The Discreet Charms of L.A.’s Discount Wonderland

Others may swoon for the boutiques of Beverly Hills, but for my father and me, the faux Rolexes, knockoff Chanels and wholesale cologne of Santee Alley are the pinnacle of panache.

The Discreet Charms of L.A.’s Discount Wonderland

Growing up, I did not have a mother around to teach me about fashion. She left me for my dad to raise when I was a baby. What I learned about how to sport a pair of white-and-hot-pink L.A. Gear high tops in grade school, or how to haggle for a bargain on my first pair of heels (light-pink Mary Jane-style mules), came from regular trips with my dad to the Fashion District in downtown Los Angeles.

The district is a stretch of about a hundred city blocks of wholesale and retail stores. Today, trendy tops hang from the stores – midriffs, flowery boho prints, skin-tight clubbing dresses and shirts with “I’m not a shopaholic. I’m helping the economy” printed on them. The clothes, for the most part, sell for twenty dollars or less and resemble many of the brand-name labels women pay twice the price for at local malls. Sweaty men stand on small stools above the crowd yelling, “Ladies, come here! I got ten-dollar bags,” while a petite woman holds up an ad: five pairs of colored contact lenses for twenty bucks.

The first time my dad took me to the Fashion District was twenty-eight years ago, and back then we gravitated toward Santee Alley, or “The Alley.” Considered one of the more popular retail shopping areas in The Fashion District, Santee Alley is a two-block area where I got my imitation Sanrio backpacks and Disney princess toys. As I got older, I learned that many of the shoppers who frequent the bazaar-like area were budding fashion designers themselves, and I would watch them carefully inspect the stitching on a ten-dollar dress.

Santee Alley, the centerpiece of L.A.'s busy fashion district.
Santee Alley, the centerpiece of L.A.’s busy fashion district.

“You want to shop smart, but you also don’t want to look like a cheap date,” I remember one of the pretty female customers telling me when I was eight. I didn’t know exactly what that meant at the time, but it sparked my obsessive habit of inspecting the stitching and fabric quality of garments and handbags over the years.

My dad, a Filipino immigrant, worked as a valet driver at a high-rise condominium in the Beverly Hills and Westwood areas in the early 1990s. I never knew my mother, and I don’t know what she looks like, except she was “mestiza,” as my grandmother would say; a pretty, petite, light-skinned woman with dark hair who was half-German and half-Filipino. The only picture I have to remember her by is of my mother’s freshly manicured hands holding me when I was about two days old. I don’t even know what she was wearing.

As a teenager it sometimes felt odd to go shopping with my dad, but the weekends in the Fashion District were our special times. From our trips, I became fascinated with handbags, and the vendors at Santee Alley fueled that obsession with their fake Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Gucci.

A Santee Alley employee who has been selling handbags for three years.
A Santee Alley employee who has been selling handbags for three years.

The Los Angeles Anti-Piracy Task Force, a multi-agency unit created in 2007 with the sole purpose of cracking down on pirated and counterfeit goods, has largely put a stop to street vendors openly selling their knockoffs. There were some significant busts in the 1990s, and more recently in May, when a couple was arrested and fined $26 million for selling counterfeit goods. Just yesterday, about 1,000 federal and local police swarmed the district and seized $65 million and arrested nine people involved in an alleged money laundering scheme tied to the Mexican Sinaloa drug cartel.

The recent bust, however, is far from the Fashion District I knew growing up as a kid. During the early years, many vendors were still hawking their fake purses, wallets, scarves and accessories at their storefronts.

I attended a Catholic school, where uniforms and wardrobe restrictions seemed like punishment to any budding fashionista. However, on “Free Dress Day,” which was once a month, I would strut into my classroom with a fresh new outfit from the district and my latest “Chanel” purse. Classmates who envied my fashionable finds never knew the tiny label inside my bag read “Made In China.”

My father was introduced to the Fashion District by his gay cousin, Napoleon Garcia, who would drag him to get yards of fabric at wholesale stores downtown. “Tito Nap,” as I used to call him, was a fabulous man who was as fun as his colorful fashions. He was a designer and knew all of the good spots to shop in the area. We lost track of Tito Nap over the years, but heard from another family member that he died of AIDS some time ago.

To make extra money to help pay for my own shopping habits, not to mention the costs of raising me, my dad would pay street vendors thirty to fifty dollars for a fake Rolex Submariner, Cartier, Daytona or Explorer watch and resell each for three to five times as much to some of the wealthy tenants in the building where he worked. Sure, these well-to-do men, who often appeared in the Beverly Hills society pages, already had the real thing locked away in their safes. But sometimes, as they would tell my dad, these men preferred to wear a fake version without worrying about being robbed or damaging the genuine one. Many were more than willing to shell out $150 for the replica.

A young boy steals a few minutes of solace with a book while his parents work the storefront.
A young boy steals a few minutes of solace with a book while his parents work the storefront.

