Won Lee started his career as an entrepreneur, building a business focused on the retail and distribution of luxury fashion brands, while also growing his presence in media, entertainment and art in his homeland of South Korea.
After his ventures in South Korea, Won’s desire to expand his vision to a global scale prompted a move to the US, where he worked as a creative director and agent for fashion shows, music videos, and commercials while working closely with IMG, WME, and ITB. He’s worked with real
estate and hospitality groups including CBRE, Prodigy Network, and Soho House for co-working and hospitality launches, both domestically and internationally.
He saw the potential in the first season of the innovative eyewear brand, Gentle Monster, later becoming the CEO and CCO. In his time there, Won drove the sensational creative retail culture that only Gentle Monster could provide, collaborating with renowned artists in its physical designs and campaigns. His most recognizable collaborations included those with Tilda Swinton, HBA, and Opening Ceremony. After a significant six years at Gentle Monster, Won has departed from the company to begin a new creative journey, X8.XYZ.
Aside from his business navigation, he has a true eye for the arts and media world, where he produces and manages a Media and Light Art installation project at a futuristic botanic garden in South Korea’s Jeju Island. The art installations are spread over 50 acres of land, including the artworks of Bruce Munro, Tom Fruin, Jen Lewin, Jean Pigozzi, Jason Krugman, and Byung Chan Lee. With his recent exit from Gentle Monster, Won looks forward to further exploring and elevating his vision.
Can you share your personal journey of moving from Seoul to New York City and how it influenced your perspective on Korean culture's global impact?
I started my career in Korea in 1995. I was trading luxury brands with first-generation e-commerce, then began to sell wholesale businesses for luxury brands from Italy by creating communities like Meetup on Korean portals such as Daum and Naver.
When my business volume increased, I had to sell more, and I had to devise a strategy in order to accomplish this. There were several entertainment companies surrounding me, and I asked them to send me their leftover products, took some photographs, and used their faces to advertise the products.
There was no entertainment management system at the time in Korea. I took advantage of this and I was able to organically learn marketing, branding, etc. I enjoyed creating content and realized I love to create the story and see the result and how people reacted.
Then I moved to the US. Initially, I moved for family reasons. However, I was able to continue working in NYC on a similar business model.
As a creative director, how do you perceive the evolution of Korea’s cultural influence in the US over the years?
I have lived in the United States (Philidelphia, New York, New Jersey, and LA), been single, married, and had two children. The creative industry has also enabled me to achieve many things (Gentle Monster is the largest example here) and to establish a network. Even though I visited Korea numerous times during that time, I realized that the Korea I knew had changed greatly, even too much. Although they speak the same language, their lifestyle is the same–the structure of their country is very different. Due to the support of my family, I am now confident that I am fitter in the US than in Korea. Although they fit better in Korea than me, they respect my decision regardless of how nervous they are and how scared they are to be strangers in a foreign country.
Considering the size and structure of the land, Korean development is the fastest in the world (Seoul is ranked second, Beijing is ranked first). Therefore, Koreans see each other and what others wear, eat, live, etc., which is why Korea is highly regarded and eager to be better, richer, and more powerful. The image of Korea is Seoul life (Busan perhaps?) from the outside which is an equivalent image of all Americans living in Manhattan (Wall Street).
Currently, Korean cultural power is at its peak. I see this Kculture in New York City: food and art, lines at Korea Town 32nd Midtown in Manhattan, as well as a high-end Korean fusion restaurant, COTE, which is doing exceptionally well. Korean art prices are going up and the Frieze Art Fair in Seoul is the hottest art market, luxury brands are expanding into Korea. The more people are exposed to and experience the culture, the more they understand and love it. Cultural power begins with familiarity.
It is very fast-changing in Korea. Since most people live in Seoul together, we see what one another is buying and selling. So many people enter the same market, and people quickly become tired of this and look for new ones. This is good but unfortunately not sustainable.
A number of sunglasses brands were established once Gentle Monster was popular, as many production companies were once Squid Game became popular. Also, many entertainment companies opened once BTS rose in popularity, so it’s extremely competitive, and trends are constantly changing, which means that the key to Kculture's future lies in expanding its market to the global marketplace, which I believe has already begun.
During the pandemic, people wanted to experience what they saw on social networking sites, and K content was booming. It’s important for people to be able to access creative content in a convenient way so that more people are able to understand and admire Korean culture.
In the past, most Korean brands opted to cast European models rather than Asian models, but today we are able to see Korean faces on billboards and magazine covers.
That’s the change.
In your time as the US creative director for Gentle Monster, what strategies did you employ to bridge the gap between Korean aesthetics and Western preferences in the eyewear industry?
When I created a project, campaign collaboration, etc., I had never considered Eyewear, or the product. Whenever I had stories, I wrote a synopsis and brought references such as images, videos, styles, music, and space. Then I proposed what I considered to be a movie plan, and brands were delighted with my idea.
Despite its uniqueness, the story makes sense globally, with a little mix and fusion of avant-garde elements. Style should match the story, but it doesn't mean cliche. With the Tilda Swinton campaign, my goal was to hide her and the product as much as possible; the traditional strategy involves showing more. But I did not want to.
