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How To Run a Failing Women’s Clothing Business in Lima, Peru 🇵🇪
Expert insight and such...
Guest post by esteemed LatAm scholar: @GringoGuerrilla
Location: Lima, Peru
Me and a Peruvian guy started a women’s clothing business in Lima, which lasted about a year. What follows is an account of a typical day-in-the-life.
I sat at my kitchen table with a mug of coffee and a cigarette, trying to remember what we had to get done today.
Some products had arrived from China. The bathing suits, the mom jeans, and the belts we’d sell as is. But the blouses, bodysuits, and tops…we’ll want to make patterns from those.
Then we’d have to go to Gamarra, buy fabric, buttons, elastics, etc. Following that, we should swing by the neighborhood of Lince to drop it all off to the seamstress. There were also the packages to ship out to other cities. Chiclayo, Arequipa, wherever else…
I checked the time. Just after 9:00am. I should probably get going.
I texted my friend-turned-business partner.
“Yeah, come now.”
My partner’s condo – which doubled as the showroom for our clothing business – was in the affluent neighborhood of Miraflores, about a twenty-minute walk from where I lived. I strolled the now-familiar path along Avenida Angamos Este, crossed the overpass where it transformed into Avenida Angamos Oeste, took a couple turns on side streets and I was there.
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He opened the door to his suite, and I noticed tracing paper on the floor with a few of the clothing items that had come in from China.
“You should have told me. I could have helped with all this,” I said.
“This? I wouldn’t let you touch this stuff,” he joked.
It was a fair comment. Although not particularly difficult and despite a lot of practice, I was still awful at making patterns. I had an anti-talent for it and the responsibility would only fall to me if necessary. My role in the business was more about product selection, ordering, shipping and most anything having to do with the website.
As he finished the patterns, I cleaned the showroom – aka his living room –which we’d turned into a woman’s clothing store with a few racks, mirrors, a till, “Live, Laugh, Love” type paraphernalia, etc. I also made sure to do a quick sweep of the dressing room (his spare bathroom).
“Alright, let’s go.” My partner said. “I texted you a copy of the list.”
We caught a taxi on Avenida Angamos Oeste and carved north on the Via Expresa. From there, it’d be a right turn on Avenida Mexico and eventually a left turn on Jr. Huánuco. The trip was under 5 miles but always seemed longer thanks to Lima’s infamous traffic.
As we drew to a halt at a stoplight near to the market, I wrestled my phone out of my pocket and leaned out the window to take a photo of the run down, battered barrio of La Victoria, “La Rica Vicky” as it was jokingly called by locals.
“What are you doing?” My pal asked.
“Thought I’d get a photo of the ghetto. You know, for the bros back home,” I said.
He shook his head disapprovingly. “Get the phone away from the window.”
Gamarra is the largest informal market in Latin America. 40 blocks of pure chaos with more than 200 shops, mostly dedicated to textiles. Over 300,000 people shop there each day. It’s a sort of Blade Runner-esque aesthetic horror show. Fortunately for us, there were only about 8 or 9 shops we ever needed to visit, and they weren’t usually busy.
Today, the main priority was a cotton lycra blend that we needed to make bodysuits.
We weaved our way through the mass of pedestrian traffic, dodging chicha vendors and amateur rappers, and made our way to one of our go-to shops.
“We should get enough for 6 more in black, 6 more in white, maybe 4 in grey. And a few in a color we don’t already have. Mustard?” My partner inquired.
“The girls like the photos of our mustard clothes because it’s fashionable, but they never order them. They come try them on; they never buy. It doesn’t work with their skin tone.” I replied.
“I think you’re right, actually,” he remarked.
“Mustard is for white women,” I quipped.
I noticed a roll of burgundy-colored fabric.
“This one may work,” I said, walking over to the roll. “We’ll get enough for a few and see how it does.”
We paid and I slung the hefty black garbage bag of fabric over my shoulder.
“What’s next?” I asked.
“Some kind of floral fabric for the blouses. A few other things. I’ll get it. You go see the Venezuelans and try to match that button for the pink dresses. Yeli says she’s done sewing them.”
Much to the distaste of the locals, many Venezuelan immigrants had now taken up shop in Gamarra. My partner preferred not to deal with them but – fact of the matter was – this particular shop had a solid variety of accessories.
Luckily, they came through again. After a long trek to their kiosk, I found a close match to our desired button and bought 40 of them.
