Crime

Big heist spawns a black market for Miami’s favorite underwear import, the faja

Because the hourglass silhouette popular in Miami fashion is not an easy thing for many women to achieve, shops and boutiques from Doral to Calle Ocho have long done brisk commerce in a body-shaping undergarment known as the faja.

“Small waist. Very curvy hips. Nice rear end. A lot of women are chasing that look,” said Asanyah Davidson, chairperson at Miami-Dade College’s Miami Fashion Institute. “It’s big business.”

Such booming business, in fact, that South Florida has spawned a sprawling black market for fajas fueled by a brazen and still unsolved Hollywood-style underwear heist.

Robbers targeted a prominent West Kendall faja purveyor, Premier International Group. They cut alarms, bore through a concrete roof, shimmied down more than 20 feet of shelves and spent the night emptying the entire warehouse.

The haul: 34,000 high-end, Colombian-made fajas with a retail value of $2 million. The burglary, which occurred last year but wasn’t publicized until now, continues to have ripple effects. So far, seven people have been prosecuted for trying to hawk garbage bags stuffed with stolen undergarments but the masterminds of the great faja robbery have never been caught — and less than a quarter of the filched fajas have been recovered.

“It was such a blow,” said Maria Luisa Jimenez, owner of Premier International. “You’d never think in a country like this, that is so secure, they would break in and steal 95 percent of your merchandise.”

The faja, as it is known to Latin American consumers, is a cousin to old-fashioned girdles and more modern offerings like Spanx. Though various versions of corsets have been around for centuries — torturing women with everything from whalebone to steel to plastic — they have fallen out of fashion favor in much of America.

In Colombia, however, shape wear made of fabrics such as spandex, nylon and latex has thrived alongside the country’s beauty and cosmetic surgery industry. In Spanish, faja means wrap, and the compression garments are popular for women recovering from tummy tucks, liposuction procedure and butt lifts, industry experts say.

With its sizable Colombian population, close ties to the South American country and a Hispanic population that embraces curves, Miami has proven a lucrative market for fajas. Celebrities like Kim Kardashian (who is starting her own line) and legions of Instagram models are also boosting the appeal across the country and internationally.

Giselle Alonso was introduced to the faja in 2014 when she was a law student working at a Miami legal office. On a lunch break strolling down Calle Ocho, she popped into a boutique and bought one on a whim.

“I loved it. When you wear it, it corrects your posture. You don’t slouch. It gets you that tinier waist,” she said.

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Giselle Alonso, an Instagram model from Miami, runs Shape Waist, a company that imports and sells compression garments. Giselle Alonso

Alonso was so impressed she bought a small batch directly from the Colombian manufacturer, started a rudimentary website and posted on Instagram, where she had just 102 followers. The batch sold out within days. Within months, she left law school to focus on her new company, Shape Waist.

Today, Alonso has over 245,000 Instagram followers and now runs a wholesale business selling upward of 25,000 fajas a month across the country. She regularly travels to Colombia, where the factories produce a wide variety of shapes and styles.

“Everything I get is manufactured in Colombia. I keep trying to go back to China, to get them to do it right, but it’s never worked out. They’re not really big on fajas,” said Alonso, 32. “You think fajas, you think Colombia.”

Jimenez, of Premier International, bought her first faja in the early 2000s, to help reshape her body after the birth of her daughter. Then a travel agent, she too began buying fajas in Colombia, selling them door-to-door in Miami to lukewarm reception.

“Many people laughed. In the beginning, it was a market that was 100 percent Latino,” she said. “But Anglo women soon began to recognize how it worked, and it’s grown.”

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A portrait of Maria Luisa Jiménez and her late husband, Ricardo Jiménez, adorns the office of faja purveyor Premier International Group. The couple founded the company that sells and distributes shapewear. Jennifer King jking@miamiherald.com

When she started, the factory she bought from in Colombia had only two styles for sale. She and her husband, Ricardo Jimenez (who died last year ), bought the factory and expanded as fajas caught on. Today, Premier International makes 32 styles — under the brands Lipo Express, SlenderTouch and RenovaSlim — for buyers across the country. The company also runs 18 stores, most of them called Fajas y Mas.

Her West Kendall warehouse features on-duty seamstresses to customize fajas. Mostly, it’s lined with rows and rows of plastic bins stuffed with fajas. The best seller is the Classic Half, a flesh-colored style for sleeved blouses, skirts and dresses.

“You’re just lifting everything you have,” said Barbara Acevedo, 25, a Premier manager. “You’re putting everything into place.”

