When thinking about the way young people dress in South Korea, K-pop stars in high-end sneakers, hoodies, and outerwear from European luxury houses are often what come to mind. Yet, while K-fashion is influenced by idols such as Big Bang’s G-Dragon and groups BTS, EXO, and BLACKPINK, it’s not the norm for the average South Korean Gen Z-er to dress head-to-toe in designer goods.
The majority of young shoppers don’t have the financial means to buy high-end luxury brands from overseas, with the exception of those shopping in Seoul’s Gangnam district, which is home to boutiques such as Rare Market, 10 Corso Como, and Boon the Shop, as well as monobrand stores for OFF-WHITE, Celine, and Alexander Wang. Instead, it’s the local “SPA brands” — the country’s version of fast-fashion giants — such as ÅLAND and NAIN that cash in with young consumers.
“Commercially, SPA brands are still dominating the youth fashion scene due to the influence of K-pop and K-dramas. That’s as far as Korean-inflected fashion influence goes,” says Barry Ooi, head of fashion analytics at Omnilytics, a market intelligence company based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia that has worked with adidas and Salvatore Ferragamo. Omnilytics estimates SPA brands to make up about $13 billion of the South Korean fashion market, which it values at $40 billion overall.
“Young people in Korea are really familiar with the online [fast-fashion] market as well, and they buy a lot from there,” adds Mo Kim, one of Rare Market’s three co-owners. Ooi agrees, saying that Korea’s internet penetration rates are far above the global average, with fashion alone accounting for about $8 billion in e-commerce sales, mainly driven by younger consumers.
Tough competition from SPA brands explains why it has taken time for South Korea’s homegrown brands to take off. “Over at Seoul Fashion Week, you’ll notice the cool kids are more into foreign streetwear like A-COLD-WALL* and Vetements or foreign-influenced [South Korean] streetwear like ADER Error,” says Ooi. The country’s overall fashion industry growing at 3 to 4 percent annually, a low rate for an emerging market, Ooi explains. Tokyo is growing at the same rate, but the Japanese market is much more mature, explaining the slow growth.
But change is afoot. Influential early adopters take pride in wearing native brands such as Hyein Seo, pushBUTTON, and Low Classic, which are praised for their original approach to tailoring and avant-garde designs. At Seoul Fashion Week, hosted at the otherworldly, Zaha Hadid-designed Dongdaemun Design Plaza, more than 60 brands recently showed their Fall/Winter 2019 collections, all hoping to drive South Korean fashion forward.
The brands on display seemed equally aware that many South Koreans don’t or can’t spend luxury-level cash on fashion. This was reflected by accessibly priced collections and brands offering the public access to shows by selling tickets, unlike at fashion weeks in traditional fashion capitals.
“When you go to any of the fashion weeks in the world, it’s only specialist. In Korea, it’s a cultural event,” says Seoul Fashion Week executive director Jung Kuho. “The younger generation wants to be involved with the fashion scene here and interest from regular people is much bigger than in the rest of the world.”
But to get the attention of international editors, buyers, and consumers, Seoul needs to include brands such as Kanghyuk, ADER Error, Hyein Seo, and Juun.J, all of which are making waves abroad and stocked at influential retailers such as Dover Street Market. And it’s just as important that brands such as pushBUTTON, BLINDNESS, and Low Classic return to showing at Seoul Fashion Week after opting for shows in Europe or skipping runway shows altogether.
From an outsider’s perspective, a lot of Seoul Fashion Week shows need to be shorter and given an injection of narrative so the collections become more than a procession of clothes. There also needs to be a reason why brands get shown beyond mere novelty. The casting, too, could do with more diversity, although South Korea as a nation is much less multicultural than European or North American fashion cities.
But these are the things Seoul will have to do if it hopes to become a fashion leader alongside New York, London, Milan, and Paris. The first step will be to become the dominant Asian fashion week, an ambition that must overcome challenges from Shanghai and Tokyo.
“My goal has always been to promote this fashion week and Korean designers,” says Jung, who recently departed the Seoul Fashion Week organization after four years in his role. “From the PR side, it’s almost done. But the next stage is [driving] business for Korean designers in the global market.”
A handful of young brands at Seoul Fashion Week did show the potential to reach that next level. The best were those that took design risks, injected narratives into their collections, and struck the right balance between commerciality and concept. These labels showed that South Korean fashion designers are starting to carve out an identity of their own, giving Seoul Fashion Week that little something extra. At last.
