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Why The End May Be Near For The Fashion District Koreans Built In Miami

Katia Savchuk

For five blocks along Interstate 95 on the western edge of Miami's Wynwood neighborhood, you can buy women's clothing, jewelry and handbags in practically every store.

Not everybody knows about Miami's "Fashion District." But 20 years ago, it existed almost exactly the same as it does today in the mind's eye of Korean entrepreneurs.

Woo Ho Lee walked the block on a recent weekday afternoon, pointing out landmarks and remembering one of his mentors, Mr. Park.

"(He) bought this building," says Lee, pointing to one of the storefronts. "I think he paid about a million dollars. But now it’s worth about $6-7 million." All the way down to 24th Street, every store is owned by Korean-Americans.

Lee was one of the first to open a clothing store here, in 1990. The street looked very different then. Once a bustling hub for Jewish garment manufacturers, it was scarred and staggered by the riots and decline of the 1980s. The area was full of vacant warehouses, boarded-up buildings and crime.

"Sometimes, it was very dangerous to drive even, because people blocking car and, with a stone, they’re breaking the window and then they snatch the necklace and handbags," Lee says.

But, through it all, he kept his dream: to create a Fashion District to compete with those in New York and Los Angeles. He urged other Korean Americans to buy property while it was cheap and open up shops. He formed a merchants' association and worked with police to curb crime.

"We cannot expand. There’s no more property available. It’s a sad story."

Today, Lee estimates, the stores bring in around $100 million in revenue each year. Most of them are wholesalers and most of their customers travel from the Caribbean to shop here.

At one of his stores -- called "Mapsi," the Korean word for "stylish" -- Lee's son, Joshua, 26, is behind the counter. Since his teenage years, Joshua has spent three days a week in the store, among the dresses and skirts stacked in colorful piles on the floor.

He wasn't always pleased to be here.

"During the holidays I’d be here," he says. "I spent a lot of time here. Time that I didn’t want to spend."

Joshua is studying business management at Broward College and his parents hope he'll take over the family business one day. But Joshua wants to be a professional golfer.

Many in the second generation of the Fashion District dream of futures beyond the Wynwood storefronts. Some are defying their parents, but many are not.

"I just want them to do something more professional," says another merchant, Won Lee. "My son wants to be a dentist and my daughter wants to be a professor."

And it's one of two reasons that Koreans appear on the point of abandoning the retail occupations that employed 70 percent of Korean immigrants two decades ago. The other reason: Wynwood is perhaps more famous as an emerging arts district, causing local property values to skyrocket.

"We cannot expand," Woo Ho Lee says. "There’s no more property available. It’s a sad story."

At Miami City Hall, there's an apparent willingness to sustain and grow the Fashion District with tax incentives and zoning adjustments. Mayor Tomas Regalado says Korean Americans paved the way for today’s investors and shouldn’t lose out in the new Wynwood.

"They stayed in bad times and in good times and, now that Wynwood is on the map, they need to be recognized. Because it seems that pioneers sometimes are not recognized for what they’ve done," Regalado said.

But art galleries and expensive lofts are moving in right next door to Korean-owned shops. As land prices rise and the next generation looks for new livelihoods elsewhere, it's unclear whether there will be a place for these pioneers in tomorrow's Wynwood.

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