From Vendedor to Fashion Designer

By Kyeyoung Park

 

Korean immigrants in Latin America are shaping and developing fashion economies there. Upon arrival, Korean immigrants to Argentina and Brazil may have been lonely, isolated and confused, experiencing physical and cultural distance from their homeland. But the textile industry swiftly became a vital part of Korean diasporic identity and belonging.

 

Since 1963, about 200,000 Koreans have migrated to Latin American countries. These immigrants were from the middle class, leaving Korea because of political and economic instability in the aftermath of the Korean War. Korea sent its first emigrant groups to Brazil in 1962, to Bolivia in 1964, and to Argentina and Paraguay in 1965, to address its population explosion and the country’s high unemployment rate and poverty, and to garner foreign exchange.

 

Korea was producing more profession-als, managers and entrepreneurs than it could absorb within its limited land space and lack of natural resources, pushing the government to relocate its surplus population to Brazil and Argentina, which welcomed these immigrants for an agricultural “group settlement.” However, this “group settlement” was not successful, and immigrants began to concentrate in large cities such as São Paulo and Buenos Aires. There, they first peddled what they had brought, selling goods purchased at every port where their vessels had docked. Later, running out of goods to sell, they started to produce clothes, disassembling and using newly purchased clothes as templates to learn about local aesthetics and design. This activity developed into small sewing and apparel-making shops.

 

Following this trend, Korean immigrants in the 1970s and 1980s brought capital, sewing and knitting machines, knowledge, experience, and skills in garment making, and their networks grew in the home country, connecting skilled tailors, clothing and textile storeowners, and garment factory owners. Vertical and horizontal integration in the Korean apparel industry, in both Argentina and Brazil, helped Korean clothing manufacturers become competitive. Gradually, Koreans in Brazil and Argentina replaced Jewish immigrants, who had initially subcontracted their sewing work to Korean immigrants. In 2001, about nine out of every ten Koreans residing in Brazil worked in some part of the apparel industry.

 

Koreans controlled an estimated 60 percent of the garment industry and occupied 17 percent of Brazil’s textile industry as retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers. By 2004, Korean merchants led the Brazilian clothing industry, and accounted for 40 percent of its clothing production. In 2001, in Argentina, more than 80 percent of Koreans involved in clothing manufacturing comprised slightly less than half of the entire clothing industry, or half of the market goods.

The textile industry has played an important role in many countries’ modern development, including Korea’s, until supplemented by electronics and later by service and post-industrial sectors. Until the 1980s, Korea was one of the largest textile-exporting Asian countries to the United States. The involvement of the diaspora in these industries was a natural fit.
 

Korean wholesale shop in Brazil
Korean wholesale shop in Brazil

 

Brazil

When Koreans arrived to Brazil, they lived on whatever money they had brought with them. When they moved to São Paulo, some became peddlers (vendedores), clothes vendors or shoe repairers. Vende (abbreviation for vendedor) covers many kinds of work, from selling clothes by going door-to-door to taking orders after showing samples to wholesalers and retailers. Sales of Korean clothing expanded because of their better quality and reasonable prices, though Korean clothes in Brazil were almost ten times more expensive than in Korea. By 1968, Koreans started to manufacture women’s apparel.

 

Early Korean immigrants already included clothing manufacturers. Susan Kim, a North Korean businessman who immigrated to Brazil in 1964 discovering a demand for clothing manufacturing. He brought equipment from Korea and designed a type of nylon jacket which became a big hit among Brazilians. Kim’s business was the beginning of the clothing manufacturing industry in Brazil.

 

ACEA at Av. Avellaneda
ACEA at Av. Avellaneda

 

By the early 1970s, most Koreans had moved to São Paulo, in the vicinity of Glicerio and Conde de Sarzedas. While this area provided cheap rent and accessible transportation, as well as stores with Asian products, the neighborhood soon became ghettoized. By 1972, better economic conditions allowed Koreans to relocate residentially to Aclimação and establish new businesses in Mooca, Bras and eventually Bom Retiro—the center of Brazil’s garment district still known as Koreatown.

