So, given the above problems with Bolivia, why would anyone want to be in the sweater business there? It’s true that besides Peru, Bolivia is the only large producer of alpaca (sorry Australia: you’re not even close). But, paradoxically, due to lower quality yarn-spinning in Bolivia, most Bolivian exporters actually import their yarn from Peru.
For starters, Bolivia, like the other Andean countries, has a tradition of fine weaving and textiles that goes back thousands of years. Textiles from Tihuanaco, a culture at its height about 1800 years ago, are striking for their modernity and their stunning combinations of embroidery, tapestry-weave and tie-dyeing. Until very recently, each region, each village of Bolivia had its own unique style of dress, and women wove not for money, but to show their neighbors their competence and creativity. A beautifully woven garment was the Bolivian equivalent of today’s designer outfit, but even more remarkable because the designer was oneself or one’s relative. Beautiful clothing was worn for festivals, weddings and often used for special religious ceremonies. In a way, the gorgeous sweaters we import from Bolivia are actually a step down for some of these people in terms of relevance and difficulty, compared to the generation before them. For that reason, Bolivian sweaters are notable for their embroidery and their handwork.
Still, after the litany of challenges enumerated above, what kind of crazies go into business in Bolivia? The answer is, mostly foreign crazies. One company is composed of an Italian architect/designer married to a Bolivian woman. The other is an American couple who are experts on antique textiles and ethnology and work with designers from Europe, Argentina and the United States. A third is an American with a Masters in Latin American studies married to a Bolivian. Suppliers here tend to be adventurous, open-minded people who got into business as something that interested them, not as something they studied to do. If you’re a foreigner who wants to live in Bolivia because you fell in love with a Bolivian or you think it’s just a fascinating place to live, then your avenues for making a Western middle-class living are limited. Hence, the sweater business.
The companies we deal with in Bolivia are above all design companies. Because of the problems described above, aggravated by its land-locked, backwater location, Bolivian business cannot compete with the Peruvians or Chinese on a straight production basis. They can’t crank out 2000 plain alpaca sweaters at a competitive price. For that reason, the companies we deal with must provide beautiful designs in order to attract buyers.
Typically, in Bolivia, each supplier will have a completely new line of samples each year. They might have, perhaps, 20 women’s designs and ten men’s designs, each one in two or three colorways and in five or more possible cuts (vest, zip cardigan, long jacket, pullover, crew neck cardigan, ruana, hat, scarf etc). We look at each one, ask for samples of the ones we’re interested in, and make any changes we feel are more appropriate for our market. We do not negotiate prices.
Much coffee is consumed, many interesting conversations about politics are had, along with bits of gossip about other people in the business. Suppliers or buyers from different countries will often know each other or know about each other, and news of another company’s good or bad fortune is eagerly exchanged with concordant expressions of surprise, sympathy or ill-concealed glee. Meetings can take an hour or they can take two or three full days, but the real reason for coming down is to better understand your suppliers’ problems and build a relationship of trust. When those things cannot be accomplished, we usually end up changing suppliers. Additionally, we don’t deal with people we don’t like. Life is too short!
Cruise around the Witches’ Market on Calle Sagarnaga. Love potions, idols and spells for whatever ails ya’.
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