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From Dongdaemun to the world’s runways: K-fashion takes advantage of increased global interest

June 29,2018
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Model Maye Musk struts down the runway last year during the 16th “Concept Korea” fashion show, wearing an all-white outfit designed by Chung Chung Lee’s brand, LIE. [CHUNG CHUNG LEE]
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Beyonce, top, was spotted wearing a T-shirt by Greedilous. Above, Han Yeong-a, CEO of Hahn Global Associates, has been trying to spread K-fashion to the world. [GREEDILOUS, HAHN GLOBAL ASSOCIATES]
On Sept. 8, 2017, 69-year-old model Maye Musk walked down a runway in Manhattan, New York, with elegantly coiffed silver hair and dressed head-to-toe in white. It’s usually no big deal when a model walks down the runway at a fashion show, but the Korean fashion industry took notice after it was revealed she was a world-class model, who also happens to be the mother of world-famous scientist Elon Musk, wearing an outfit created by a local designer in the global fashion Mecca.

Musk was walking as a part of “Concept Korea,” a biannual event hosted by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Korea Creative Content Agency, held during New York Fashion Week, to give young Korean designers a chance to get their designs out into the world. The autumn 2017 show featured LIE’s Chung Chung Lee and Park Youn-hee from Greedilous, both of whom also took part in “Concept Korea” this February in New York. Musk wore outfits designed by both Park and Lee, looking stunning with each step she took.

Even though K-fashion may have once been infamous for its lack of ingenuity and authenticity, Korea’s fashion is starting to get some real attention from international audiences, ironically for the same reason it had been called a copycat in the past.

As pop stars start to take an interest in Korean designs, K-fashion is spreading its wings wider and rising higher with the help of the internet, where celebrities are seen wearing made-in-Korea items and K-pop stars appear on shows wearing local designs, many of which are created in the heart of Korea’s fashion capital, central Seoul’s Dongdaemun.



Celebrity spotlight

While it may be a small step, many big-name international pop stars have been spotted wearing clothes made by Korean designers. Beyonce watched her sister Solange perform wearing a pink and grey T-shirt by Park’s Greedilous in October 2017, while Rihanna was seen wearing a fake fur coat by Kye Han-hee’s KYE in 2015 and many times since. Designer Park Jong-woo’s 99percentis was worn by Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, while Ko Tae-yong, creator of Beyond Closet, recently signed a contract with management company IMG, becoming the first Korean to do so.

K-fashion has been popular in Southeast Asia for a while thanks to the ubiquity of Korean pop culture in the region, but thanks to the international success of Psy’s “Gangnam Style” in 2012 and the recent rise of BTS, Korea’s cultural influence have grown far beyond the reaches of Asia.

With the unexpected popularity of the “Gangnam Style” music video, the West began to take interest in Korea and its pop culture exports. And now, the impressive success of BTS and the sheer number of fans they have is expected to bring Korean culture to a wider foreign audience, as its popularity isn’t just something momentary, but continues to grow, as seen through its achievements such as topping the Billboard 200 with its latest album last month.



Endless effort

Han Yeong-a, CEO of Hahn Global Associates, has been working for a long time to ensure that K-fashion gets the attention it deserves, using her knowledge and acquaintances she built from her experience abroad.

It was Han who had pushed for Maye Musk to walk at “Concept Korea,” seeing a trend in the fashion industry of using senior models on the catwalk. Han also suggested that Patricia Field, renowned American fashion designer and stylist, style the models for the “K-Fashion Project” held in Shanghai in December 2014. “For K-fashion to take flight, it’s important to collaborate with global stars,” said Han.

So what exactly are K-fashion and K-style? According to Han, it’s not a particular style of clothing, but the system of how the whole fashion industry runs, and the way things are created quickly as a result of the culture.

“It’s the things that are expressed through fun and sophisticated sentiments, after [a designer] takes the street fashion styles they see in their everyday lives, and then they reinterpret them through different genres,” said Han.

Based on this definition, K-fashion isn’t a particular style, but a cultural environment as a whole where the younger Korean generation creates, adapts and changes to different trends, and then the designers take it in and make something of their own.

The reason this is possible, according to experts, is precisely the reason why K-fashion was infamous in the globally as a copycat. It may need inspiration from others, but when it works, nowhere else in the world has such quality clothes created so quickly.



From Seoul to the World

Looking around Dongdaemun, one can see the powerful dynamics that drive Korean culture to the world stage. Across the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) stand giant shopping buildings such as Doota, Migliore and Hello APM, all of which contain thousands of designs that visitors can choose from. Tourists from all over the world, especially those from Asia, fill the halls looking for clothes that best suit them.

The announcements made inside the shopping malls are made in Korean, English, Chinese and Japanese, as are the signs out on the streets to attract foreign tourists. “Shop at Doota Mall and get a maximum 20 percent discount at Doota Duty Free,” reads one signboard.

DDP is also a hot spot for foreign tourists who wish to see K-fashion in action. Seoul Fashion Week is held twice a year at the DDP, and it is where designers both new and veteran present their seasonal collections.

“Not only tourists, but also the number of foreign buyers who come with an interest in the Korean fashion rose from 300 in 2015 to 540 this year,” said Lee Hyun-joo, a member of the production staff of Seoul Fashion week.

One suggestion from Han is that K-fashion may actually thrive more by taking advantage of the immediate issue at stake - one that has the whole world’s attention on the Korean Peninsula.

“If we can set up a joint fashion show and get a model from North Korea to wear something designed by a South Korean and have them walk in Panmunjom, then that will certainly get people’s attention,” said Han. “If there is a chance, then I’d like to go forward with it.”

BY NAM JEONG-HO [yoon.soyeon@joongang.co.kr]