yards of fabric.
Alonzo whistled. “Wow, that’s a lot.”
Osorio says his profits have suffered as minimum wages have risen, making it harder to compete with factories in Asia. “The minimum wage used to be $7 an hour. Now it’s $12,” he says. “And the clients don’t want to pay.”
Everybody’s founders argue that apparel brands should cut costs, such as advertising agency fees, in order to pay factory workers a living wage. “Companies are just going to have to be more creative because it’s not OK to be exploitive,” Alonzo says.
The laptop bag client flew advertising executives from Europe to oversee the project, she says. “Manufacturing is just not respected. The people who made the least from this are the people who worked the hardest.”