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The U.S. apparel industry has long been shrinking, and now one of its rare success stories, the high-end blue jean business in Los Angeles, faces a new and potentially crippling threat. As NPR's Sonari Glinton reports, the European Union has imposed a nearly 40 percent tariff on jeans.
SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: When people talk about Ilse Metchek, they use phrases like she's a piece of work, a force of nature, she's something else. If you want to talk fashion, she's your lady.
ILSE METCHEK: My position is to be the traffic cop for all things relevant to the business of fashion and apparel in California.
GLINTON: Metchek is president of the California Fashion Association. I went to her office in downtown Los Angeles to talk about jeans and fashion. Metchek is, by trade, a fashion designer for more than 40 years. And no sooner than I could sit down, she scrutinized every piece of clothing I was wearing, especially the fabric on my jeans.
METCHEK: So why'd you buy them? You paid $100 for them or something like that. They're not cheap. You see the pix, the pixel? That's treatment. The fabric doesn't come like that. Some machine is streaking them that way. That's expensive. And they fit. There's a different fit. You didn't buy Levi's. You didn't buy a Gap jean. You bought those.
GLINTON: Seventy-five percent of the designer jeans sold in the world are made in California. Over the last 20 years, an industry cluster was created in Los Angeles. While much of clothing manufacturing has been shipped offshore, high-end or more sophisticated manufacturing stayed here. And high-end jeans are complicated: There are different washes, there's distressing and elaborate designs.
METCHEK: The more complicated you can make that jean look, the more expensive it is. And that is at the wash house, and we have most of the wash houses in the world right here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SEWING MACHINE)
GLINTON: To see how and where premium jeans are made, you could have your choice of more than 30 different manufacturers in Los Angeles to visit. AG Jeans is one of the biggest, and they make some of the most expensive jeans - as much as 300 bucks pair.
FRANCESCA PITTALUGA: We have about 650 sewers that work up here.
GLINTON: Francesca Pittaluga gave me a tour.
PITTALUGA: So each sewer has his own responsibility. So somebody might be doing the side seam. Somebody might be doing the hemming and that sort of thing.
GLINTON: I mean, it's just impressive to look all the way down this. Everyone is behind a sewing machine.
PITTALUGA: It's pretty incredible.
GLINTON: Those are little children's hands, by the way.
PITTALUGA: No. Those are women's hands, very small woman.
GLINTON: More than 40,000 people work in the apparel business in Los Angeles County alone, with women's clothing being responsible for the lion's share of those jobs. In April, the EU announced that tariffs on women's denim jeans would rise from 12 to 38 percent. It's retaliation for when the U.S. failed to comply with a World Trade Organization ruling. Samuel Ku runs AG Jeans alongside his father. Ku says the European tariff puts many of those jobs at risk.
SAMUEL KU: For our women's jean that's made in this factory in Southgate, in LA, we can't continue to do the same business, shipping that jean to Paris. It's impossible.
GLINTON: Ku says he'll still make the bulk of his jeans in Los Angeles, but he also has a factory in Mexico. He's likely to shift manufacturing there for the jeans that are exported to Europe. He says it won't be so easy for his competitors.
KU: Because they got no options. They've got an LA factory. And think about, like, overnight - let's say you have a factory. Overnight, 30 percent of your business might be gone. You're going to be afraid.
GLINTON: Ilse Metchek says clothing companies could easily pick up and move to China or Mexico.
METCHEK: They make them here, and they trade on the Made in USA label. It's on the True Religion label, sewn onto the label Made in USA. They trade on that. They will still be in business, but that label will come off.
GLINTON: And with it, Metchek says, could go thousands of U.S. jobs. Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Culver City.
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