Affordable Fashions Need Little Translation

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 29, 2008

He Sook Kooritzky's work as a real estate agent often takes her to Annandale. Now the Vienna resident and Korean immigrant has another reason to head there. A recently opened, high-end consignment shop on Little River Turnpike has sold her on a new concept: selling the designer clothes that cluttered her closet and buying those cast off by others.

"Whenever I'm in Annandale, I stop by," said Kooritzky, 66, who recently scored Roberto Cavalli blouses for herself and Christian Dior sunglasses for her daughter at the shop, called Grace & Kelli. "I am a very good customer."

Annandale, the original hub of the Washington region's large Korean population, is home to plenty of restaurants and shops that have introduced residents to Korean foods and products. Now, in a nondescript strip mall, a trio of Korean Americans has opened Grace & Kelli with hopes of hooking their community on resale by offering the designer clothing they say Koreans covet.

Several such stores exist in the region, but they are unfamiliar to many Korean immigrants, particularly those of the first generation, said co-owner Gina Kim.

"Koreans are big consumers. They're into name brands, luxury brands," said Kim, 40, an Annandale lawyer who emigrated from Korea at age 11, was a self-described "consignment queen" in college and now finds herself explaining the concept to Korean women of her mother's era. "A lot of them think I made up this whole idea."

The store, which opened in February, feels more boutique than thrift shop. Its walls are painted fuchsia, its floors are polished wood and its racks hold beaded and silken clothing -- all women's, except for a few children's items and men's neckties -- whose labels read Prada, Chanel and St. John, the classic line marketed by Angelina Jolie.

Prices are a fraction of those at the department stores from which most of the garments originated. Not that they're cheap. One recent afternoon, a bronze, patent leather Louis Vuitton handbag glimmered on a lighted wall shelf. Its price: $1,300, probably two-thirds the original cost. Mid-range brands, such as Ann Taylor, were priced as low as $20.

Kim said the idea has caught on more quickly than she expected. Sure, some skeptical Korean customers have asked whether they can enter through the back door or shop after hours because they feel ashamed to be shopping for used clothing. But the store's inventory has grown from 200 pieces to more than 1,000. And Kim, who funded the project with $120,000, said she has broken even each month since opening.

Designer purses have been flying off the shelves especially fast, she said: "I can't keep a Chanel handbag."

The resale industry is growing about 5 percent each year, and sales are rising as the economy slows, according to the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops. But Kim and her co-owners -- her mother, Sue Kim, and sister-in-law, Hannah Yun -- said they started Grace & Kelli more for fun than profit.

The idea grew out of Gina Kim's monthly gatherings with a group of close girlfriends, avid shoppers who lamented that the spoils of their habit, particularly those designer handbags, were taking over their closets. Someone suggested they rent a hotel ballroom to sell their surplus and donate 20 percent of the profit to charity.

That never happened, but it got Kim thinking. She owned vacant retail space at Little River Turnpike and Annandale Road. Why not try a store? She figured it could be a place for Koreans and non-Koreans to shop together, raise some money for charity and tighten the bonds between herself, her mother and Yun.

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