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Where the runway meets the street

Seoul’s attempt to charge past Tokyo as Asia’s bonafide fashion capital shouldn’t really be all that surprising, should it? Korea has raked in billions from its myriad pop-cultural exports to the West; its music, television, technology, and beauty exports are responsible for spawning some of the most infectious cultural trends in the U.S. and Europe today.

Now, Korean fashion is leaping to the global stage. Let’s take a deeper look at the country’s thriving fashion community and answer one critical question: why are Korean fashion designers killing it right now?

Over the past few seasons, Seoul Fashion Week has gained serious international traction; pretty much every major Western fashion mag has covered Korea’s emerging fashion week in some way (check out Highsnobiety‘s street style reports from the city.)

Minhyun woo

Besides Jin Teok, JUUN.J, and Woouyungmi, the class of Korean fashion designers that has graduated from Seoul’s once-insular industry, to the elite camp of international industry heavyweights, is scarce compared to that of its neighbor Japan. Right now, there aren’t many Korean designers enjoying the heat of global industry attention, but that could all be about to change.

As the global press increasingly diverts from the de-facto fashion capitals (New York, Paris, London, and Milan) to unearth new talent, Seoul’s base of young designers is leaving a strong impression. These designers are also wholeheartedly embracing their country’s propensity for lightning-speed consumption, especially when it comes to trends.

NYC-based fashion platform, Fig Collective, has long recognized Korean fashion’s niche, youth-driven aesthetic and its potential for global fashion appeal. Fig is a crew of fashion-forward, young American-Korean friends who banded together to launch an e-commerce platform and an appointment-only boutique. It is solely dedicated to selling a select handful of young, unisex brands from Korea.

Sungjune Jang and Jihyun Seo

Take this image taken from Fig Collective’s FW16 editorial pictured above, for example. Shot with a dreamy pastel-colored backdrop, it delivers the kind of artistic imagery that’s pure Instagram-bait. It’s a great example of how universal and agile the Korean trend radar has become, and how skilled these designers are at remixing ubiquitous Western trends with the distinct styling details that are rife on the streets of Seoul.

The editorial, which you can see in its entirety here, demonstrates how Fig Collective’s cohort of Korean designers is linked by a visual thread that’s irreverent, reactive, expertly youth-driven, energetic and truly of the now. These wunderkinds are all eager to aestheticize the eccentricity of Korea’s hyper-trend culture into their own unique design language and then serve it up to Western consumers.

Janne Chung, one of Fig’s founders, tells Highsnobiety exactly why K-fashion deserves the fanfare; “Korean fashion designers all have a fearless affinity for adapting and honing in on what consumers want. It’s a huge asset to their growing, international influence.”

He’s not wrong. One label on Fig’s rotation is Ader Error, a key pioneer of K-streetwear; the country’s lucrative sub-genre teetering on the edge of global recognition. Brands such as Ader Error are deft at re-packaging elements of Western and Asian streetwear, producing visuals more synonymous with a Western lens.

It’s a strategy that makes their ostensibly genderless fashion and off-kilter approach to color more seductive to the intrigued Western fashion buyer. Korea’s emerging set are also aided by the country’s other cultural and commercial juggernaut: K-Pop. “The growing, global influence of K-Pop stars and its influencers all help in delivering a new perception of Korean fashion to the international consumer,” adds Chung.

Ader Erorr

Any self-respecting fashion enthusiast would do well to get to know Korea’s new breed. Even the industry’s anointed rule-breakers, Vetements, embraced the self-reflexive irony of Korea’s rampant counterfeit reproduction of its own iconic pieces. Last year, Vetements took an “Official Fake” capsule collection to Seoul during the city’s fashion week.

Though it was an epic publicity stunt on Vetements’ part, it was also a nod to Seoul’s booming pop culture and its bold sense of style. In an interview with W, Vetements’ creative director, Demna Gvsalia, openly declared, “Korea is now what Japan used to be in the ‘90s. It has incredible popular culture. It’s a shoutout and attention-grabbing in a way that’s very interesting.”

Korean designer Jung Wook Jun is the mind behind the rising menswear label JUUN.J. The designer’s soft spot for tailoring and eye for the unexpected has helped him to cultivate a successful brand around the idea of “street tailoring”. The designer has been showing his collections in Paris since 2007, and sells his wares in the world’s top stores, from Opening Ceremony to London’s Harrods, so it’s safe to say JUUN.J has gone global.

But, what sets JUUN.J’s streamlined, sculptural and distinctly Korean take on menswear apart from the rest of the world? “I believe the differences lie in tailoring and details. Meaning, though many designers [around the world] come up with items which look alike since they are affected by trends, the level of sophistication and techniques demonstrated by Korean designers are ahead. This also means in quality,” he tells Highsnobiety.

