Beyond the realm of K-pop, Seoul emerges as a fashion capital
One of the most striking features of Korean fashion is its street style culture. Effervescent and innovative, Seoul's street trends boast a unique and subversive character, which differs significantly from the usual conventions of Western fashion events. From the naïve Lolitas with their elaborate make-up to the celebration of almost professional cosplay, K-pop, or plush toys, as well as reinterpretations of traditional clothing. The breaking down of gender barriers and immaculate local tailoring were also prevalent, resulting in a wide range of styles and personalities converging in the vicinity of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) during Seoul Fashion Week. A multitude of photographers and curious onlookers crowded the futuristic silver spaceship-shaped building designed by the Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, creating an avant-garde atmosphere just minutes away from the almost 700-year-old Heunginjimun gate, which enveloped everything that happened there in an aura of novelty and eventfulness.
Beyond the inevitably admiring European gaze, the event had something special about it: the long-awaited return to normality after Covid-19. This comeback, which was held from March 15 to 19, was marked by the reopening of tourism and the gradual lifting of restrictions, despite masks still being a common sight in public transportation or enclosed spaces. With a format, size, and number of international guests that began to resemble pre-pandemic levels, the event stood out for the notable presence of buyers from Paris, New York, Israel, or Taiwan in search of competitively-priced designs from local brands.
Distinctive local character with global appeal
In order to showcase both the domestic fashion market and its commercial potential, the Seoul Fashion Week's program consisted of five days of runway shows featuring around 30 Korean brands, as well as a professional fair called the Seoul Trade Show that hosted more than 60 fashion, footwear, jewellery, and accessories firms. This approach aimed to provide both media visibility and business opportunities for local designers.
"We have once again had the opportunity to connect with a significant number of foreign buyers and showcase our brand," proclaimed Besfxxk, a veteran brand at the fair, celebrating the return of international visitors, following the pandemic. Present in a showroom in Shanghai and a participant in New York Fashion Week, the brand, which boasts a classic and sporty style and strong ambitions beyond its borders, counts the United States as its largest market in terms of turnover and has set its sights on Paris as a gateway to Europe in the future.
This sentiment is shared by designer Park Hyun, who launched the brand Mmam (Maison Mam Art Mr.Mom) in 2018 and participated in both the runway shows and commercial presentations at the fair. "For South Korean brands, it is crucial to achieve this visibility and international contacts," pointed out the creative, noting that the premium brand "owes its discovery abroad to its presentations in France," thanks to two appearances at the Parisian trade show Tranoï. Specializing in deconstructed tailoring with graffiti-inspired drawings and embroidery, the brand mainly focuses on the online channel in Korea. At an international level, it already has 11 points of sale, including five in the Middle East.
Given the importance of Seoul as one of the international beauty capitals, it was surprising that there was a lack of K-Beauty brands at the fair, whose management preferred to focus mainly on the fashion sector. Those who were well-versed in the matter would have had to travel to the bustling district of Myeongdong to immerse themselves in Korean beauty concepts or innovative retail, ranging from the mass-market multi-brand store Olive Young to the well-curated flagships of Holika Holika, Innisfree, Laneige, and Tony Moly.
Understanding the growing fascination with 'made in Korea'
Perhaps this fascination with Korean fashion is largely due to its refreshing diversity. The event's offerings sought to address the growing international demand for products, trends, and culture "made in Korea," complemented by initiatives of popular significance, such as the display of the Mercedes-Maybach car, designed by Virgil Abloh, and the appointment of NewJeans, today's hottest K-pop group, as ambassadors of the event. It is noteworthy that Haerin, one of the group's five members, has also recently been named a Dior ambassador.
The lineup of presentations showcased a wide array of highly creative proposals, including the whimsical world of plush creatures and bold prints from Greedilous, which stirred up fervor among local attendees, as well as the theatrical and thought-provoking performance by designer Steve Lee with #whysocerealz!, questioning power dynamics, the value of money, and the significance of love.
One of the key themes that emerged during the event was sustainability, which underpinned several collections that aimed to gain international recognition, including that of the PartsParts brand featuring an abundance of floral prints and ironic accessories made from waste materials like plastic bottles and bags, promoting a zero-waste philosophy. Another showcase was presented by the established brand Vegan Tiger, one of the pioneers of vegan fashion in Korea since its founding in 2015. Its collections feature the innovative use of materials that are cruelty-free and plastic-free, such as "hanji" (traditional Korean paper), with garments characterised by the fusion of colours, prints, and textures.
"When we launched the brand, Korean society was not yet familiar with the term 'vegan'. Our beginnings were not easy and the concept did not receive much support. The pivotal moment of receiving recognition came with the shift in the mindset of luxury brands like Gucci, who stopped using leather in their collections. This change in perception resonated with consumers, and they began to appreciate the value of our products," explained Vegan Tiger designer Yang Yoon A, highlighting the influence of European maisons on Korean consumers. "Another key factor in our understanding of sustainability is to focus on producing our collections in Korea," she further stated.
Her vision is similar to that of Lee Seongdong, founder of the Ulkin brand, known for its artistic approach to upcycling, featuring hybrid and deconstructed garments. "At the beginning of our project, the concept of upcycling didn't even exist in Korea. Nowadays, it's one of the main attractions of Ulkin's DNA abroad," the designer commented. Although he stated that the demand for responsible products has grown domestically "since the pandemic", his responsible unisex and casual collections had already generated international interest, participating in events such as CIFF, Premium Berlin, China International Fashion Brand Fair Shenzhen, and Tranoï.
In addition to the distinctive streetwear styles, sometimes reminiscent of Berlin, presented by brands like Ajobyajo, Anonymouth, and Ordinary People, one of the highlights of the event was the reinterpretation of Ivy League style elements by creative duo Holy Number 7 and the established brand Beyond Closet, founded in 2008 by Ko Tae-yong.
"I treat my garments as if they were works of art, drawing inspiration from American preppy style," the designer explained about the brand, which increasingly incorporates more responsible elements such as "vegan leather and upcycled fabrics". This well-established identity has already earned the brand international recognition, having participated in events such as Pitti Uomo and New York Fashion Week. Additionally, the brand generates 30% of its revenue from overseas markets, with the remaining 70% coming from the domestic market.
Many participating brands share a similar distribution of sales, with a large percentage coming from the domestic market. However, as South Korean brands continue their international expansion efforts after the challenging times of pandemic restrictions, they face the challenge of growing while remaining true to their intimate and locally-inspired identity, while also navigating the highly competitive global market.
While China is a tempting market for South Korean brands due to its size and proximity, entrepreneurs describe it as one of the "most complex markets" in terms of development and are opting to slowly but steadily enter regions such as the United States and Europe. Due to their strong identity rooted in Korean culture or naif Korean references, other brands inevitably maintain their focus on local success.
In recent years, South Korea has been experiencing an accelerated opening to the international scene after a period of focusing inward. With the support of the massive fan phenomenon that its products generate, Korean fashion is now being catapulted to the forefront. And if there were any doubts about the momentum that the South Korean capital is currently experiencing, they were put to rest by the announcement that Louis Vuitton will hold its Pre-Fall 2023 show on the Jamsugyo Bridge on April 29, with the creative direction of Hwang Dong-hyuk, director of the hit Netflix series Squid Game. This gesture towards the wide luxury clientele and culture of the country is sure to put Korea on the fashion map.
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