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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 apparel industry in Los Angeles County is now the largest in the United States, with more than 1,500 business, 19,000 people employed and a $300 million 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, buyers from 250 of the nation's largest department stores were permanently based in Southern California.

The Cohn-Goldwater business did not end up being the Cohn family's only Los Angeles history-making venture. See Cole of California - Swimwear Pioneer.

* 2023 4th quarter data for apparel manufacturers from the Labor Market Information, California Employment Development Department.