After I graduated high school, attended UCLA, and later became a full-time journalist, trips to the Fashion District with my dad happened less often. But we still found time every few months to visit, always passing through our favorite fragrance store owned by Jane and George Marachyan, a darling older Armenian couple my dad has known for more than a decade. They have probably sold my father hundreds of cologne bottles from their store on South Santee Street.

With such a small family to speak of, I have always held my friendships close. Over the years, downtown store owners with whom my father would haggle are now my own purveyors of trendy fashions, and they have always greeted me with a smile and a hug. Many of them have stories, like my family, of being immigrants, of struggling and hustling to get by. They are friends too.

But all of this changed last October, when my father was driving to my apartment in the Valley one night to drop off chicken adobo and rice. He honked his horn, parked his car and got out, sweating profusely. “I can’t breathe … can’t breathe … take me … hospital,” he muttered as he struggled to speak. He looked pale and could barely walk. I called 911, and within five minutes, paramedics arrived. He was having a heart attack.

Doctors performed an emergency stent operation, and after a week in recovery, he suffered a second major heart attack. As I sat in his room in the hospital’s intensive care unit, he flatlined twice, but was brought back to life by the electric shock from an atrial defibrillator.

During those two weeks when he was unconscious, I did not know if he would live or die, and I thought about going through the rest of my life with neither of my parents around, and no siblings.

With his health in such a precarious state, our father-daughter trips to the Fashion District abruptly ended.

I have been shopping at John Hong’s T & J Fashion Mart at the end of Santee Alley, a store Hong owns with his parents, for the thirteen years since it has been around. The nine-hundred-square-foot store on the corner of 12th and Santee Street sells bargain women’s casual wear such as tank tops, yoga pants, maxi skirts and leggings of every color.

At thirty-seven, Hong is a year older than I am. His dad and mom left their native Seoul, South Korea, and made their new home in L.A.’s Koreatown in 1984. His dad opened a store on Sixth and Broadway in Downtown soon after. The family sold graphic T-shirts from the store seven days a week.

Hong told me he was eight at the time, too young to realize how hard it was for his immigrant parents to come to a new country, start a small business and raise a son and daughter. The family eventually closed that store down, but opened a snack shop at a swap meet on Venice and Pico boulevards and a small construction company.

But business came to a standstill when Hong’s dad was diagnosed with leukemia in 1999. His mom focused on taking care of her husband while Hong worked at a video store in North Hollywood to help pay the rent. In 2001, his dad received a bone marrow transplant and his health began to improve. The following year, the family decided they would get back in business and opened their wholesale and retail store in the Fashion District in February 2002. Hong, who was studying at the DeVry University, left school and decided to get into the family apparel business.

The author (left), with her friend John Hong, who has owned this ladies' fashion store for thirteen years.
The author (left), with her friend John Hong, who has owned this ladies’ fashion store for thirteen years.

Hong remembers that back then all of the stores in Santee Alley used to sell their merchandise to wholesale customers during the week and to retail shoppers during the weekends. Weekend shoppers took advantage of closeout prices, drastically cheaper than boutiques and malls.

In the late 1980s, stores were more like small bargain warehouses. They rarely had changing rooms, and women would try clothes on over what they were already wearing. Some of the braver young women would strip down to their underwear in the middle of the store and parade in front of a small mirror to see the fit.

The place has changed since then. The emergence of a new and improved L.A. Fashion District, now with fancier boutiques and showrooms, came in January 1996, after the formation of the area’s Business Improvement District, or BID, which is a nonprofit organization made up of stakeholders who have spearheaded the revitalization of the area. According to the L.A. Fashion District website, more than 53,000 buyers visit the area annually and bring in more than thirteen million dollars in revenue. That’s not including tourists and retail shoppers like myself, who regularly visit the stores for their discounts.

Over the last decade, most of the retailers moved east of Santee Alley to San Pedro Street. The establishment of the district’s BID, which brought significant money to help clean up the blighted downtown alleyways and streets, also resulted in a “Clean & Safe Team” who patrol the area in addition to Los Angeles Police Department officers. You can see the Safe Team patrolling the streets on their bicycles, wearing bright yellow shirts and scaring off the guys on the corners selling bootleg DVDs of movies still in theaters, like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Hercules.”

A toy store displays a baby carriage hanging above plastic AK-47s.
A toy store displays a baby carriage hanging above plastic AK-47s.

Fancier boutiques charge more than the average street vendor, with women’s apparel sometimes more than twenty dollars. The boutiques, however, attract a wider variety of shoppers, from young hipsters looking for boho fashions to pampered housewives who like to splurge on the latest trends that are still cheaper in Santee Alley than at Orange County malls.

Many store owners, however, lost significant revenue during the economic downturn that began in 2007. The Hongs opened another clothing store in June 2008, but it closed a year later. Hong’s parents decided to retire that year and he took over their first store.

Store owners who weathered the financial collapse say business, although still fluctuating, is making a slow resurgence. According to a report released by the California Fashion Association in March 2014, Los Angeles fashion-related businesses earned at least eighteen billion dollars in revenues from the region’s wholesale apparel, textile and apparel manufacturing businesses, while more than forty-six billion dollars in apparel entered as imports. The Fashion District now boasts more than 2,000 independent wholesellers, hundreds of family-run boutiques, and serves as the home base for some of the most sought-out and up-and-coming contemporary designers.