There are many more. “Derriere” models feature no fabric on the buttocks, a special for shorts or miniskirts, and for recovering from Brazilian butt lifts. Brightly colored full body suits for the gym are like yoga pants, but with tightly compressed waists. Men too can choose “male body shapers,” full body compression suits with conveniently missing fabric to make going to the bathroom easier.

The company recently inked a deal with a plastic surgeon in Kuwait, who sells their products in the Middle East.

“It’s vanity,” Jimenez says of the faja’s appeal. “We want to be skinny, but we don’t want to exercise, we don’t want to do the work.”

But success also made the Jimenez family a target. The break-in last year was the largest one yet but hardly the first.

In 2011, at the company’s first warehouse in West Kendall, burglars broke in during the middle of the night and made off with 17,000 fajas. Jimenez still bristles — she says Miami-Dade police detectives did little to investigate. No arrests were made, and no fajas were found at the time. Three years later, the same thing happened, but a sharp Miami-Dade patrol officer noticed a suspicious truck driving away from the warehouse at 1 a.m. When he tried pulling it over, the burglars fled on foot, but the haul of 13,000 fajas was recovered.

The Jimenezes moved their operation to another warehouse, but were hit for the third and latest time on March 10, 2018, again sometime around 1 a.m.

This time, the massive theft caught the attention of Miami-Dade’s Cargo Theft Unit, which handles loads stolen from trailer trucks and commercial burglaries.

The Jimenezes also immediately emailed retailers across the country and South Florida that sell the faja. And three days after the heist, one of the company’s biggest customers, Catherine Fashion, called with an urgent tip. A man, a convicted credit-card forger named Anthony Nunovero, had shown up at the store just north of Miami Lakes, offering to sell a “large quantity” of Lipo Express underwear, police said. His offer: $35 apiece, below the $50 the company normally paid — and way under the $120 charged to customers.

A store employee stalled, saying he needed to ask the owner. They exchanged numbers. Nunovero texted a photo of one of the fajas. The owner of Catherine Fashion immediately called Jimenez. Detectives happened to be at the warehouse, and began setting up an undercover sting.

“We were at the right place at the right time,” said Miami-Dade Sgt. Nicole Donnelly, of the Cargo Theft Unit.

Detectives secretly watching from afar say that Nunovero and another man, Edel Salas-Diaz, arrived at Catherine Fashion and bargained a deal to sell a “large number” of fajas for only $20 per unit. The men drove off to get the merchandise at a home in the West Little River neighborhood of Miami.

Detectives saw them and three others carrying out the fajas to a car.

“We saw garbage bags upon garbage bags coming out of the house. We made the determination — once we saw like the 10th garbage bag come out — to go ahead and freeze everything and get a search warrant,” Donnelly said.

Detectives arrested them all on charges of dealing in stolen property. A few thousands fajas were recovered at the scene.

Two defendants got probation. Two others entered programs for first-time offenders. Prosecutors had to drop the case against Nunovero because of conflicting testimony about his role in the deal with Catherine Fashion.

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Thousands of fajas left in the office of Miami defense attorney Art Taquechel. The fajas were recovered by his client as part of an investigation into a faja heist in West Kendall in March 2018. - Art Taquechel

The prosecution was successful in one way. One of the suspects, Lazaro Duconge-Ruiz, in a bid to build good will with prosecutors, began rounding up and buying as many of the stolen fajas as he could find on the street. One day, he dropped off thousands of fajas in black garbage bags at the office of his defense attorney, Art Taquechel, who arranged to have them picked up by police.

“They were taking up half my waiting room. There was no place to put them,” Taquechel said. “In all my years of practice, this was a first. I had no idea there was a market for stolen fajas.”

Just how many stolen fajas are on the streets? That’s unclear, but serial numbers showed that some of the Lipo Express fajas returned to police were actually ones stolen from the same company in 2011, Jimenez said.

And stolen fajas keep popping up.

In December, two women walked into Hialeah’s Fajas y Mas, unaware the store is actually owned by the Jimenez family — and offered Lipo Express fajas for $20 a piece.

Detectives mounted another sting. The store arranged for a deal for 41 stolen fajas, and the two women returned with a bag full of the merchandise. When questioned, one of the woman admitted she’d bought the goods at an “unknown cafeteria” from an “unknown male.”

In all, Jimenez only got back about 7,000 fajas. But most remain in bins tucked into a back corner of the warehouse.

“Most of them got wet before they returned them. We can’t sell them like that,” Jimenez said. “It’s unhygienic.”

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