Los Angeles, California
Handbags, footwear, PPE, and cut-and-sew manufacturing services
Lalaland is an anomaly in the high-end fashion accessory business. There are plenty of shoe and handbag designers in the United States, of course, but Lalaland doesn't simply create product concepts in its home office. It actually manufactures the goods in its Los Angeles Arts District facility, paying American wages to American workers.
"Our products aren't just made in the USA," says founder and CEO Alexander Zar. "They're made in L.A. That involves some challenges, but it allows us to get the unbeatable workmanship that's necessary for high-end brands. I just didn't want to risk compromising quality by going offshore to China or other places for production. We started here in 2005 with one sewing machine, and now we have 100 employees."
Along with its own lines of ultra-premium footwear and handbags, Lalaland manufactures products for established houses such as Louis Vuitton and Claire Vivier, and young, cutting-edge designers like John Geiger, Cesta, and Anson Clader. The company has also helped launch numerous brands, including Buscemi and Amiri.
And yet, to a large degree, Lalaland's past is prologue. The company is maintaining its presence in high fashion, but last March Zar committed to a wholly new mission: the wholesale production of PPE.
"When the pandemic hit, it had a major impact on luxury goods," Zar says. "It wasn't so much a matter of demand -- the people who had money before COVID by and large still have it. But our supplies got tight because a lot of factories had to shut down."
Along with a shortage in leather and the other materials needed for his product line, Zar also noticed nationwide deficits in medical protective equipment. Inventories of masks, gowns, surgical gloves and hand sanitizer dwindled as the coronavirus spread.
"It was clear we had a PPE supply crisis," he says, "and I realized I might be able to both help the country and keep my staff employed at the same time. So I worked at acquiring all the necessary supplies, and started making masks and gowns. I didn't know what was going to happen -- I just knew we had to do something."
Doing the right thing for national public health also proved to be the right decision for Lalaland. "The orders just came in immediately," Zar says. "It amazed us."
Still, the pandemic and subsequent supply chain issues made the effort challenging, Zar acknowledges. "Early on, I placed an order for several containers of materials from China, and they sent our money back, telling us the price had shot up 300 percent from the earlier price," Zar says. "It was frustrating, but I had some local connections, and I also got some materials from Turkey, the Czech Republic, and a few other sources. So we've been able to ramp up production throughout the pandemic."
Supply issues haven't been settled completely, however. There are still shortages in two key materials, Zar observes: polypropylene and melt-blown fabrics, both essential in PPE production. But recent scaling by American companies that manufacture these feedstocks is gradually ameliorating the problem, Zar says, and the employment of other materials that meet or exceed the same protective specifications also is helping ease the bottleneck.
Currently, the company is producing about 330,000 medical gowns a month, as well as large quantities of facemasks (both three-ply polypropylene surgical masks and N95 masks), face shields and visors, full-protection isolation jumpsuits and non-allergenic nitrile surgical gloves. Customers include hospitals, police and fire departments, and recreation and public lands agencies. "And we just got a very large order from the Department of Defense," Zar observes.
Lalaland hasn't abandoned luxury accessories; the second floor of the company's building is still wholly dedicated to the production of its signature shoes and handbags. But fully 30,000 square feet of its production space is now devoted to PPE, and masks and gowns are sure to remain central to the company's business long after the pandemic has ebbed.
"I think COVID-19 was a wake-up call, both for the public health and manufacturing sectors," Zar says. "When the pandemic hit, we didn't have the basic supplies we needed to keep people safe. As a nation, we can't let that happen again. We need to play a lot of catch-up, and we need to do it in a way that is sustainable and minimizes environmental impact."
Challenges: "Operating within COVID protocols and keeping employees safe while still thriving professionally is a challenge, as is providing gainful employment with the same confidence we had pre-pandemic," notes Zar.
Opportunities: "Some of our opportunities include on-shoring of domestic manufacturing," says Zar. "This includes PPE and consumer goods production and general pharmaceutical and health care items that we have usually outsourced. Domestic manufacturing should present great opportunities for jobs and targeted industrial growth in this country again."
Needs: Lalaland needs "a landscape that allows manufacturing to grow," says Zar. "This includes legal protections for small and medium-sized businesses, reasonable workers compensation laws and a structural policy framework that creates jobs and stability without faltering within a regulatory framework that hamstrings growth and de-incentivizes the kind of entrepreneurial risk-taking that has been the cornerstone of American economic growth for centuries."