I tried to hide her face as much as possible with a fencing mask, while the final part revealed who she was with a music climax, even though people kept suggesting that we add more of her face, but I disagreed. During that period, Chinese consumer power was very strong, and then K-drama and K-pop began to spread through YouTube and other platforms. I was in the right place at the right time, people were eager to discover new things such as NOWNESS and more.
What are the core values of the creative identity of X8? What influenced the design of your latest, Anima X Animus by X8?
My core values are in story, style, space, synergy, strategy, and sensation. We want to be collectively (X) connected and communicated (8). Anima x Animus was inspired by the recognition of this era, I think the next chapter of evolution, environment, the world (economically crypto-web 3.0), and all systems and definitions we believe have been changing. I brought gender concept, what is the definition of gender? So energy can be new criterion of Gender.
What kind of projects or collaborations have you worked on that converge Korean and Western cultural elements?
When I started my creative agency in the US in early 2010, my clients were mostly Korean companies and government agencies promoting Korean culture. My experience includes the Joseon Dynasty King's visit to Philadelphia in 2014, and the Hanbok Fashion Show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which had over 80 models representing a variety of nationalities.
Furthermore, I felt that Western artists could be introduced in Korea in a unique manner. Rather than traditional artists, I was interested in kinetic, media, digital, and installation artists, so I created my own list of these artists and contacted them. As a result of sharing my vision with them, we developed a relationship. My responsibility was to curate all Western installation artists at the Green Tea Farm light art installation at JEJU island (a beautiful island in Korea).
In terms of fashion, I was inspired by Korean colors, whereas in terms of heritage, as I mentioned previously, I usually used Western rather than Korean factors.
What do you believe is important for a brand to communicate? What qualities does a company need for people to keep coming back?
It is important to understand how the decision-making process works, and how the company culture is structured. Sometimes communicating with senior and C-level executives can be extremely difficult. They order from the top down. To bring cool and new trends, they must be able to support and challenge the next generation. However, sometimes risk management is too slow to keep up with the market trends.
What are the similarities and differences between the creative realms of the East vs the creative realms of the West? Are there any concepts, ideas, or aesthetics highlighted in one and not the other?
According to me, the creative structure is as follows: story, concept, style, space (scene). We know the story is similar, however, the concept, style, and space (scene) can be adapted to specific cultural factors. The story is always adapted to the customs of a particular country, but now we live in a truly universal and modern world that is based on Western design. A unique experience is created by the location, the people, and the style.
For example, BTS's music is composed by several composers from all over the world. When they sing, the lyrics are usually in Korean. The concept of style and space (scene) is the main factor to guide how the K-ingredient can be used with western styles, etc.
Where is the global creative community excelling, and what is it lacking?
Social networks have made a significant movement, so many individual creators can share their creative ideas freely. At the same time, that's why there’s too much content-pushing, and people get sick of watching too many things.
Who inspires you in fashion, film, art, and pop in Korea? In the West? Why?
In fashion, Kuho Jung. He’s everywhere creatively, especially in his way of collaborating with traditional Korean factors. In film, Chanwook Park. I love his visual Mise-en-Scène and set design, especially music. In art, Nam June Paik, he was a genius and I was inspired by him very much in his deep philosophical foundation. In pop, Hyukoh. I love his vibes and rhythm. In other countries, Yohji Yamamoto, Hiroshi Fujiwara, Rick Owens, Tom Ford (love his movie), Wes Anderson, James Robert Jarmusch, Stanley Kubrick, and The XX.
What do you think the future of fashion, art, and design look like?
In a literal sense, people can live without fashion, art, or entertainment. However, I observe a constant link between economic circumstances and the market. Sometimes those (fashion, entertainment, art, etc.) lead the economic arena, but at this time it is extremely difficult due to the capitalization-driven structure of the system.
The social networking sites are struggling. People started to become sick and exhausted and realized this is a waste of time and energy, so the content is too competitive. I believe we are entering into the next chapter. Human beings have evolved many systems since the Industrial Revolution, but they no longer work, and a new chapter has just begun to fly.
What helps you to keep your imagination and inspiration alive?
Storytelling is my passion, I enjoy expressing my inner thoughts through writing, and I'd like to become a circus maker or a show producer. My ambition is to be a Peterpan so that I may fly high, but at the same time, I must make a profit in order to gain people's trust and belief.
My major and background are in Buddhism, and I studied philosophy, religion, and psychology. I am fascinated by the way the world is changing just as our minds are changing. That is the main source of my inspiration.
Do you believe people must actively work to stay creatively energized, or is it more of a passive, natural state?
Despite the fact that we may not always be optimized, we cannot always be under the control of algorithms, because we are human beings. The human mind is too complex to be optimized. An individual's life by algorithm has been very convenient up to now, but now we are realizing there is more and bigger worlds and options outside of algorithms, so we must run away from the
Truman show and embrace creativity, life, and engagement.
Written by Virginie Picot