Check out some of the best brands — South Korean or otherwise — showing at Seoul Fashion Week FW19 below.
Founded by Lee Kyu Ho, who graduated in men’s and womenswear at French fashion school ESMOD in 2017, MOHO is both art and fashion. The name derives from the Korean word moho-hada, meaning to be ambiguous.
From afar, MOHO could be mistaken for a South Korean Rick Owens, with its sinister and brutalist design aesthetic. However, up close, distinct differences can be seen everywhere. Lee brings a more personal, perverse touch to the label, differentiating it from western contemporaries.
Last season, the designer showed a utilitarian collection that explored protection and referenced his two years of military service, which all young South Korean men must do. This time around, he took animality as his theme.
“I was thinking about why humans take animal skins and transform them into clothes,” Lee told Highsnobiety after MOHO’s show. “I wanted to deconstruct why it was pretty and convey the feel of an animal without using animal materials.”
For MOHO FW19, Lee transformed plaster-embossed faux leather into a fake alligator-skin jacket and made a bomber made with cable-tie fabrics, resembling the hides of porcupines or a character from Hellraiser. Faux fur and leather were also present in a collection that was a Seoul Fashion Week standout.
The best styling came from Beyond Closet, a South Korean menswear label founded by self-taught designer Taeyong Ko that effortlessly blends prep with street — or, as Ko puts it, “classic with a twist.” Ko had already shown his new collection in Florence at the Pitti Uomo trade fair in January, but this second showing was restyled, making something that could have been repetitive feel fresh.
Tents were erected in a faux desert that served as the backdrop along with motorbikes and rusty road signs. Parkas came in patchwork padding. Long coats in herringbone were paired with camouflage chinos and sand desert boots. If it weren’t for the somewhat random interjection of Sesame Street (a giant Elmo sat front row), the collection could easily have been mistaken for an emerging Parisian label.
With blazers retailing for $300, the commercial collection should sell well next season.
VIBRATE, originally founded as a hat brand by Kim Yong Pyo in 2015, has started putting puffers at the core of its collections. It’s a smart move, as demand for full-length “caterpillar” coats continues to be massive in South Korea. The trend has been driven by K-pop stars over the last couple of years, with floor-length coats by labels such as The North Face becoming social signifiers and markers of the country’s class divide.
For FW19, VIBRATE coats and jackets came in military, metallic, and utilitarian versions with multiple pockets. Some were deconstructed, while others were more experimental with the lining of the pockets. Priced well below luxury price points, VIBRATE is right where the money is, at least for another season.
British brand Cottweiler, too, reshowed its collection in Seoul. As part of the fashion week’s partnership with the British Fashion Council, which sees South Korean brands showing at London Fashion Week and vice versa, Cottweiler introduced Seoul to “The Lost Art of Cruising,” with designers Matthew Dainty and Ben Cottrell exploring ideas of masculinity and referencing the secret codes of British subcultures.
The designers wanted this iteration of the collection to be different than its first, so, like Beyond Closet, pieces were restyled for the nighttime, with new items added, such as perforated leather tracksuits, jersey pieces, and Korean golf masks reworked by a local tailor. “Things started to come together during the casting,” said Dainty backstage. “Where in London everything was about exploring more masculine codes and a subcultural approach, this time we added some feminine touches.”
Cottweiler has always had a loyal following, including Drake and Skepta, so it’s nice to see the label expand its horizons.
Setting its show on a long basketball-courted runway, D-ANTIDOTE, founded by Central Saint Martins alumnus Hwansung Park in 2017, paid homage to Space Jam and Michael Jordan.
Jordan’s famous number 23 was emblazoned across mesh shirts and there were LA Lakers logo flips. The many long-sleeve shirts under short-sleeve shirts and tattoo-covered models were a surprise — tattooing is still technically illegal in the country and having them remains controversial — while basketballs turned into bags, logoed sweatbands, and metallic tracksuits and visors gave the collection an intergalactic feel.
There were strange moments, like Seal on the soundtrack and models sporting adidas shoes while paying tribute to Jordan, but overall, the logo-heavy collection popped. It’s clear to see why retailers such as Selfridges, Barneys, and ASOS have stocked the brand since its inception.
When asked about South Korea’s place was in the fashion industry, Park told us, “We’re always trying to catch up with cities like Paris and London. Hopefully one day we can make it. K-pop opened the door to the world and K-fashion is now catching up.”
For our conversation with The Sartorialist, check the podcast below.