I met Violeta in a café in San Miguel, the social and commercial hub of the Zona Sur, or South Zone of La Paz, one of the most privileged areas in Bolivia. Among the trendy pubs and cafes, the pricey furniture shops, the boutiques and perfumeries, there are small shops selling new and original imported goods. Most of them are quite small, because "the taste of the owner determines the wares," said Violeta with a dismissive gesture at some less-than-inviting shop windows.
We met to talk about fashion, an important topic for the 48-year-old architect, who would rather not reveal her real name. For her, fashion is a matter of meticulous planning, right down to the smallest detail, like her handbag. Violeta is an elegant woman, with a fondness for European brands like H&M, Zara or Bershka. "These labels are not extravagant or extra expensive," she says with a smile, "but you do not necessarily find them in the shops in San Miguel, and if you do, they are sold for astronomical prices. That's why I prefer going to Calle Onda. The choice is just better.”
The small street she means is in the centre of the city, far away from the gated neighbourhood where she lives in a neat house with a garden, and far from San Miguel and the café, where we now sit.
It was many years ago that the rundown colonial buildings of La Onda were converted into humble shopping gallerias, as the shopping centres are known, with their tiny, overcrowded shops, separated by wooden panels, and their focus on US “premium goods”.
These goods are typically items which are no longer marketable in New York or Madrid and are donated to charity, or those goods of "premium quality" which are sold in La Paz for around a quarter of the price that can be read on the original label.
A few blocks further down the Avenida Montes are also the shops for "ropa americana”, a Bolivian colloquial expression for most of the used clothes, which were smuggled into the country. These are largely second-hand items, packed in compact bundles or bales weighing thirty to seventy kilos, which are moved in containers via Chile to the Bolivian border. From there, the clothes are taken by smugglers, who illegally bring them into the country and transport them to the improvised collection points in places like Oruro or El Alto. There, the bundles are opened and the contents are inspected to be sorted by quality among the wholesalers from the interior of the country for further distribution. Or the bundles are sold in their entirety to selected customers, for example to dealers in the market "Feria 16 de Julio", which is about thirty minutes from La Paz near El Alto.
According description in tourist guide books, the Feria 16 de Julio is the largest informal market in South America. For many it is a tourist attraction like any other, and perhaps even better because of its urban and cultural credentials. The Jach'a Qhathu, which means "the big market" in the Amara language, stretches for about a hundred blocks.
No one knows exactly how many thousands of stalls are set up in the buzzing market. There are niches for every price range; there are new and used clothes on offer. Overall, the majority of items have been smuggled, everything from underpants to a tractor, from dynamite to “ropa americana”, which is illegal and therefore is only touted in stores that try to camouflage what they sell. They look more like garages than shops and they have no signs. Tucked away on unobtrusive back roads, they are a far cry from the noisy markets. In short, they are hard to find and only open on Thursdays and Sundays from five o'clock in the morning. The presence of strangers, especially journalists, triggers mistrust among the sellers, especially in the areas where bundles of clothes pile high. The workers will not let me and the photographer out of sight and quickly remind us that photography is prohibited, in the hope that we are tourists and have gotten lost. It gets worse as I try to explain that I want to find out who their customers are and how their clients have changed since their business started in the late 1980s. At that time, the bundles still came exclusively as donations from charities in the USA, hence the name. This was long before the trade in worn clothing boomed, becoming a global industry worth $ 4.3 billion in 2015.
In Bolivia, the import of second-hand clothing has been illegal since June 2006. But it continues undeterred. According to a 2015 study, about eight tons of second-hand clothing arrive in Bolivia via Chile each year. The market value of these smuggled wares product is estimated at over forty million dollars, an astronomical figure next to the $11 million of legal exports in the textile sector forecast for 2017.
The bottom line is that legal textiles exports suffer from the rampant rise in smuggling, despite the efforts of the Bolivian government. Recently, Ronald Nostas, president of Bolivia's Private Entrepreneurs Association, joined a range of voices arguing that the government's efforts did not go far enough.
The Bolivian textile sector has been in crisis since 2008 and the last time there was a trade surplus was in 2010. In 2015, the textile industry's share of gross domestic product was just 0.9 percent, or $451 million and this figure hardly rose in 2016. But pressure on the Bolivian government is increasing as regular textile exports are extremely important to the country's economy. "And also for the informal labour market," said Don Ismael Mamani, former spokesman for those selling ropa americana, but who now only sells new stockings. He is an old man with a typical Bolivian “chulo" cap and a few teeth. He estimates that at least 250,000 people are directly or indirectly involved in used clothing trade, most of them young people who fail to find other jobs. The informal trade in “ropa americana” is no longer confined to markets across the country. It has also flourished on online retail platforms and social media in recent years. And whenever there is a jumble of products offered online, more occasional sellers like Daniella, a 35-year-old lawyer, are jumping on the bandwagon.
Looking back to 2006, Daniella admits to being one of the pioneers in selling “ropa americana” on Facebook. After studying to work as a lawyer, she decided to concentrate on online sales for a few years. "The start of my career was not easy. It was just the best option I had to earn my own money. Of course, there were not that many people on Facebook back then, and sometimes I felt ashamed - today it's all anonymous.”
Ten years later, Bolivia has changed a lot. Around 53 percent of the population now has access to the internet, most of which are urban residents under forty from the middle class. According to official figures, their numbers increased from 13 percent of the population in 2007 to 32 percent in 2017. "This group is increasingly using informal online commerce via social media," says Claudia, a 27-year-old entrepreneur, in her living room in the La Paz neighbourhood Obrajes which she has turned into an improvised boutique where she works while keeping an eye on her one-year-old daughter. She asks not be photographed or be quoted with her real name.
Currently, in addition to Violet's preferred Facebook stores, boutiques are being advertised in Zona Sur. These are offices or apartments selling exclusively "premium items”, where shop owners increasingly selling carefully picked outfits for customers who will pay more to avoid the hunt for one-off items, for example, among the clothes sellers of Jach'a Qhathu. But Don Ismael knows nothing about that, even if he has noticed how the clientele in his street has changed.
The French sociologist Gilles Lipovetsky noted thirty years ago that consumer habits are expressions of democratic and individualistic societies, regarded as a “legitimate expression of personal identity”. He made the figure of Narcissus the symbol of the second industrial revolution. Of course, he was talking about the industrialised countries. Thirty years later, however, the same description applies to Bolivia.