By YOO MI CHIN Contributing Reporter
Olivia Shin thought she was fulfilling a dream when she attended fashion school at the prestigious Parsons design school in New York, and then began her career as an assistant designer in the Big Apple.
But she was relieved when her parents called and asked her to return home to Los Angeles and start an apparel line for their company. She quickly made plans to move back.
New York was an expensive and stressful place to live on a beginner's salary.
"I hated my lifestyle in New York," she said. "You get paid $35,000 a year and you work like a dog."
Shin is one of many second-generation Korean-Americans who have walked away from making their marks in the major leagues of fashion, and decided to come home and join the family apparel business.
"Thirty percent of the store owners who started their garment business in the 1980s are passing their businesses on to their children," said Won-Sik Myung, president of the Korean Apparel Manufacturers Association. "As a result, increasing number of young designers are coming back to take over their parents' companies."
Shin's parents' business had been making clothes in Los Angeles for export to Wal-Mart stores in Mexico. But trade restrictions put pressure on the venture, which has since closed. So three years ago her parents turned the business into C. Graffitti, a Los Angeles designer and manufacturer of women's knit dresses. Shin moved back to become the company's design director.
She brings to the company her training at Parsons along with internships at fashion houses that sold to Saks Fifth Avenue and Barney's. Sales are increasing.
"Every year sales have gone up and it's progressing," Shin said.
The generational shift is an increasing trend in the Los Angeles apparel industry, which generates $22.9 billion wholesale revenue annually. Some smaller companies have folded as their sales decrease, but others are keeping up with fashions by rejuvenating their lines with the work of younger designers in these cases, the second generation, who can better keep up with the fast-paced fashion culture.
"Because of its connection to Hollywood and the entertainment industry, Los Angeles has been a focal point of establishing trends," said Kent Smith, executive director of the Los Angeles Fashion District. "And those trends are constantly changing. To keep up with those trends, you have to continue injecting new talents into your organizations."
For the beginning designers, coming back to the family business can be a trade-off.
"Students feel comfortable getting their experiences in New York," said Francesca Sammaritano, associate chairwoman at Parsons. "But the decision depends on the individual and what their aspirations are. What is important is that they should do their best to get their experience before they move onto their final design goal."
Juliana Kim, a 24-year-old Parsons graduate, made the decision to return to Los Angeles to join her parents' company recently.
Until last year, Kim was enjoying her job as an interior designer for Furnished Quarters, a corporate housing company in New York.
Kim, originally from La Crescenta, went to Parsons to study fashion in 2002. She wanted to become an international fashion designer along the lines of Donna Karan. During her freshman year, however, she switched her major to interior design because she enjoyed making models of buildings. She then got an internship at Furnished Quarters, which she turned into a post-graduation job.
But her parents needed her help with their fashion shop. They owned a wholesale company that specialized in clothing for teen girls. Recently, they decided to shut down their business because of changes in the market. Kids might have loved lacy dresses a decade ago, but the younger set's fashion guru is now Paris Hilton. So it's more important to match their Rock & Republic skinny jeans with red enamel stilettos.
It was a tough choice for Kim, who loved the Manhattan lifestyle.
"I lived in New York for five years, and I had to just leave everything behind," she said. "I am definitely going to miss living and working in New York."
Kim is now a partner in charge of showroom management and sales at her parents' new company, Miele, a line targeting Latina teen girls. It's been a challenge because she's leaving interior design to come back to fashion.
"But I think helping out the family's financial needs for the better is good," she said. "At first, I didn't understand my parents because I wanted to do my own thing. But in the end, it's all about the experience you build up."
Shin believes that the decision to return to L.A. can carry risks for the second generation, because the market isn't doing well right now. But she thinks it's a great business experience.
"It might not be as glamorous as it looks," Shin said. "My work is always on my mind. If you don't have thick skin, it's a tough industry. But in the end, you learn about all the skills that you need in this business."
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