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The Beginning of L.A.’s Fashion Industry

Workers in a Los Angeles Shirt Factory, Circa 1940s

Workers in a Los Angeles shirt factory, circa 1940s. Image from California Historical Society Collection at USC Library

Today's fashion and textiles industry in Los Angeles County is now the largest in the United States, with more than 5,300 business, 67,600 people employed and a $3.2 billion payroll.* Along with entertainment, aerospace, bioscience, advanced transportation, tourism and technology, it is one of Los Angeles County's leading industries. The industry's beginning was more than a century ago in the person of a 21-year-old German immigrant, Morris Cohn (1869-1941), who arrived in Los Angeles in 1888 and initially worked as a clerk at Jacoby Brothers, a prominent local clothing retailer. By 1890, Cohn established Morris Cohn & Company at 112 Commercial Street in Downtown Los Angeles (approximately where the old Federal Courthouse is currently located), becoming L.A.'s first garment manufacturer, making men’s overalls and wholesaling boots and shoes. Cohn was said to be the first to bring a powered sewing machine to the U.S. west coast. By 1894, Cohn's garment factory had moved to 318 North Los Angeles Street, now the location of the Federal Building in Downtown Los Angeles.

In 1895, Cohn married San Francisco native Edith Armer (1874-1962) who took an active role in his business.

Morris and Edith Cohn, 1924

Morris and Edith Cohn, 1924.

Morris Cohn & Company Help Wanted Ad, 1899

Morris Cohn & Co Help Wanted Ad - Los Angeles Herald, April 30, 1899. Source: California Digital Newspaper Collection.

In 1899, Cohn saw the need for a business partner with financial skills so that he could focus on manufacturing and sales. He found that partner in Lemuel Goldwater (1865-1942), who had, some years earlier, returned to California from Arizona and was an investor in an Anaheim bank (Goldwater, incidentally, was related to Barry Goldwater, future U.S. Senator and presidential candidate). Goldwater joined Cohn’s firm and the company was renamed Cohn, Goldwater & Company. It produced workmen’s overalls, shirts and trousers and dress shirts and became known for its “Boss” brand of men’s work clothing.

Cohn-Goldwater & Co. Ad, 1920

Cohn-Goldwater & Co. advertisement in the Arizona Republican, 1920 from the California Digital Newspaper Collection.

In 1909, the company moved into a newly-constructed factory at 12th and San Julian Streets (525 East 12th Street). It was the first modern steel-reinforced concrete factory building in Los Angeles and is now a Los Angeles Cultural Historical Monument. The business grew thre from 50 to 500 employees and continued operating until it finally liquidated in 1962.

Cohn-Goldwater Building, Los Angeles, Circa 1909

Cohn-Goldwater Building, 525 East 12th Street, circa 1909. From the California Historical Society Collection at USC Library.

In 1921, the Associated Apparel Manufacturers of Los Angeles was organized by apparel manufacturing businesses and related activities. By 1937, it had 130 members. That year, there were also buyers from 250 of the nation's largest department stores permanently based in Southern California.

The Cohn-Goldwater business wasn't the Cohn family's only Los Angeles history-making venture. In 1917, West Coast Knitting Mills was launched by F.L. and Joseph W. Drane at 2615 Fruitland Avenue in Vernon, to make knitted underwear. The firm grew quickly to become the largest knitting mill in the western United States. At some point, Morris Cohn came to have an interest in the company and, by 1921, had become one of its key officers. In 1923, his son, Frederick “Fred” Cole (1901-1964), came to work at the company. Fred had changed his name to Cole as part of a brief stint as a film actor. Fred had acted in the silent films “Secrets of the Night” (1924), “The Dangerous Blond” (1924), “Two-Fisted Jones” (1925) and “Daring Days” (1925). Fred’s parents, however, did not consider a film acting career either stable or reputable and he was finally compelled to come work with them at West Coast Knitting Mills.

Cole, however, became quickly bored with men’s underwear and thought that Hollywood-orient apparel would be more exciting. He saw Los Angeles-based rival Catalina’s** success with swimwear (having started making swimwear in 1912). Cole convinced his parents that West Coast Knitting Mills should add a swimwear division. Women were already interested in pushing the edge of swimwear fashion from the then common conservative, formless, dark-colored, sex-neutral, minimally skin revealing style. Cole also saw the growing appeal of Hollywood glamour. In 1925, he introduced his first swimsuit (said to be called the “prohibition suit” or, simply, “Hollywood suit”) featuring a lowered neckline and back and a short skirt that revealed what was a shocking amount of skin for the time. Competitors such as Jantzen in Oregon and Catalina focused on athletics and sport, but, Cole focused on glamour and sexuality. His swimsuit was a hit. He further innovated by introducing a new burst of color and design and elastic thread woven into the fabric, creating a closer fit that highlighted a body’s contours. Women in his swimsuits were no longer going to look boring.

Fred Cole 1926 Swimsuit, Featured 1951

Fred Cole’s 1926 swimsuit, shown in article “Fred Cole Enters,” The Californian, summer 1951, via the Internet Archive

By 1941, with the death of his father, Cole was in full control of West Coast Knitting Mills and changed the firm’s name to Cole of California. The company survived World War II by making parachutes and continued to prosper. During the 1950s, Cole’s daughter, Anne Cole (1926-2017), joined the family business, not unlike her father, after previously taking a circuitous route through other creative paths. Anne herself made a significant mark in swimwear design. Cole of California was sold in 1960 and changed hands a number of times until 1993, when facing bankruptcy, it was purchased by Authentic Fitness and merged with rival Catalina. Authentic Fitness itself was later purchased by conglomerate Warnaco, and the Cole of California brand (along with Catalina) was sold in 2003 after Warnaco’s emergence from its own bankruptcy. Both the Cole of California and Catalina brands are now owned by In Mocean Group, LLC, of New York, New York.

* 2017 data for apparel manufacturing, textile mills, textile products mills, leather and allied product manufacturing and apparel/piece goods merchant wholesalers from the Data Library, California Employment Development Department.
** Established 1907 as Bentz Knitting Mills, also initially making underwear. Later renamed Pacific Knitting Mills. Added swimwear in 1912. Renamed Catalina in 1928.