Daring. Decisive. Discerning. These are words that South Korean fashion insider Kim Eun-jeung (EJ Kim), who has helmed several fashion magazines in Seoul, uses to describe shoppers from her home country.
‘I think fashion is in our DNA,’ says Kim, who currently runs K-Style Lab, a pop-up store in Hong Kong introducing the latest Korean fashion labels. ‘I see customers from all kinds of backgrounds every day and I can say that Koreans usually choose items that are of the now.’
A walk through Seoul reveals the country’s fashion sense. Men, women and children wear carefully assembled outfits – bold yet balanced, colourful but tasteful, masculine mixed with feminine – often with all the right accessories, hairstyles and makeup to complement. Streetwear has long been South Korea’s strength, after all.
But bringing much of the city’s fashion sense onto the catwalk is the annual Seoul Fashion Week, a government-funded event at Dongdaemun Design Plaza exclusively showing South Korean designers. It was markedly invigorated and expanded after designer Jung Kuho took over as executive director in 2015, and the international fashion world took note.
‘Seoul Fashion Week is like a fashion fiesta,’ says Kim. ‘You don’t see the same level of dressing up by people from the general public in Paris or Milan. And these people that come to Dongdaemun Design Plaza are not even here for the show – they are here to have fun with their friends or to promote something, maybe their own brands. They have become the main actors in this fashion drama.’
For a long time, South Korea’s focus was on cheap, fast – but covetable – fashion. That’s changing as the country pushes to nurture its fashion designers and bring them to an international audience. Punk-rock brand Steve J & Yoni P, high-streetwear designer Juun J and hard-femme designer Kathleen Kye of KYE have started breaking through global barriers.
‘I think KYE is one of the first brands that made the high-end street-influenced fashion a trend in Korea and also the brand that started selling in multi-brand stores overseas,’ says Kye, whose clothes have been worn by the likes of Kourtney Kardashian. ‘Korean fashion has evolved so quickly. Since 2015, Seoul Fashion Week has rapidly progressed into an international event with many strong designers and attracting international press.’
The seeds for global fashion influence were sown when South Korea became a garment manufacturing hub for the likes of H&M in the 1970s. Then in 1997, the Asian Financial Crisis hit, serving a damaging blow to the economy. The government called for the investment and development of the entertainment industry – namely music and film – as a way to strengthen and stimulate the economy. This coincided with the loosening of censorship in pop culture and the end of a longtime ban on Japanese cultural imports like music and anime.
It opened up a world of possibilities and gave way to hallyu, the ‘Korean wave’ of pop culture that has taken the world by storm. South Korea is becoming as influential as Japan was in the 1990s, but on an even wider scale thanks to the internet’s global reach. And that’s all helped to promote the country’s fashion trends.
‘When K-pop or K-drama stars wear something, no matter the origin of the label, people suddenly believe that’s the style of K-fashion,’ says EJ Kim. ‘That’s the power some of these Korean artists have, who absorb global influences, redefine them and then create the image that South Korea is a cool fashion destination to the rest of the world.’
Nevertheless, South Korea’s fashion has progressed much slower than its music and film industries. While there have been a few breakout designers reaching the global stage, on an international level, we have yet to see a South Korean fashion house punch with the force of major European or Japanese brands.
‘Korean fashion is ready for the next big thing now, something that’s not just reliant on trendy streetwear, Dongdaemun fast fashion or pop stars,’ says Kim. ‘We need recognisable brands with stories that resonate for a healthier, long-lasting scene. People always say they love Korean fashion and style, but how many Korean brands can they name?’
‘We have only one goal: to produce at least 10 world-renowned Korean designers like Yoji Yamamoto or Issey Miyake,’ says Kim Yun-hee. And we might see one very soon: Rok Hwang of the label RokH won the prestigious LVMH Special Prize in 2018, for example.
‘It is too early to say that Seoul will become a fashion capital of the world like New York or Tokyo,’ she says. ‘But Seoul’s recognition has grown rapidly, and the dynamic energy of our young people keeps driving us forward.’
This story was originally published in August 2018 and updated in September 2020