Nathalie Cazeaud Hillaire, of Paris showroom MC2, was one of the first to bring the likes of Wooyungmi and JUUN.J to an international audience, and is quick to affirm Seoul’s cool credibility. “The fact that streetwear codes are now fully adopted by most luxury fashion houses in the West, coupled with the colorful influence of K-Pop around the world, has all helped to solidify Seoul’s position on the fashion map,” she tells Highsnobiety.

“The Koreans have a certain freedom in their interpretation of fashion too. Especially when it comes to menswear, I’m always surprised to come across details, which in a Western canon, would be immediately interpreted as feminine. In the end, it all works and it’s this freedom that’s making Korean collections so recognizable,” says Nathalie.

Photo courtesy of WOOYOUNGMI

Wooyoungmi, the mother-daughter operation based between Seoul and Paris, has long modified menswear classics with sharp, and often futuristic attention to detail, and though the brand has risen to global acclaim, they still have an eye on their native country’s bourgeoning industry. The brand’s creative directors, Madam Woo Young Mi and Katie Chung, tell Highsnobiety that the Korean fashion industry’s infancy is actually its strength.

“Korean Fashion is much younger than that of the rest of the world. There are no Seoul-based brands with a 100-year old fashion legacy. Today, Korean brands get to be innovators, and we have a great ability to consistently offer something new and bold,” says Woo Young Mi.

It wasn’t that long ago when Korea was a shattered, war-torn state following the end of the Korean War in 1953. Just five decades ago, South Korea had roughly the same GDP as Ghana. Today, it’s Asia’s fourth-largest economy. The country’s success is largely thanks to its historic policy for developing economic sectors only if they were internationally competitive, but it’s a complex web of variables that have helped propel it to one of the most developed nations on earth, including its Confucian values and an emphasis on education and health, for example.

Korea’s industrialization remains a modern phenomenon and that means its cultural industries are still in development. Fig Collective’s Janne Chung expands this notion to fashion. “The [fashion] industry is still relatively young and it’s still experimenting and discovering an identity. The fact that these young, talented designers don’t have established, Korean design houses to go to straight after graduation, means the whole Korean fashion industry is motivated by youth.”

It’s true. Korean fashion is basically sharpening its cool with an out-and-proud love for youth culture. Korea’s nascent fashion scene is largely populated by young designers that Wooyoungmi would probably describe as innovators. Just as London Fashion Week proudly touts its emerging talent through platforms like Fashion East and New-Gen, Seoul Fashion Week is investing in its future.

Minhyun woo

The-sirius is amongst a cohort of young brands actively nurtured by Seoul Fashion Week. Founded by Younchan Chung, a Samsung Art and Design Institute graduate, The-sirius’ aesthetic is future-oriented with a technical, tactile confidence in futuristic cuts and silhouettes. The brand’s last collection was a firm favorite amongst global press in attendance at last season’s Seoul Fashion Week. Fashion critic Anders Christian Madsen wrote, “There was a confidence and international quality to Chung’s work that made it superior.”

So, how does Younchan Chung describe the Korean aesthetic that he’s tasked to show the world?

“Korean fashion strikes an appropriate combination of the East and the West. It’s an aesthetic marriage of what customers in the East want, with what the West is curious about,” he tells us.

It’s fair to say the rise of Korean fashion comes to down to more than curiosity, but it’s definitely a key ingredient. Perhaps the reasons behind Korean fashion’s meteoric rise can be compared to the current domination of post-Soviet aesthetics in fashion: we fetishize the new, the culturally exotic, the unfamiliar.

Scotch padding coat #ader#adererror

A post shared by A D E R (@ader_error) on

However, Korean fashion’s rise is really the result of years of research, development, deliberate strategy, honing a strong, domestic production infrastructure, and lots of heavy investment. Its new-found status as a global influencer of “cool” isn’t just a result of the West’s appetite for newness.

It’s a credit to the country’s culturally versed, tech-savvy youth, who are uniquely skilled in constructing new ideas of normal too, especially when it comes to breaking down gender norms and their dress codes. Wooyoungmi note the transgressive ways in which young Koreans approach fashion and their look; “Korean men, for example, wear make-up and are not afraid to try different shapes, bold colors, prints, or silhouettes that are traditionally associated with women’s clothing. Koreans love to experiment.”

Given the fact the Western fashion canon has only just got to grips with queering binaries on the runway and embracing gender neutrality, it demonstrates exactly why we should be paying more attention to the agenda-setting, small Asian peninsula, and its thriving fashion community.

For further reading, here’s why 2016 was the year of post-Soviet fashion.

Words by Kam Dhillon
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