I called my partner. He was finishing up and told me to wait for him by the exit we always took.
Once our taxi set off, I began looking out the window, trying to spot my favorite street vendor.
There she was. Baseball cap with the Venezuelan flag plastered on it, a big smile on her face with her cooler full of beverages, meandering between cars waiting at the red light.
“How does it feel to suddenly see women selling refreshments at intersections that are hotter than your country’s television stars?” I asked my partner, as the girl crossed in front of the taxi. Our driver chuckled a little.
Honestly, it feels pretty good. The local women aren’t too fond of it, though, he replied.
After starting and stopping through the smoggy streets, we finally arrived at our seamstress’ house in Lince.
Fortunately, Lili’s husband, who was always ill-mannered and hovering over us while we were there, wasn’t around.
We had to get back to the apartment to open the showroom, so we didn’t have much time to chat. We dropped off the materials, clarified what we wanted done, paid her for previous work and left.
Whether or not we really needed to open the showroom from 2pm to 7pm, Monday-Saturday was debatable. Some days, no one came. But, alas, there wasn’t usually anywhere else we needed to be. I still had freelance clients I was working for so, when there were no customers, I’d chip away at that.
Not to mention, there was always something related to the business to do with the downtime. Photos, questions that came through social media, clipping loose threads off clothes, etc.
Two hours passed with no customers. We were sitting on the couch, and I was closely inspecting a piece of lingerie that we’d been ordering from China.
“Why is it that only the Chinese seem to be capable of making this?” I asked.
“Need an industrial sewing machine of some kind, maybe,” he replied, without glancing up from his phone.
“It’s not as though this thing is made of leather. It’d need a coverstitch machine at most. There’s not all that much to this,” I said, still regarding it. “In any case, we’ve got like 100,000 Chinese people in Lima…you’re telling me not one of them could make this?
“Even if they could, look at that lace. The design; the detail. Remarkable. We’d never find lace like that here.”
After a while, a few customers trickled in. My partner had things under control, so I snuck away to our warehouse (a spare bedroom) to pack up previous orders that had to be shipped: a dress to Arequipa, a couple pairs of shorts to Chiclayo, a few tops to Piura. I neatly wrote down their mailing addresses on the blank white cue cards that served as our shipping labels and taped them to the corresponding boxes. I wondered what the girls who ordered our products were like; how they spent their days.
I placed the boxes in a tote bag and waited for some customers to leave before returning to the showroom.
“They buy anything?” I asked.
“A t-shirt, one of the ones on sale.”
“Still counts. I’ll go take care of the shipping,” I said, motioning at my box-filled tote bag. You need me here after?
Nah, you’re good.
As I walked toward the courier, I took out my phone to check the time.
This was good. You wanted to get to the courier before about 6:00pm or certainly before 7:00pm. If not, you’d be met with a line out the door that could take an hour.
I arrived, took a number, and sat down. It was another 25 minutes before it was my turn.
“What’s are the contents of this package?” the clerk asked, sternly.
“And this one?”
“And this one?”
“Oh, this one right here? Clothes.”
The clerk filed the boxes away. I paid, and he gave me a receipt with the tracking information, which only sometimes worked.
“Will they make it on tonight’s truck?” I asked.
“I think so,” he replied.
Free of my duties for the day, I decided to walk to Lima’s seawall.
I found a spot free of people and sat on the concrete ledge.
After a time, I noticed a young woman 40 feet or so away walking my direction. She was dressed in a sky-blue colored enterizo. A fine choice for Lima’s warmer months. It allows you to keep cool without having to dress trashy.
I chuckled to myself upon realizing the irony that I didn’t know the word for enterizo in English. I supposed it would have to be “one-piece” or “jumpsuit,” which, in my opinion, sounded somewhat unpleasant in reference to women’s fashion.
I continued gazing at her outfit as she crossed in front of me, and only at the last instant noticed her looking at me askew, somewhat contemptuously. She passed, quickening her pace.
I looked back out at the ocean, lit a cigarette, and thought briefly about what the city of Lima would have been like in the 1600s, when it was rich, and pirates were attacking it.
It was now dark outside, and it’d be a bit of a walk to my neighborhood of Surquillo, or Surqui-York, as the locals jokingly called it. I’ll stop somewhere for a quick dinner along the way, I told myself.
I took a deep sigh before turning my back from the sea and toward the street.
Tomorrow, we’d try again.