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Expert Says Korean Labor Problems Knock Wig Market Askew

August 3, 1988

SEATTLE (AP) _ For years, Thomas Timm’s customers have been thinning out. Now his suppliers are, too.

Shrinking ranks of wig manufacturers and other industry problems have raised the possibility of sharply higher prices and low wig supplies in coming months, says Timm, owner of Tress-Chic Fashion Salon in Seattle and part-owner of Reid-Meredith Inc., in Laurence, Mass., a synthetic hair pioneer and the last remaining U.S. wig maker.

Timm, considered an authority on the wig industry, says two of the six South Korean companies that manufacture 98 percent of the wigs worn in the United States have gone out of business. The other four have suffered strikes and the loss of workers to higher-paying jobs in the garment and electronics industries.

As a result, hair lines are receding: Timm is worried he may be unable to acquire enough wigs in enough styles to meet customer demand in coming months.

Suppliers also are raising prices, with one distributor having announced a 45-percent price increase. Timm said that because of the Korean manufacturing problems, prices of even the cheaper wigs likely will increase to $85 from $60 each.

Many of Reid-Meredith’s sales are to movie and television productions - Timm’s customers have ranged from the Muppets to Raquel Welch - that can afford more expensive wigs.

But Timm says many of his salon customers are cancer patients who have lost hair because of radiation treatments or chemotherapy, and can not meet the higher prices.

Furthermore, in response to their labor troubles some Korean manufacturers have raised their minimum orders from 1,000 wigs to 100,000. Timm said that could drive some smaller distributors out of business.

Until the mid-1960s, most wigs were made of human hair. But Timm said they were expensive, heavy and hard to manage. Then modacrylic fiber, a synthetic, came along.

″We found it in rugs,″ said Timm. ″So the old joke about someone with a toupee ‘wearing a rug’ wasn’t that far off.″

Reid-Meredith researchers found out how to make modacrylic look like hair. It also was inexpensive, light, didn’t soak up water and held a permanent wave.

Wig prices dropped to as little as $19.95. Reid-Meredith was churning out 1,000 a week, ″and we couldn’t fill the pipeline,″ Timm said. ″If we could have made 1,000 a day, we’d have sold them all. We created a market.″

″In the 1960s, we were the largest distributor there was,″ Timm said.

Then the Japanese, and later the Koreans, got into the business. Reid- Meredith survived, but was hit hard by foreign competitors because of their lower labor costs.

But Timm said Korean wig workers are tiring of six-day work weeks in what he describes as sweatshop conditions for some of the lowest wages in their country. Timm expects that within two to three years, China will be the industry’s big-wig.

In the interim, Reid-Meredith stands to gain. Its wigs, which sell retail starting at around $110, are becoming more competitive with the increasingly costly Korean models.

Timm said U.S. wigs are better made and last longer than the Korean products.

″We’ve done 100,000 customers in the Seattle area,″ he says. ″You pass them every day, you just don’t see them. They’re invisible. The only wigs that look like wigs are the ones that are poorly done.″

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