Last week, we took you on a tour of the Polvos Azules shopping center, a huge black-market mall in Lima that traffics in illegal knock-off clothing. In today’s post, we’ll give you a peek at where some of that clothing is produced, the densely packed textile district of Gamarra, where formal and informal are inseparable.
“Informality is the first step when starting a business,” says Freddy while guiding me through a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Gamarra, Peru’s largest, most raucous textile district.
He should know. Freddy and his wife, Veronica (at their request, not their real names) are successful Gamarra entrepreneurs. In their late thirties, they’ve had their own stand here since 2001, contributing a small piece to the astounding $1.3 billion USD in transactions that take place in this district every year.
Gamarra is yet another place that reflects Lima’s seamless mixture of formal and informal. It is an area where the market exists virtually free of regulation, and the textile industry is divided into a vast number of tiny specialized shops, each focused on one hyper-specific task. (Freddy and Veronica provide button and buttonhole services). The hundreds of stores and workshops are packed into galerías, most of them crammed into an eight-block area in Lima’s La Victoria district, itself the product of decades of improvised urban planning.
At one point, Gamarra was a dangerous, virtually lawless place. Today, multistoried buildings pop up from every block, stores offer clothes from major brands, and police patrol the district. Still, even within the gated and policed area, everyone reminds you to be careful for thieves. Nearby hills are covered with the precariously built homes that make up the city’s asentamientos humanos.
Freddy and Veronica guide me through the dizzying rows of shops and workshops, not to mention the scattered informal vendors who have set up along the dirty sidewalks. The district receives over 100,000 visitors every day, and employs about 60,000 workers. Gamarra is also the most expensive land per square meter in all of Peru, prices justified by the proximity of so many interrelated businesses.
“I started my business with 30 soles ($11 USD) in 1995,” Freddy tells me. He took the little money he had and went to Gamarra and bought enough fabric to make 20 tank-tops. He then dusted off an old sewing machine he had at home and started making and selling shirts to street vendors. “I went up to this woman who was selling shirts, and asked how much she bought the shirts for. She said 3.50 soles, so I offered my shirts at three soles and that’s how I got started.”
He went back and forth between Gamarra and the street vendors, saving as much money as he could. Eventually he set up his own shop inside the district, and specialized in making buttonholes for dress shirts.
The business was informal for a two years, until, as Freddy says, worrying about faking receipts and avoiding fines became incentive enough to register the business. Veronica tells me they now have seven workshops spread out across the district. “We move to where the clients are,” she says.
Although Gamarra’s output has seen a substantial improvement in quality in recent years — thanks to government incentives — Lima shoppers will still reliably flock to anything with a trendy logo sewn onto it.
This, after all, is where some of the fake brand-name knock-offs that end up at the Polvos Azules shopping center begin their life. Gamarra is a knock-off empire, where euphemistically named “replica clothing” has become an institutionalized pillar of the economy. Veronica takes me on a trip through a few galerías and introduces me to several laborers. One of them is Pedro, a 30-year-old textile worker. Pedro shows me a pile of red Aeropostale shirts he has just finished creating and which are now ready to be shipped to stores around the world.
Although they are illegal to export, Pedro says producers are still able to get the knock-offs across borders with bribes. “They send them to Ecuador, and from there they go to other countries,” he says.
In another shop, a machine is embroidering logos on six fake Abercrombie & Fitch shirts simultaneously. Outside the workshop, boxes full of jeans line a part of the hallway.
Veronica tells me the authorities sometimes push back, which is why she prefers to avoid the trouble, and no longer works with producers of knockoff clothes. “We no longer take in brand-name clothing. We almost got into trouble with the prosecution’s office when they found us putting buttons on fake Lacoste shirts.” Still, she says she often sees well-off Limeños looking for deals, or buying clothes in bulk to sell in the city’s wealthier areas.
Despite its illegality and disarray, Gamarra is a place where many of the city’s women have been able to carve out a space of their own, finding business opportunities the formal sector won’t provide. Last year Hillary Clinton paid a visit to Gamarra during a conference on the role of women in social inclusion, and was reportedly impressed with the district’s industriousness.
Veronica tells me much of the success of women in Gamarra is due to their male counterparts’ seeming untrustworthiness.“This place is sometimes called ‘Sodom and Gamarra,‘” she laughs, adding that local businessmen are easily distracted by young females.
The final stop on our tour is the couple’s newest shop, located in a 17-story building in the district’s center. Spaces at the bottom are mostly reserved for shops, while the stalls on the higher floors are home to dozens of workshops.
Veronica leads me up to the building’s rooftop where there’s an unobstructed view of the entire city. She gazes out toward the towering high-rises of the financial district in the distance, to the houses that line a nearby hill, and then down below to the thousands of people scurrying through the streets, creating the foundation of so much of what we see. Informality is indeed the first step – not only toward starting a business, but building a city.