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Brazilian Koreans: a Force in Fashion

Bringing expertise and resources from two worlds, they are energizing L.A.'s apparel district. 'My whole family's in garment,' says the son of one merchant. 'What else do I know?'

April 30, 1998|DON LEE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sounds of Brazil drifted from one shop to the next in downtown Los Angeles' fashion district--Brazil with a distinctly Korean twist.

In Amber Clothing Co., his new manufacturing and wholesaling shop, Alberto Chi chewed on Korean rice cakes while talking to his younger brother in Portuguese--the language of their native Sao Paulo in Brazil. He picked up the phone and spoke in Korean, then switched to English as he thumbed through samples with a textile salesman.

"For me, I always wanted to do this," said Chi, 27, who arrived with his parents eight years ago. "I didn't care about medicine or engineering. I was always into clothing. It's in my blood."

Chi and his relatives operate nearly 20 apparel manufacturing and wholesaling shops in the fashion district--an area that is being remade by hundreds of Korean garment clans from Brazil.

With their hard-earned fortunes from South America and a cohesiveness that irks some other Korean immigrants, they have carved out new markets in Southern California's fashion world. By opening scores of storefronts with names such as Zoompy and Fina, Fina that reflect their Brazilian heritage, they have hired hundreds of workers, lured apparel buyers back to downtown and helped turn rundown buildings into boutiques that are as pricey to rent as those in Beverly Hills.

"It's just incredible what's happened there," said Bill Teneblatt, president of Antex Knitting Mills, one of the region's largest textile companies. "They're growing and growing, just like mushrooms."

For the Chis and many others, the passage from Korea to South America to Los Angeles began nearly four decades ago. Tens of thousands of largely middle-class Koreans--many from the north--sailed for Brazil and Argentina to escape high unemployment and antipathy in the impoverished south. With no money or language facility, they sold the clothes in their trunks and eventually became garment entrepreneurs, replacing the Jewish and Armenian immigrants who had dominated the apparel trade in Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires.

But in recent years, thousands of Koreans have packed up for the United States, driven away by Latin America's hyperinflation, rising crime and concerns for their children's education. Most Koreans from Argentina settled in New York. They started greengroceries as well as garment businesses, but struggled to crack New York City's stratified apparel industry.

Brazilian Koreans favored Los Angeles, drawn by the comparable climate and what they saw as Southern California's more dynamic, wide-open garment trade. Many Koreans from Sao Paulo also had family ties in this area's large Korean American community.

A Love of the Business

Nak Bum Sung, an ex-military officer in South Korea who left for Brazil in 1971, was among the first to arrive in the United States. Not long after he moved here in 1980, he set up a shop called Hot & the Gang. Now 58, Sung said he does brisk business designing and selling denim, mainly to small chain stores and wholesale buyers around the nation and in Latin America.

"He's kicking butt like you wouldn't believe," said his 32-year-old son, Paul Sung, who is doing even better.

A couple of miles away, in a shop 10 times the size of his father's, Paul runs a $12-million apparel design and manufacturing company. His customers include Nordstrom, Macy's and other retailers his father could only dream about. As a boy growing up in Sao Paulo, he remembers earning a nickel for every buttonhole he put in garments that his parents designed and stitched together.

"My whole family's in garment," Paul Sung said, explaining why he passed up USC Law School a few years ago to start his own business, Baxis Inc. He said his father pushed him to choose the garment trade over law. "It was an easy decision. What else do I know?"

The Paulistas, as the people of Sao Paulo are called, are among the latest of the Korean immigrants who have come to control sectors of the garment business and the fashion district, where Yiddish and Farsi once were dominant languages. But unlike many Koreans straight from Korea, who entered the garment business with no particular background in--or excitement for--the trade, those from Brazil love the industry and generally regard it as highly as they do other businesses.

Koreans from Brazil already account for a majority of the 700 or so Korean American garment manufacturers who occupy the fashion district, said Michael Kang, vice president of the Korean Garment Wholesaler Assn., whose president is a former Paulista.

Kang, who came from Seoul in 1975 and has been running his own manufacturing shop since 1982, thinks his compatriots from Brazil do better here because they have succeeded once before, typically start with more money and have an intimate knowledge of the industry. They also speak the language of many of the Latino production workers and buyers.

Combination of Cultures

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