While there were store closures during the downturn, there are other businesses returning. In about a month, Hong plans to open a second store a few doors down from his current storefront in Santee Alley. This second store, however, will follow a growing trend of more boutique-like stores that have been popping up throughout the district.

To differentiate yourself from other stores that often sell the same type of items, you must provide the best customer service, Hong says.

“It’s a lot more cutthroat now in The Alley,” he says. “You have to provide that shopping experience like at malls, but people still come here and expect the cheap prices. That’s why you have to create a better and a more customer-friendly environment where people feel welcomed.”

While the streets are much cleaner and safer, and some stores fancier than when my dad first started coming to the Fashion District, I’m afraid the continued gentrification of the downtown area is taking away from what made the Fashion District so unique. I used to feel proud of finding great bargains and unique clothes that other teens couldn’t buy at the mall. Now hipsters and women in mom jeans are picking out the same shoes as me.

My dad endured a ten-hour open-heart surgery. It was so risky only one doctor was willing to take on his case. He spent a month in the hospital and two months in rehab.

Ten months after being released, he is back at home and back to work. His doctors said he had a slim chance of surviving after several heart failures and other complications, but he pulled through.

Last weekend, I asked him to come with me to the Fashion District. “Come with me. It’s been a while since we’ve gone together,” I said.

Sigue, punta tayo doon,” he said without hesitation in Tagalog. O.K., let’s go there.

Walking with him through the downtown bazaar on a sunny Saturday brought back many memories of canvassing stores and looking for bargains. It was not even noon and the street was already packed with bodies, so many that you could barely squeeze your way through without running into a stroller or someone’s shopping bag, or accidentally being groped by a stranger. Thousands of shoppers on the hunt for a good bargain — from tailored men’s double-breasted suits and leather dress shoes to women’s flirty party dresses that hug every curve and five-inch stilettos that are cheap replicas of Christian Louboutin red-bottom heels.

I felt tempted to buy some knock-off MAC, Naked and Smashbox makeup, but quickly reminded myself that, while bargains are great, breaking out in a rash would be tragic.

A father and son whose family own and operate a small shop selling knick-knacks.
A father and son whose family own and operate a small shop selling knick-knacks.

For my dad, walking around The Alley is like traveling back in time. He no longer buys or sells knockoff items and wondered where his old sources went into hiding. Some of the vendors recognize him, but there are so many new stores there now. My dad and I made our way through the crowd. I surveyed the mannequin displays with skinny jeans covering Kardashian-esque backsides, while my dad walked into another store with “genuine” Versace sunglasses. The smell of sizzling bacon-wrapped hot dogs from one of the street vendors distracted me.

Gone are the guys hawking faux Rolex and Cartier watches. Gone also are the guys who sold the fake Gucci, Chanel and Louis purses that I used to rock in my teen years. For the first time shopping in Santee Alley, my dad looked lost. “I swear those guys who sell the fake Rolexes used to be right here,” he said, bewildered.

A shop owner standing nearby overheard our conversation, and said, “Those guys are mostly gone, but they come around. They ask you if you want a fake Louis or Coach purse. You ask those guys where the Rolex are.”

Later, we noticed a group of people gathered around the trunk of a beat-up Ford Taurus. I made my way through the throng of people and took a look inside the trunk: Gucci soho leather bags of every color, Michael Kors purses and Louis Vuitton monogram messenger bags haphazardly stacked together in tattered plastic bags.

I took a step back and remembered that episode of “Sex & The City” when Carrie and Samantha also tried to buy fake purses from a trunk vendor in L.A. Looking at the bags and purses, Carrie’s words popped into my mind: I should have liked them. But staring into the trunk, they didn’t look elegant. They looked cheap. Even if everyone else thought it was real, I’d always know my bag came from a trunk deep in the Valley.”

As excited as I was to come across an elusive counterfeit purse dealer, I realized I’ve grown past my childhood desires for a cheap imitation. I’d rather wait for the real thing.

Before leaving, we walked into the Marachyans’ perfume and cologne store. Always the bargain hunter, my dad picked the five-for-twenty-five-dollar deal of knock-off Gucci, Chanel and Versace colognes.

“Thank God you are still here,” Jane said to my dad, after hearing the details of his near-death experience. “There is a reason why you are still here. It is not your time yet. You have to stay for your daughter.”

I smiled nostalgically as I listened to my dad haggle with Jane about the already discounted prices of cologne.

“Come on, you know me … two dollars off,” he offered while Jane laughed.

At the Marachyans’ shop, I picked up my usual bottle of Issey Miyake, my favorite. My dad’s taught me well. I may not prefer fake bags anymore, but I will still buy a good low-priced wholesale perfume. I also can’t pass up a pair of sturdy yet affordable heels in The Alley. I’ve learned to haggle on my own here, but I still prefer to do it with my dad by my side.