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CONFESSIONS OF AN ARDENT OUTLET SHOPPER

I'm an outlet addict.

And addiction is the only word to describe the malady. Even the remote possibility of purchasing brand name merchandise at phenomenal prices tugs at my checkbook and my credit card.It's difficult to determine how it all got started, this outlet shopping syndrome. I suppose we could trace the origin to New York - the city and the state.

I remember winding my way through numerous subway stops to arrive at the first outlet I ever discovered: Sym's, the perfect place for Gant cotton shirts. Then my friend, Charlene Holmstrom, introduced me to the Oneida Silver outlet near Syracuse. I bought red plastic picnic plates, not silver.

Next was a Pfaltzgraff shop near Scranton, Pa., the wonders of Lightfoot, Va., and seven years in the textile mecca of North Carolina. Bargain after bargain - and all within easy access to my former homes.

So when my sister-in-law, Lisa, offered a guided tour of the Los Angeles Garment District, I packed my Reeboks and ran.

Unlike the casual outlet environments I previously frequented, the Garment District requires an assertive, studious shopper.

The shopping center, according to writer Barbara Moe, is a territory "where every day is a sale day and every price is a discount." The collection of hundreds of shops services the wholesale marketplace, but also deals with individual retail customers.

Moe recently published the 15th edition of her "Guide to the Los Angeles Garment District" (C. Taylor Publishing; 1991; paperback; 138 pages; $7.95), a bible of detailed directions and evaluative statements describing the neighborhood bargain bins. Moe's summary provides a handy overview of the discount neighborhood, offering information about brand names, addresses and telephone numbers and an explanation of store policies.

The shopping area covers a 25-block area in downtown Los Angeles, roughly bounded by Broadway, Seventh, Wall and 12th streets. Most direct freeway access is via the Los Angeles street exit on Interstate 10, the Santa Monica freeway.

Though seasoned in outlet shopping, I found myself somewhat intimidated by the whole Garment District scene.

Virtually no one spoke English as a first language, service was non-existent and the enormous range of choices drove me crazy. I didn't know where to start. I was also unprepared for the price bargaining process; it's like another foreign language.

The first exploration was cursory; the second journey thorough. Now I'm ready to really go shopping.

It helped to borrow from Lisa's experiences; she, in turn, learned the shopping techniques from her friend, Mae.

Because my guidebook bore scribblings of all sorts, it acted as an invaluable tool during the shopping expedition.

Dressing rooms, where provided, proved a fascinating study in humanity.

Among the bargains we discovered:

Best buy: A Karen Kane dress locally priced between $180 and $210, purchased for $75.

Most popular prize: Eddie Bauer mountaineering-type twill shorts for $11.

Most controversial investment: Rabbits, Rabbits, Rabbits split skirt and shirt for $19. Too good of a deal to pass by, but where will I wear the outfit?

Item easiest to ignore that I thought I really wanted: Diane Fries silk dresses with too much froufrou for my tastes. And $300 to $400 price tags, discounted.

Most versatile purchase: Karen Kane taupe linen slacks for $24.99.

Overall evaluation: For nothing but adventure, I'd shop the Garment District again tomorrow. And that doesn't include the bargain buys.

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Be sure to ask about exchange policy before buying

Suggested guidelines for Garment District shopping:

1. Shop local department stores to note prices and sizes. Some Garment District outlets have no facilities to try on items but will allow next-day exchange for correct size. Ask about the store's exchange policy before you buy; write information on your receipt. Study ahead of time to determine the stores you are most interested in, then plot a course before you arrive; planning eliminates excess hiking.

2. Most stores take major credit cards, but some will accept a personal check. Stores are open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; 11-5 on Sunday.

3. Always shop with at least one other person. A group of shoppers with similar tastes and/or budgets may be able to dicker on price. Avoid the massive Saturday crowds by shopping during the week.

4. Shopping sprees are more efficient without small children, but a stroller is handy to haul shopping bags. Travel light; carry a minimum of gear. Deposit full shopping bags in trunk of car.

5. Be cautious with personal belongings. Hold on to purchases and avoid wearing valuable jewelry.

6. Street parking is metered; bring ample change. Meters vary from minutes to two hours, so be accurate in monitoring your parking stall. Parking tickets begin at $17, and traffic officers loom like vigilantes over the meters. All-day parking is available with discounted rates before 9:30 a.m. in some lots, otherwise the cost can be as much as $10 a day.

