Their hair was shocking pink, or orange or green – before my eyes was a K-pop band striking the poses of fashion icons.
G Dragon, the orange-haired K-Pop star, poses with Suzy, together with pink’n’aqua-haired artist, 99percentis, and a ‘hooded’ Boon the Shop’s Creative Director Xin Yang Credit Suzy Menkes Instagram
Like so many times on my first trip to South Korea, I was overwhelmed by the spectacle of creativity. Here was rapper G-Dragon, or Kwon Ji Yong, with his global reputation and five million-plus followers on Instagram, preparing a promotion for a pop-up store in Seoul’s high-end Boon the Shop.
This concept store is in the heart of the city’s super-rich territory of purring Mercedes and famous-label flagships, now known to the world as the source of “Gangnam Style”, after the singer Psy’s pop video went viral in 2012, with more than two billion hits.
Earlier that day, I had met up with Chung Yoo-Kyung, the fashion entrepreneur behind the idea of creating this youthquake in a classy boutique. She suggested that a radical retail shift was important if the Shinsegae Group, of which she is vice-president, wanted to embrace the new generation.
I spoke to Juun.J, a strong creative force and an important menswear designer during the Paris season. His retro-futuristic designs have an edgy feel and speak to the 21st-century generation. The latest collection features denim, cut with precision to stand away from the body and with a chameleon ability to trace the masculine form.
Designers Steve J & Yoni P
The MCM store in Myeongdong, which has a spaceship on display
Love padlocks embellish the N Seoul Tower
I asked the designer what had made him internationally successful, to the extent that he hopes to introduce womenswear before the end of the decade, with investment from multinational electronics-to-retail conglomerate, Samsung. “What is important is dedication – and a sense of mission,” Juun.J said. “I don’t work for money but for the sake of making identity clear.”
For home-grown fashion designers to compete with the global luxury empires, there would have to be a major shift in attitude. European brands such as Chanel and Dior both chose to show this summer in Seoul’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza, (affectionately known as DDP) – the mighty modernist structure designed by architect Zaha Hadid. First was Karl Lagerfeld’s one-night-in-Korea Cruise 2015/16 show; while a Christian Dior heritage exhibition, “Esprit Dior”, is on till 25 August.
For Seoul’s Mayor, Park Won-Soon, and newly installed creative director of Seoul Fashion Week, Kuho Jung, the question is this: Can any of the current local designers become a global force?
At the offices of StyleShare (www.stylesha.re). CEO Jayoung Yoon is to Suzy’s right, wearing purple
Suzy with Korean designer Jinteok
I talked to the duo known as Steve J & Yoni P, both, like so many upcoming designers, trained in the UK: Yoni at London College of Fashion; Steve at Central Saint Martins under the tutorship of the late Professor Louise Wilson.
In their studio on the cool side of Gangnam, the duo seems at the heart of Seoul’s downtown scene. They have recently signed up with a major national clothing company, which they hope will provide financial backing with the freedom to stay independent.
Kim Jae-Hyun, another cool designer, explained that she had found a backer for her Lucky Chouette collection of separates with an owl logo. Yet in doing so, she had to suspend her high-end line, Jardin de Chouette.
Support from mighty companies (or “chaebol”, from the Korean words for “wealth” and “clan”) seems to be available – particularly from Samsung, with its dynasty playing a leading role. Lee Seo-Hyun, the daughter of Samsung’s chairman, trained at Parsons School of Design in New York and is president of Samsung’s fashion and luxury goods subsidiary, Cheil Industries. She described the changing Korean fashion scene, but just who and where is the typical, young Seoul customer?
Seoul’s Gyeongbokgung Palace
Kim Young-Jin designs traditional Hanbok dress
I saw cool kids in Steve J & Yoni P’s neighbourhood. I visited the Itaewon area, popular with European tourists and with US military from the nearby army camp. I went downtown to Myeong-dong, where Chinese tourists flock to the space-age installation at MCM, the German accessories brand rejuvenated by Sung-Joo Kim, its Korean owner. I visited the Lotte World Mall, where every brand from Givenchy to Versace is installed, but most of the action seemed to be in the food and dining areas. I even went to the top of the N Seoul Tower, on one of the small mountains ringing the city, where sweet young couples sat under heart-shaped greenery after adding yet another “love padlock” to the surrounding rails.
