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Denim’s Korean Connection

Koreans have come to dominate the sewing and laundry sector in jeans production and more recently owning some of the industry's top up-and-coming denim brands.

If you’re wearing a pair of U.S.-made premium jeans today, there’s a good chance that a Korean-American had a hand in designing or manufacturing them.

Over the past decade or so, the face of the L.A. denim industry has become increasingly Korean, with this ethnic minority coming to dominate the sewing and laundry sector in jeans production, and, more recently, owning some of the industry’s top up-and-coming denim brands. Korean-Americans are proprietors of trendy labels like AG Adriano Goldschmied, Big Star, Hudson, James Jeans, Monarchy, Kentucky and Kasil.

On the manufacturing side, a legion of companies, including Koos Mfg., Atomic Denim, International Garment Finishing (IGF), Indigo Group USA, U.S. Garment, Pinc Fashion, Stone Blue, New Crew Production and Trinity are owned by Korean-Americans. These facilities make product for a multitude of significant brands in the market, including Levi’s, Abercrombie & Fitch, Polo Ralph Lauren, Gap, J. Crew, True Religion, Lucky Brand, Citizens of Humanity, Brown Label, and on and on.

“I thought us Koreans were all supposed to become doctors and lawyers—our parents are going to be upset,” joked James Sway, 36, who founded James Jeans in 2004 with his wife, Seun Lim—selling 500,000 units in that first year, featuring the brand’s signature darted rear pockets.

“I think the growth of Koreans in the denim industry is a classic immigrant story,” he added. “For first-generation Koreans, the garment industry had low barriers to entry, because it’s a low-tech, high-labor market. A lot of Koreans already had the necessary skill sets to start small garment sewing companies when they immigrated here. Now, second-generation Koreans have the foundation and resources to start and build their own brands.”

Sway—who Anglicized his surname from Cheung—came to the U.S. from Korea when he was seven years old, and did, in fact, become a corporate lawyer before founding James Jeans. He and Lim met while he was at the University of Chicago Law School and she was at the Art Institute of Chicago. The two started a women’s contemporary line called Buoi in New York, before moving to L.A. to focus on denim and found James Jeans.

“Koreans are traditionally very driven, and the culture encourages entrepreneurship,” noted Sway, echoing statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis that Korean-Americans boast among the highest rates of business ownership in the country.

In some ways, the wave of Korean-Americans finding success in the denim field mirrors the earlier triumphs of French and North African jeans pioneers who helped create the premium denim category, such as the Marcianos of Guess, Paul Guez of Sasson and Blue Holdings, the Mechalys of Blue Cult and 575 Denim, and Jerome Dahan of both 7 For All Mankind (no longer with that company) and Citizens of Humanity.

“The French-Moroccans and Tunisians have dominated the marketplace for a while, and they are a tight-knit group,” said Eric Kim, founder of the denim-centric Monarchy collection, and its offshoot label, Kentucky. “But the Koreans in this industry really haven’t gotten to the point where we really help each other out. It’s more like every man for himself.”

However, Kim—who was born in L.A. to immigrant parents—noted that he works with a Korean-owned factory called Jakin in L.A., and that can be a plus. “There is a comfort level there, and a cultural understanding that makes it easier to understand each other,” he explained. “But at the end of the day, business is business. It’s not like we get better prices because we’re Korean.”

The most prominent Korean-American in the denim industry is widely acknowledged as Yul Ku—the “Korean Godfather” as Sway puts it—founder of Koos Mfg., which owns the AG Adriano Goldschmied brand, has the exclusive U.S. license for the Big Star brand, and just signed a U.S. distribution agreement for the fast-growing Dutch sportswear label Scotch & Soda. The company also makes private label denim at a facility in Aguascalientes, Mexico, bringing total company sales to $100 million a year.

Ku immigrated to the U.S. with his parents in 1975 at the age of 25. His family had owned a knitwear business in Pusan, South Korea, and they started a similar business in L.A. In 1978, Ku struck out on his own with a small, 2,500-square-foot sewing factory and soon landed his first denim clients, Billy The Kid and Calvin Klein.