7. Negotiate prices with store personnel. The merchants run both wholesale and retail price ranges and will often bargain on the price. Another pricing tactic is to buy quantity, as goods are priced in lots. Buying 12 pair of earrings, for example, reduces the price from $8.95 to $4 per pair. Similar savings were experienced with girl's dresses. A basic knowledge of retail prices assists in closing the outlet deal.

8. The cleanest bathroom is at Cooper and Kramer, 1401 Santee St., but act like a customer in addition to borrowing the facilities. Public bathrooms are available on each floor of the Cooper Building on Los Angeles Street.

9. Top lunch break is Doris Donald's, next door to Coo

per and Kramer on Santee Street, but fresh fruit from the vending carts is delicious and safe.

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Garment District lingo

A glossary of Garment District lingo helps facilitate shopping:

- Retail: Manufacturer's price plus markup, which is often double.

- Wholesale: Cost of goods to the retailer. Discounters sell close to wholesale prices in many cases.

- As is: Less than perfect. Examine carefully. Usually no returns.

- Closeout: Discontinued style or product no longer carried.

- In-season: Retailers buy pre-season. Discounters often buy current merchandise at a discount from the manufacturer.

- Overruns: Orders are filled to retailers and excess merchandise remains. Usually sold to discounters.

- Returns: Orders refused by retail stores because they did not arrive on time. Stock is sold to discounters at a reduced price.

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Plan to check out the bargains in Los Angeles? You might browse these Garment District shops

Here are Los Angeles Garment District stops to shop:

Just Looking: 1143 Santee St. Pricey Sarah Kent dresses with savings up to 60 percent.

Bubbles: Corner of Pico and Los Angeles streets. Anne Savoy, Polly Flinders and Tickle Me dresses.

The Corner: 3091/2 E. 12th St. Espirit headquarters, with discounts between 50 percent and 75 percent.

Morrie's: 940 S. Maple. Most dependable quality in garment district. A must-shop with popular "unmentionable" lines at least 40 percent off.

J&H Collections: 1101 Santee St. Classy establishment with the best brands at 50 percent off. Another top shop.

Designer Labels for Less: 1924 S. Main. Loads of Carole Little and Nancy Heller, among other top lines. Not technically in the Garment District but close. Other stores in greater Los Angeles: 1801 Dyer Road, Santa Ana; new Citadel Mall off I-5 West.

H&H Jobbing Company: 840 S. Los Angeles St. (upstairs). Tennis and ski wear; warm-up suits 50 percent to 70 percent off.

Damone: 1349 S. Main St. The final place to look for a wedding gown. Top brand names like Alfred Angelo beginning at $400. Use author Barbara Moe's name or her book to get in. A purchase then entitles you to a membership.

Michael Levine: 919-920 S. Maple Ave. Elegant bridal fabrics, laces, beads, sequins and other accessories, as well as a huge selection of sewing and upholstery fabrics.

Cooper Building: 860 S. Los Angeles St. Survey location under one roof if you have limited shopping time. Six-floor building houses shops featuring lines like Guess, Liz Claiborne, Anne Klein, Calvin Klein, Jones of New York, Dennis Goldsmith, Ralph Lauren, Hathaway, Donna Karan, Koret, Act I, Jane Singer, Nicole Miller and Giorgio Armani. Other shops sell leathers, athletic shoes, jewelry, lingerie and linens.

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Begin spree by following I-15

Myriad outlets tempt Utah's bargain hunters - both in California and Utah. Use southbound I-15 as a jumping-off point - but before heading out of state check out the VF Factory Outlet in Draper. Other choices in California follow:

- VF Factory Outlet, Draper exit on I-15. Shops include the VF department store, Bass shoes, Danskin, Carter's children's wear and New England Classics, which carries women's traditional sportswear.

- Factory Manufacturers Outlet Plaza, Lenwood Road exit, I-15 near Barstow, Calif. Among the more than 50 discount establishments are: Leading Designer Outlet (Ralph Lauren), David Brooks & Robert Scott, Oshkosh B'Gosh, Bass, Evan Picone/Gant or Reebok.

- Banning Pass Mall, Apache Trail Road, exit on I-10 west of Palm Springs, Calif. Great buys at Eddie Bauer, Pepperell Linens and Espirit for girls and juniors.

- Jessica McClintock, Beach Boulevard at Loehman's Plaza, Huntington Beach, Calif.

- The Citadel, 5675 Telegraph Road, Commerce, Calif. Exit Atlantic Boulevard from I-5 West. Center, which is still under development, includes: Gap, Anne Taylor, Benetton, Eddie Bauer and Nancy Johnson. Additional stores will open throughout the summer.