Everywhere the young people dressed in the same casual way – not “normcore” in deliberately anonymous, faceless clothing, but in simple, easy pieces, often with bold accessories.
In one part of the Gangnam area, Garosu-gil, there was more cutesy dressing, which reminded me of Japanese girls in Tokyo’s Harajuku area.
Among the girly beauty stores, from local “skin food” shops to the UK’s Lush cosmetics, was Line Friends, a store that sells actual products representing the online emojis of an interactive app. Yet it looked like the bigger brands were already imposing their presence on this street, with a big, bold storefront for Polo Ralph Lauren under construction.
After all this, I was still stumped about a clear identity for fashion’s Gangnam style.
I was intrigued by a meeting with Jayoung Yoon, the founder of Style Share (www.styleshare.co.kr), a popular fashion website whose content is fed entirely by its users. The platform offers an insight into how young Koreans put their looks together and is a worldwide inspiration for stylish outfits.
Yet the most interesting overall insight came from Cho Eun-Ji, currently studying at London’s Central Saint Martins school and a frequent visitor to her home country. She gave me a deep-rooted analysis about what was happening, explaining that just as the Chinese today are fascinated and inspired by Korean entertainment, South Korea itself has always looked to America.
“South Koreans always had an ‘American Dream’ – we are close to them – even their military is located in our country and we always dreamed about having a culture like Hollywood’s,” she said, explaining that the Korean enthusiasm for finding new things and new trends to create a an overall culture has now created a “Korean Dream” for the Chinese.
For Eun-Ji, K-fashion and its surrounding culture has not yet created a unique modern character at the level of China’s historic Orientalism or Japanese Anime. Yet she also believes that the depiction of male and female relationships in K-drama has warmed the chilly relationship between the two countries. For China and its young generation, Korea sets the benchmark in many ways, especially in style.
Watching young Mandarin-speaking Chinese women at Seoul’s Incheon International Airport ripping open their plastic packages of Duty Free purchases, which they then stuff into carry-on bags, is a vision of the triumph of materialism over communism. And this was in a period when Chinese consumers were reduced in number by the MERs outbreak.
Yet for all the dynamism of Seoul, its super-high technology and its giddy embrace of the future, in fashion terms it seems locked away from its past. Juun.J mentioned to me in passing that traditional Korean dress allowed colour only for the upper echelons of society, while the rest of the population was obliged to dress in white.
I thought about this and remembered collections in shades of white and cream in subtle variances of filmy fabrics. They were by Jinteok, whose pure vision I first saw back in the 1990s when she showed in Paris. Visiting her graceful shop in Seoul is about as far away from K-pop as the fashion eye can travel. I like to think that it is somehow a reflection of the exquisite ancient celadon porcelain I saw in the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art.
I also visited the charming house and garden, like an oasis among the high rises, of the only designer I met who has evaluated Korea’s fashion history. Designer Kim Young-Jin has dedicated her work to the Hanbok, once the attire of all Korean women and children, but now worn for special occasions only. The neat, short, brightly patterned jacket worn with a billowing silk skirt seems too traditional for modern women. Yet when adapted, as Kim Young-Jin does made-to-order, the clothes are graceful and light. “I believe that fashion should include history,” she said.
Wandering through the Gyeongbokgung Palace, with its Confucian architecture and traditional pagodas, I asked myself why there was no reflection of the boat-shaped silhouettes or distinctive painted decorations in any clothes I had seen; not even a hint among the department store dedicated to fashion sewing accessories – 4,000 in all – that I had visited with the Mayor.
Can there be a distinctive future, K-pop included, without any reference to the past? This is the challenge for Korea’s designers: resolving the conflict between past and future to make K-fashion for now.
Фото: Suzy Menkes Instagram; Jeong Yi