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Socially-conscious brand ul:kin takes a stand

Mar 26,2019
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Fashion brand ul:kin CEO and representative director Lee Seong-dong, right, and design team manager Chun Ja-young pose at their “Generation Next” Seoul trade show booth at Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), central Seoul, on Saturday. [KIM EUN-JIN]
Only five years since its launch, ul:kin has become one of the most highly-anticipated brands each fashion week, recognized by its characteristic multi-layered pairing of different types of clothing - take jean jackets and sweaters, for example - pieced together with artful taste and structural balance.

Last Friday, taking one of the prime time slots of the 2019 F/W Seoul Fashion Week, ul:kin filled the 700-seat runway space with fashion insiders and celebrities while debuting its new collection, titled “No Norma,” exploring the idea that the standards people define as “normal” or “average” are based on a faulty logic that doesn’t really describe or fit anyone. A unique mash-up of blazer sleeves, silky dresses and padded vests were featured during the show.

There’s more to ul:kin than just scene-stealing hybrid outfits, however. In Korea, the brand - worn by celebrities like BTS’ Jungkook, HyunA and boy band Winner - is almost synonymous with upcycled fashion.

“Around 50 percent of the pieces in our collection have been upcycled and created from existing clothing made by our own brand and others,” CEO Lee Seong-dong told the Korea JoongAng Daily at his booth during the trade show held at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), central Seoul, on Saturday.

Upcycled fashion, especially bags, has been a defining part of ul:kin’s identity since its inception in 2014. On its website, the brand has a whole section dedicated to bags transformed directly from the canvases of rising artists that would otherwise have been thrown away.

Bags in the premium line are one-of-a-kind. The brand also manufactures bags featuring artwork prints to cater to a wider audience.

“I got the idea [to upcycle bags] after visiting a friend’s graduation exhibition,” Lee said. “I thought it would be a waste for their hard work and talent to just be thrown out.”

Lee returns part of the profit made from the bags’ sales to the original artists as a royalty. He also uses the revenue to provide them with new canvases - an expensive supply for art students - and invests in other activities that support rising artists, such as hosting exhibitions and facilitating sales and the distribution of artwork.

“It’s like killing three birds with one stone,” Lee said. “There is an environmental significance, it helps [promote] talent and adds to our brand’s identity.”

Although going green was just one of the factors that motivated Lee, raising awareness about human consumption and environmental issues is a key agenda for the designer.

The plastic waste problem inspired Lee’s previous collection, titled “Ever So Deep.” Amid aquatic colors and nautical designs, a t-shirt featuring images of plastic bottles and straws positioned like the body’s organs - a response to the iconic photo of an opened albatross carcass filled with plastic waste - caught people’s attention.

“As a brand that only produces on a small scale, it’s really difficult to make [a noticeable] physical impact on the environment,” Lee said. “But because we are small, I think we are in better position to send a message.”

“There is still a sense in Korea that eco-friendly [fashion] is not cool. We’re aspiring to be a brand that is both high-end and trendy, yet conscious about the environment and pursuing a social message.”

BY KIM EUN-JIN [kim.eunjin1@joongang.co.kr]

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