As our dispatches from Seoul Fashion Week have proven, the Korean city has firmly established itself as an emerging fashion powerhouse. But it’s not just their native land in which Korean designers are making waves. The country’s young designers have created much buzz at the recent graduate shows in New York and London, while a stampede of Korean brands are bringing their labels westward to catch the attention of influential buyers and editors.
So why all the sudden fuss? “The Korean national character is ‘speed,’ which means Korean designers catch up to global trends easily, but they also set their own trends while keeping their customers in mind,” says Bum Suk Choi of General Idea, a menswear label which has been picked up by Oak, Takashimaya and Atrium. His line perfectly exemplifies this idea—inspired by “military detailing, vintage items, architecture and literature,” everything from a white sleeveless trench to a multi-layered button-down shirt look both on-trend and original.
“If you look at Korea’s traditional costume, you can see it has a peaceful feeling in color and silhouette,” adds Bon Kuk Koo, a 2009 FIT graduate who has just accepted a position with Chado Ralph Rucci. “Our design is based on feelings, so the clothing makes people look elegant and gentle. People do not attract attention to themselves by their clothes – they dress with restraint.” As we’ve noted before, this sentiment of quiet luxury is taking hold of the industry as a whole, making such contemplative design all the more relevant for our times.
Before arriving in the West—whether to study or launch a full-fledged collection—’most Korean designers spend years honing their design skills back home. The ones we interviewed for this story gave nothing but glowing reviews of Seoul’s well-rounded fashion programs, which fully prepare their disciples for a career abroad. “The fashion curriculum in Korea is very broad—it spans design, textiles, marketing, fashion psychology and business strategy,” says Eudon Choi, a 2006 MA graduate from London’s Royal College of Art, who is now a senior designer for Twenty8Twelve. “It’s very different from what you’re taught in London—’here, it’s entirely focused on developing design skills.”
Perhaps this is leading a more artistically driven tier of Korean designers to seek creative development abroad, an idea echoed by Bon Kuk Koo. “My dream is to become a fashion designer who is also an artist,” he says. “In Korea, that is really hard to do because there are too many designers, too few positions and salaries that are too low. Plus, it is hard to show outside of the country. Honestly, the Korean fashion curriculum is really great, and if your goal is just to study fashion, you can do it there. But in order to achieve my dream, I have to stay here and develop my experience and techniques.” Eudon Choi, who spent four years designing menswear for Time Homme before enrolling in the RCA, disagrees. “There are lots of job opportunities in Korea, at companies like Handsome and Samsung,” he claims. But then he goes on to add, “Those cater mostly to the domestic market,” echoing claims that it’s hard to get international recognition without heading to one of the big fashion capitals.
Luckily, the fashion world is primed to welcome them. “All around the world, people are looking for new styles,” says Bon Kuk Koo. “Koreans have very specific tastes and styles, and we are starting to go outside instead of staying in a small area. I think that’s why people are interested in our work.” Adds Eudon Choi, “Korean fashion has improved a lot over the past 20 years, and designers are finally trying to get recognized. They’re competing on a more international level, being exposed to more international shops and are aspiring to do better as a result.” Judging by the thoughtful, meticulously crafted results we’ve seen, these aspirations are being more than fulfilled.