 

In Kathryne Cho’s study of Korean immigrants in Brazil, Wongyu Lee, the owner of Nabirang (now Collins) Confecção, recalls, “My wife and I worked at home…For five to six months; we didn’t even go to the market. We barely ate. Most of the times, we worked as a group with other families and they’d feed us. We worked more than sixteen hours per day...including Saturdays” (The Korean Brazilians, 1999:21). Lee went from making two to three pieces of clothing at a time to producing 50 to 70,000 per month, about 2,000 pieces daily. Selling up to 150 pieces per day, at five to ten dollars apiece, in 1999 he successfully built an enterprise that was generating US$6 million annually, of which about 10 to 15 percent was net profit. As of 2012, his children—one a fashion designer and the other a marketing lawyer--took over his business, opening their 100th retail establishment and their first wholesale business.

 

About 2,000 Korean-owned business establishments flourish in the Bom Retiro and Bras districts of São Paulo. Bom Retiro creates fashion trends within Latin America’s high fashion market. Bras is three times larger than Bom Retiro but displays low-price clothing in high volume. According to journalist and writer Yoo Na Kim, whom I met over churrascaria (barbecue in Portuguese) in Higienópolis, as of 2008, one out of every seven shops in Bom Retiro belong to Koreans. There are 1,200 shops in this neighborhood: 1,000 are manufacturers and 840 are controlled by Korean families who offer more professional and higher quality services compared to two decades ago. Koreans in the Bom Retiro suburb supplying shops throughout Brazil are leaders in the wholesale clothing industry, generating approximately 30,000 direct and 20,000 indirect jobs. On average, each brand creates six new styles every day, each manufacturer producing 20,000 pieces of clothing monthly. Beyond detecting global trends, the Korean/Brazilian stylists and designers have to “tropicalize” in order to satisfy Brazilian demand. As of 2008, one out of every three garments produced in Brazil has passed through the hands of Korean immigrants.

 

Argentina

Upon arriving in Argentina, Korean immigrants were initially housed in emergency refugee shelters. Many Koreans also lived in a neighborhood called “Little Seoul,” or “No. 109 village” (paekkucho’n), a barrio in Flores that offered low-cost housing and hired cheap immigrant labor. There they specialized in small-scale sewing, clothing sales and other trades, much like the Jewish immigrants before them.

 

As in Brazil, early immigrants included clothing manufacturers. It was Hwa-sun Cho who first brought a knitting and sewing machine with her in 1965. She and her husband began a knitting business in 1967. Cho passed on basic knitting skills and later she taught basic sewing and more intricate clothing-making skills.

 

In 1966, Jong-oh Lee, a wealthy textile industrialist from South Korea who had re-migrated from Paraguay, brought over the Jacquard loom (a mechanical loom which simplified the process of manufacturing textiles with complex patterns such as brocade, damask and matelassé), the yoko (“horizontally” in Japanese) knitting machine, overlocking machine and other sewing machines, as well as several technicians, operators of the yoko knitting machine. He first began using the yoko knitting machines t FW: story edits o finish piecework he received from a Jewish-owned factory, and in 1968, he began sewing work.

 

In 1972, Sang-lok Chae successfully produced and sold bathing suits under his own brand. The next year, Duk-yu Hong, previously the sales manager of a Jewish-owned sweater factory, produced and sold sweaters under his own brand. Other immigrants later followed suit. In 1976, some Korean merchants started to venture onto Once Street (the city’s textile business area), buying thread from Jews and Italians and selling the finished pieces to Jewish stores. Since 1978, several Korean immigrants have manufactured and sold clothes, initially to small retailers on the fringes of Buenos Aires.

