How these young Korean designers find a foothold in the global scene depends on their experience—especially overseas—and in particular on their outlook, to produce collections that can compete on creative, manufacturing, and price levels.
Korean designers like Jehee Sheen, Sunho Kim, and Chul Yong Choi focus their design concepts on fostering a fashion language that embraces their own traditions as well as glances ahead with novel shapes and technological fabrics, imbuing their sartorial products with a sense of futurism but without the fanfare. The international background of the three designers is an advantage over their peers to break into the international marketplace where each brand now has a presence at stores across Europe and North America.
“Studying and working in Italy has influenced me in many ways,” Sheen says, over tea at the coffee shop of Seoul Arts University, where he is currently teaching fashion design. “The Italian design concept has an almost perfect balance between fabrics and details. I learned that balance, and the ability to apply inspiration to commercial design. There’s an outstanding sense of design in Italy because there is a long history and appreciation for luxury products. But, I have a different approach to fashion design compared to European designers. I don’t depend on visual. My inspiration comes from intangible value and then I embody the value for fashion design. I like my fashion design to stimulate emotion and nostalgia, not to create a visual impact.”
After two years working at Giorgio Armani, upon receiving his Masters degree at Istituto Marangoni in Milan, Sheen launched his eponymous line in January 2009 with presentations in Florence and Paris. At his fall show in Seoul last March, the designer continued to emphasize his ideals of clean silhouettes with austere cuts in monochromatic colors that reflected his esteem for the tranquility of Eastern philosophy.
The all-black collection of slim wool one-button coats with touches of dark charcoal gray, three-button cropped jackets with multi-pleat short pants, and boxy double-breasted jackets with flared cropped pants demonstrated the omnipresence of precise tailoring skills. Each piece can be worn interchangeably. The traditional Korean gat (wool felt hats, worn by all the models) added a sense of mystery.
“When you look at my clothes closely there’s a great amount of detail and meticulous construction. In a way, for today’s customers of designer clothes, luxury is about the finer details, fabrics, and cuts of the garment,” Sheen says.
“I started showing the collection early in 2009 at trade shows in Paris and Italy and thus I was able to gain customers, and more people are aware of the brand,” Kim of Groundwave says from his 5th floor studio and showroom located in one of the back alleyways of trendy Sinsa-dong in Gangnam district. On the racks beside his large desk are the bestsellers from his 8th season’s collection of oversized iconic staples—peacoats, bombers, military coats with sharp shoulder lines in heavy wool, jackets with frayed lapels, some with longer sleeves, a brown long sweater with faux fur front, and a cropped wool 3-button jacket. “I made everything from the pattern to the cutting and work with a seamstress on the samples.”
Educated at Esmod in Seoul, the designer is fond of combining Korean traditions with modern interpretations—one season his entire collection was based on the asymmetry of martial arts clothes, another on the monks’ garments he encountered at Bulguksa temple. Korean monk fabrics were mixed with wool herringbone like old temples next to modern high rises within one city block. Groundwave’s strength is in the multitude of geometric shape outerwear—from loose fitting short wool biker coats to knee-length classic coats that Harvey Nichols Hong Kong recently bought.
A graduate of fashion design at Domus Academy in Milano, Choi started his career as an art director in Italy before launching CY CHOI in Paris in June 2009. “Boundary—between this and that,” says Choi backstage after a show. “The Deux Ombres fall collection was inspired by the poetry of France in the 1980s. It was about the subject/object drawn by the light,” he states, referring to the variations of black silhouettes interceded here and there with a white underpinning on the models, who walked between a line of light bulbs laid on both sides of the runway.
A contrast of proportions and bulky shapes dominated a collection of mostly black wool boxy jackets paired with palazzo pants, biker jackets or biker coats in leather and wool, leather trims slim pants, and A-line double-breasted jackets with loose pants. A mixture of slim pants with oversized coats or a fitted two-buttons jacket with large pants offered the contrasting of silhouettes—it’s what Choi meant when he talked about transforming barriers to arrive at a different intersection and congruence.
Choi says, “My 10-year life in Europe allowed me not only to search profoundly to ‘the way of designing beautiful clothing’ but to search for myself, who I am and what kind of story I want to tell through clothes. Paris and Milano have given me a huge influence on how to express my own value. I certainly would show in Paris.”
Each morning, I diligently watched the top rated Pops in Seoul show on Arirang TV with performances from an endless supply of new talents in between the latest news on the booming K-Pop music industry. I wondered why, despite a great deal of efforts, many of these famous marquee names here remained more or less unknown in the international music scene except to hardcore fans. Perhaps it’s because many of the songs are in Korean, restricting their potential for exposure and export.
But on a Sunday afternoon two years ago, I went to a SMTown Live K-Pop concert at Madison Square Garden. Screaming teenage fans packed the place. I didn’t know who SHINee or Super Junior-K.R.Y. were, or any of the songs they performed that night, a mixture of Korean and English ballads I assumed must be top 10 hits in Korea. Yet I was in awe of the ardent fervor of the crowd obviously enamored with their idols on stage. In a sense, appreciation for this music is similar to how people are infatuated with certain kinds of fashion. It’s a matter of being present, being here.
The frontier beyond the success in the home market for high fashion remains difficult but not impenetrable. Exporting Korean high end men’s designer fashion abroad will require as much effort as those famous pop stars who ventured to other nations for exposure. The competition for fashion brands is just as fierce as K-Pop stardom, and key retailers have limited open-to-buy budgets. Experience and exposure overseas are critical to how a Korean brand is perceived at home and abroad.
“In 2006 I made my debut in Paris presenting 2007 S/S men’s collection. It has been quite long, as my collection has improved,” Songzio remarks after his show across the street from the Hôtel de Ville in Paris last July. “At the same time, the Paris collection became extremely international compared to 10 years ago. What I mean, ‘international,’ is its variation of collections. Nowadays, there are so many collections in very different styles and volumes. Moreover, I thought that some typical aspects of the Paris collection, such as creativity, personality, differentiation, would correspond to our brand identity. This has been a critical strategy for us and has also helped establish the brand in the domestic market.”
Songzio’s fellow designer, Juun.J, now part of Samsung Cheil Industries, followed the same path initiating his brand in Paris in 2007 to critical acclaim and recently commercial success.
Fashion has yet to become a part of the Hallyu (Korean wave) phenomenon. In the current global market, Jehee Sheen, Chul Yong Choi, and Sunho Kim seem poised to expand their presence that they have already established with placements in international retailers. Going forward, these designers have to create distinctive fashion and navigate around their country’s better-known export—K-Pop and its manufactured style.