He began to specialize in denim, and expanded his business to include garment cutting and then a laundry facility in 1985, eventually working with a who’s who of denim brands like A&F, Earl, Express and Banana Republic. In 2001, Ku launched his branded AG business in partnership with denim guru Adriano Goldschmied, who later left the company to start another brand, GoldSign.

Today, Koos Mfg. employs 740 employees at its state-of-the-art, 400,000-square-foot production facility in South Gate, Calif., churning out AG Adriano Goldschmied and Big Star jeans, and another 1,400 employees at its private label plant in Mexico.

“I thought the denim industry would be a good business because denim is forever,” recalled Ku. “With other clothing you have to constantly change. But a five-pocket jean is a five-pocket jean. It hasn’t really changed in the past 100 years and it probably won’t change in the next 100.”

(Jeremy Lew, who is partners with the Kang family in Indigo Group USA, is a bit more circumspect about denim’s allure: “You have to have a real passion for this business, because it is rife with challenges, labor issues, financial risks and slim margins,” he warned.)

Having built the foundation of his business on contract work, Ku is now most focused on building his AG Adriano Goldschmied business into a major global brand. He has opened 13 stores for the label so far, and has plans to open more down the road.

“I started from scratch in this business, cutting and sewing, and my dream now is to build a high-end brand that can compete with Diesel, Replay and Sixty,” he said.

Now helping in that effort is Ku’s 28-year-old son, Sam, who moved to Milan for a year with his wife in 2005 to open an AG Adriano Goldschmied showroom and distribution office there. But Sam Ku’s jump into the denim industry was somewhat unplanned—he studied economics at UC Irvine, and then worked in advertising and financial consulting before joining Koos.

“My dad was hesitant about me working for him. I think he was worried about how people would perceive it as nepotism,” explained the younger Ku, who is now a men’s designer for AG Adriano Goldschmied.

Sam Ku is proud of his family’s accomplishments, noting that his forebears came to the U.S. unable to speak English. “I think it’s amazing what my father and his generation have been able to do,” he said. “They came here with so many cultural barriers, and they worked their butts off to build these businesses.”

Wesley Chung’s father did not originally want him to join the family business either, a wet laundry firm called U.S. Garment, which does work for Polo Ralph Lauren and Monarchy. “He wanted me to be a stockbroker or lawyer or doctor—the professions that Koreans push their kids toward,” he recalled. His father, Jae Chung, is a respected mandarin in the Korean-American denim world.

After graduating from NYU, Chung, now 29, worked as a media buyer for six years before joining Vernon, Calif.–based U.S. Garment as vice-president and general manager. “I wanted to be an entrepreneur, and this is a great opportunity to learn about that, and work with my father as well,” he explained.

Like Chung, both Peter Kim, 36, of Hudson Clothing Co. and David Lim, 35, of Kasil are second-generation Korean-Americans who were drawn to the denim world via family connections in the garment industry.

Kim’s parents immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1960s and started a company making career blouses under the Nicola and EK Designs labels, which it still does today. Kim took over the business in 1995 and took the company in a radically new direction with a streetwear label called Drunknmunky. In 2000 he debuted the Hudson denim brand, which has gone through some ups and downs, but is now established as a prominent player in the premium jeans scene.

“I really see myself as an American first, and I felt I had this bigger story to tell. I wanted to create a brand with a mainstream national, and even international, audience,” explained Kim of his Hudson venture. “My parents did a phenomenal job blazing a path and opening up doors, and it was my job to expand on that. They have been my greatest teachers and inspiration, and I’m sure they went through struggles that I can’t fully appreciate.”

Kasil’s David Lim grew up with immigrant parents who opened a men’s suit store called High Society Custom Tailor on Wilshire Boulevard in L.A. in 1968. Still in business, the store attracts a large celebrity clientele—as well as family friend Yul Ku—and has a side business wardrobing films like Ocean’s Eleven, Mississippi Burning and Men In Black.

After attending art school, Lim dabbled in making custom jeans for some of his father’s clients, including pro athletes. Then in 2003, Lim launched Kasil and the brand is now in about 300 specialty stores, including Ron Herman and Kitson. The company rings up between $5 million and $10 million in sales. “My family helped me get my feet on the ground, but this is totally my project,” explained Lim, echoing the sentiments of an ambitious new generation of Korean-American denim entrepreneurs out to make their mark on the industry.