In 1982, increasing numbers of Korean immigrants ventured out of the capital to run retail clothing stores in nearby provinces. They were able to purchase mostly women’s clothes from fellow Korean wholesalers in Once; however, the quality of these clothes was slightly below average and sold for only half to two thirds the price. An increasing number of Korean immigrant manufacturers also relocated to the high-quality clothing hub of Avellaneda—a previously Jewish residential neighborhood that had developed into clothing wholesaling district. The numbers increased visibly from 1986 to 1987, as Korean manufacturers transformed from suppliers of brands to makers of brands and owners of their own stores. These manufacturers organized as the Korean Merchant Association of Once in 1983 and in 1985 as the Korean Chamber of Commerce.

 

By 2001, Argentina housed 3,000 Korean-owned business establishments. In Buenos Aires alone, there were 600 Korean-owned wholesalers in Avellaneda; 380 retail and wholesale stores specializing in women’s clothing, cotton shirts, jeans and sweaters in Once; 600 retail stores in Flores; and 800 stores in other provinces such as Córdoba, Santa Fe, Tucumán, Jujuy and Mendoza— every city had Korean retailers, who bought supplies from Buenos Aires.

 

Hak-jae Lee, the president of the Korean Clothing Manufacturers’ Association in Avellaneda, immigrated to Argentina in 1975. I met Mr. Lee at an asado party organized by his association. Lee states that as of 2001, almost one out of every ten Koreans make more than US$1 million. There are several dyeing companies and other specialty businesses engaged in the production of bags, zippers, buttons and labels; others in fabric production/selling, thread, embroidery and pressing, not to mention garment manufacturing. According to Lee, “Koreans revolutionized the clothing industry as price[s] went down and the quality of clothing improved….Koreans brought important machines and produced cheaply…Now thanks to us Koreans, things are cheap.”

 

The Argentine government began to encourage capital investment and allowed Koreans to immigrate with the condition that each person deposit US$30,000 (later increased to $100,000) in the Argentine National Bank (Banco de la Nación). As Kyung soo Chun wrote, after the Argentine and Korean governments’ official agreement on immigration, the 1985 Acto de Procedimiento, Korean immigrants flowed in, reaching approximately 20,000 between 1984 and 1986 (Discourse on Korean Culture V4, 1990).

 

Korean immigrants stumbled into sewing work to adapt to their new environment in South America, and this work led to trade and work in the textile industry—with many Koreans across Latin America now in clothing retailing and wholesaling. As they secured their place among the middle class in São Paulo and Buenos Aires, they were increasingly celebrated as immigrant nouveau riche.

 

While engaged in the entire spectrum of the textile industry—import/export trade, wholesaling, designing, marketing, retailing, and garment production—Korean immigrants monitor global fashion trends by traveling extensively to European countries and the United States (and now to South Korea and China) for fabric and trade shows.

 

Korean family members are integrated in their family businesses. Many work in the fashion industry or in fashion-design and marketing-related trades, while others attend top fashion design schools in Paris, London, Milan, Los Angeles and New York. Christina Moon, faculty at New York’s Parsons the New School for Design, observed that by 2000, 40 percent of her school were students from Asia, the vast majority from South Korea, including some from South American countries (Critical Sociology, 2014). Claudia, a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM), whom I interviewed in Los Angeles, is 25-years-old, married, and her husband runs a Taekwondo studio in Encino. She left Korea for Brazil at the age of three and now manages one of her parents’ wholesaling clothing stores that employs 25 to 30 people, both Latinos and Koreans, in managerial and designer positions, equally divided between men and women. Her language of preference is Portuguese, but she speaks both English and Korean at home: with her husband she speaks English, with her parents, Korean, with her brothers, Portuguese, and a combination of all three with her friends. Like Claudia’s family, there have been a number of Korean clothing manufacturers who re-migrated from South America since the 1990s, due to the severe economic and political problems that prevailed in South American countries. In terms of global Korean diaspora, thanks to the clothing manufacturing industry, the Korean immigrant communities have developed across the Americas.

 

 

 
Kyeyoung Park is associate professor of Anthropology and Asian American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is the author of the award-winning book The Korean American Dream: Immigrants and Small Business in New York City (Cornell University Press, 1997).