Going the Extra Yard: Shopping L.A.'s Fabric District

by Allison Engel

07/06/12 10:58


Why would Angela Lampe, resident costume designer at the Des Moines Playhouse, regularly fly 1,680 miles to Los Angeles to buy fabric for her shows? Several reasons. First is the rich variety in the hundreds of fabric, trim, accessory and clothing shops in the Fabric District east of downtown. Although New York has a good concentration of fabric stores in Midtown, Los Angeles has hundreds of them – particularly those selling yardage at a discount – in a supremely walkable nine block by two block area. The even larger Fashion District, with its thousands of stores selling clothing of all description, adjoins the Fabric District, and can also be explored on foot.


It’s impossible to overstate the fabric selection in L.A.’s Fashion District. There are stores specializing in dancewear and stretch fabrics for skaters, fake furs, upholstery fabrics, and fabrics for bridal gowns and veils. Some stores sell only lace by the yard. There’s a store with only Hawaiian prints, another with mudcloth and other African fabrics, and stores that sell Indian silks in 45 colors. Trim stores have proliferated in recent years, offering ribbons, appliques, buttons, cording and beaded embellishments in overwhelming number. Need angel wings or feather boas? There are stores dedicated to them, too.


Another reason Lampe has been making her annual voyage for the past decade is the disappearance of fabric stores in Des Moines, a sad trend seen throughout the country. Independent fabric shops are an endangered species. In Des Moines, Lampe’s choices have devolved to two chain stores – Joann Fabrics and Hancock Fabrics.  The chains have cut back on the yardage on each bolt, causing headaches for costume designers, who often require multiple yards of a fabric. “The days of 25-yard bolts are over,” Lampe says. “The chains now carry maybe 10 yards of a fabric.”  That’s a problem when a full-skirted ball gown can require up to 15 yards.


“The fabric situation for me is not good,” Lampe said. “I’ve bought curtains and bedspreads and cut them up because I couldn’t find enough fabric.” She also has bought clothing at Goodwill to cut up, making newsboy caps, for example, for The Drowsy Chaperone from wool jackets.


But the main reason Lampe does her fabric shopping in Los Angeles is to save money. With the exception of a few stores, there are no posted prices in the Fabric District. Bargaining is expected. For a costume designer with a long shopping list and cash in hand, prices can melt quickly. There are bargains galore and unexpected finds on side streets, in bins and barrels dragged out on the sidewalks and from hole-in-the-wall operations that pack a jumble of mill ends, overstocks, seconds and luxury goods in narrow, crowded storefronts.


On her latest visit in May, Lampe bought nearly 300 yards of fabric and trim, much of it glamorous satins, laces and velvets for an upcoming production of Sunset Boulevard. In that show, the Norma Desmond character alone has 13 costume changes. Lampe estimates that she will be creating 100 costumes for the show, pulling some from her inventory, renting others, and building new ones with the help of one freelance seamstress and volunteers. She paid an average price of $5.60 a yard for the 300 yards she bought – far less than she would pay in Iowa, if she could even find the specialty fabrics she wanted.


She was also buying for an upcoming production of The Wizard of Oz. Lampe and set designer Tim Wisgerhof have decided to do a “steampunk” look for the Munchkins, so Lampe was looking for fabrics and accessories to give that industrial look. At Journal Fabrics at 419 E. 9th St., she found a swirly patterned knit in purples, tan and black that would be an ideal base fabric to use on each of the costumes. Salesman Ray Bolouri, a friend since her first trip in 2003, sold it to her for $7 a yard.  There, she also found two black novelty vinyls – one wrinkled and one with three-dimensional tabs – that she will use to create fierce-looking flying monkey costumes. At Trim 2000 Plus, she found large embroidered clock appliqués, a steampunk staple. She bought a dozen for costumes for the citizens of Oz. She then spied gigantic wood buttons, 4-inches across, which she decided would be perfect on the pants of the Lollipop Guild characters. Chunky gold cartoonish military buttons were bought for the gatekeeper of Oz.


Lampe is incredibly prolific and hardworking, having designed more than 180 full-scale musicals, plays and children’s productions in her 19 years at the Des Moines Playhouse. A theatre graduate of Central College who holds an MFA in theatre and costume design from the University of Nebraska, she was a cutter/draper at the Tacoma Actors Guild and a wardrobe supervisor at the American Players Theatre before going to the Playhouse. She’s adept at millinery, has done style work for Meredith Publishing, Jeep and Pepsi, and literally knows everything about fabrics. Walking the Fabric District with her is edifying – and a lot of fun. One of my undergraduate majors was textile design, and I love theatre, so it’s nirvana for me to accompany Lampe on her shopping trips. She stays with me at my apartment near the University of Southern California and uses public transit to get to the district, cutting down on trip expenses.


Knowing that Lampe comes regularly with lots of fabric to buy, merchants often throw in extra fabric or offer free lining as inducement for her to return to their shop.  At a nameless store on a side street, Lampe spied some green ruffled fabric that she thought would work for the Emerald City costumes. She asked for two yards, and the salesman quoted a $4-a-yard price. He measured out four yards (accidentally or on purpose – it was hard to tell), and charged her for two. She then asked about a bolt of gold organza in a sidewalk barrel. The merchant quoted her 75 cents a yard for the 60-inch-wide fabric. She took everything on the bolt – 5 yards for $3.75.  She plans to use it to layer underneath a gown for Norma Desmond. “The organza is sheer but stiff and will give a lot of body and depth to the skirt,” she said. She will make the gown’s bodice from a teal and gold lace fabric she found at Classic Fabric that has silver sequins stitched in an Art Deco pattern.


