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Downtown's Fashion District

For visiting fashionistas, the name "Fashion District" may seem alluring. But be warned. The term "fashion" here is subject to interpretation. Also, be aware that while designers troll this 90-block garment district for wholesale deals on fabrics, you'll need a merchant's license for full access to most showcase buildings.

However, special shopping events and frequent sample sales are open to the public. If shopping is your M.O., bring your bargain-hunting instincts and your patience to Santee Alley (Santee St. and Maple Ave. from Olympic Blvd. to 12th St.), where vendors are crammed side by side selling items such as faux designer sunglasses, handbags, sweatshirts, jewelry, and cell phones.

Shop owners crammed into the little strip cater to their large clientele of bargain-hunting Latino families by blasting Spanish and hip-hop music from boom boxes perched at store entrances, making for a vibrant but ear-blistering scene.

The whole Fashion District area can be overwhelming in its expansiveness. If you don't know what direction to turn, the LA Fashion District Business Improvement District (BID 213/488-1153 www.fashiondistrict.org) can provide maps, info, and assistance.

If you really want to know where to locate the high-fashion finds in this insider-driven district, take a tour with shopping pro Christine Silvestri of Urban Shopping Adventures (213/683-9715 www.urbanshoppingadventures.com), who offers a three-hour walking-shopping tour Monday-Saturday for $36 or a customized, hourly-rate VIP tour.

Or plan your visit on the last Friday of the month, when you can quench your taste for high fashion by hitting the mega sample sales in the California Market Center (110 E. 9th St. 213/630-3600), a trade market housing 1,500 showrooms, and the neighboring New Mart (127 E. 9th St. 213/627-0671 www.newmart.net), where cutting-edge designers sell off one-of-a-kind pieces, overstocks, and prototypes for the next big trends. This sale is cash-only and quite popular.

Project Runway hopefuls may also want to walk a few blocks over to the Fashion Institute for Design and Merchandising (FIDM 919 S. Grand Ave. 213/624-1201) where future fashion and interior designers, graphic artists, and entertainment industry stylists get their start. The school has a scholarship store with discounted clothing, fabric, and special-occasion wear.

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