Lampe spent four full days shopping for upcoming shows, coming with prepared inspiration boards for each character. Her first day was mostly looking, and taking notes and camera phone pictures of fabrics she liked. Often, that sparked inspiration. At E2Z Fabric, a shop that specializes in dancewear and stretch fabrics, she found a wood-grained patterned Lycra. “Wouldn’t that be great for the trees in Oz?” she mused, imagining actors pushing their heads through the stretchy fabric to bring the trees to life. She quickly bought 10 yards.


Looking for silver vinyl for the Tin Man costume, Lampe found a plethora of choices. Playhouse alumnus Joe Tish, who now lives in Long Beach, Calif., accompanied Lampe one day and carried several bolts of silver fabric out to the street to audition them in the natural light.  Lampe bought two silver vinyls – one flat and one with an interesting texture that she will use for shoulder pads and arm and leg hinges. The 10 yards of the flat vinyl was measured off the roll and then re-rolled for shipping – the best way to store vinyl, Lampe said. There’s a store in the heart of the Fabric District, City Business, which ships rolls and boxes of fabrics. Lampe simply dropped her purchases there several times each day. Recently, City Business has been supplying her with printed address labels so she can have the various stores deliver her purchases to City Business if she didn’t want to carry anything heavy. “They’re making it easier and easier for out of town shoppers,” noted Lampe.


Fake fur for the Cowardly Lion also presented multiple choices. After considering half a dozen furs, Lampe chose a perfect tan version at New Corner Fabric for a well-priced $10 a yard.


At Fancy Fabrics, one of her favorite stores, the selection of sequined fabrics, embroidered cottons and laces is superb. She found three kinds of green lace and embroidered cotton fabric for the residents of the Emerald City, buying a total of 15 yards. She stocked up on sequined net, buying 26 yards in silver, teal, gold and green – some to use in Sunset Boulevard and the rest to replenish her workroom stock.


She bought hard-to-find belt buckles to cover in 1930s and 40s styles at Michael Levine, the largest store in the district and one of the few with set price tags. On a bin set in front of Angel Textiles on Maple Avenue, she found 10 oversized belt buckles – at $1 each – for Oz characters.


She was thrilled to find heavy cotton Spandex in several colors at a store called Fabric 2000. “This is really heavy duty and is perfect for foundation garments or period bathing suits,” she said, buying 3 yards in a neutral color. “I can dye it another color if I need to.”


Another tough assignment was finding elements for a costume for the character of Victor Mature in the scene in Sunset Boulevard where the movie studio is shooting Sampson and Delilah.  Lampe found dark brown Ultrasuede for $5 a yard at Natalie Fabrics for his tunic and shorts, and scored a huge leather belt for $35 at an accessories store on Santee Street in the Fashion District.  Santee Street is also where she picked up several pair of large rhinestone earrings and a big bronze and rhinestone feather pin, all for Sunset Boulevard.

She was excited about the fabrics she bought for the Norma Desmond dresses. At Wall Fabric, she found an interesting terra cotta voided velvet at $12 a yard that had an Arts and Crafts look that should fit in with the early Los Angeles architecture of the set, she thought.  For the next to the last scene, when Desmond appears ruined, she chose a black embroidered net with Mylar accents at Journal Fabric. She plans to make a dress with a sweeping train that will be worn and tattered.


At Blue Moon Fabrics, another shop specializing in dance wear and fake furs, she picked out a lovely black Lycra with gold sequined leaves for the bodice of a dress that will have a black skirt. She has a vintage rhinestone belt buckle in her costume shop that she’ll use at the waist.          


The most expensive fabric she bought was a gorgeous black spider-web lace from Valentine Textile, Inc., at 827 S. Maple Ave. The salesman originally quoted a price of $65 a yard, with lining included, but ended up selling it to Lampe at $50 because she bought 4 yards.  That will be used for Norma Desmond’s entrance at the beginning of the show.


After a visit to Golden Cutting and Sewing Supplies, where she picked up cuff rulers, plastic boning, presser feet for her industrial sewing machines, safety pins and 15 cones of thread, Lampe visited City Business and tallied up the damage. Three huge boxes and two rolls of fabric were shipped to her, and she left Los Angeles several thousand dollars lighter.


Within a few days, she had completed renderings for several of the Sunset Boulevard costumes and continued work on summer shows at the Playhouse. It is going to be a busy summer:  Auditions for Sunset Boulevard are in July, and all 100 costumes must be completed by the first week of September.



Red Hot Patriot
by Margaret Engel and Allison Engel


Drama, 1f


The story of the unsinkable Molly Ivins, the famously brassy newspaper columnist and best-selling author. A true Texas original, Ivins was a sharp-tongued wit who skewered the political establishment and the "good ol' boys" with her unforgettable humor and wisdom. Written by twin sisters, themselves longtime journalists, the play celebrates Ivins' courage and tenacity – even when a complacent America wasn't listening.


“A memorable portrait of a crusading journalist who broke gender barriers to establish herself as one of the nation's most influential and compassionate political columnists.” –Theatermania.com




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