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What Is K-Fashion? In Seoul, South Korea Continues to Push its Newest Export

Last week in Seoul, South Korea presented its Spring 2019 hopes for a fashion export as ambitious as its internationally successful K-Pop business. But it’s a bumpy road, says Anders Christian Madsen.

As K-Pop groups like BTS and Big Bang continue to take the Western world by storm, over the past three years South Korea has been rolling out its future export hope. Fashion is an important part of Seoul’s city culture. You need only walk down the streets of Gangnam to understand it: here, monumental fashion stores light up like shopping temples to super brands, and not just the French and Italians.

During Seoul Fashion Week last week, Boon the Shop invited Erdem Moralioglu over from London to host a reception for his new streetwear collaboration with the boutique, a fabulous Seoul destination for the fashionably inclined. Not content with simply consuming fashion, South Korea wants to be a part of it. Seoul’s fashion week presents a staggering 10 shows a day for six days, making K-Fashion – as some call it – a reality. Yet the rollercoaster of quality that defines these shows sometimes makes it hard to understand what K-Fashion stands for exactly.

The shows in Seoul opened last Monday with the 30th anniversary of Solid Homme. The frontrunner to Wooyoungmi – the excellent men’s brand that shows in Paris – Solid Homme is lesser known than its trendier little brother, but stands as a beacon for the commercial viability of K-Fashion. With their charismatic COO Caroline Kim, founder Madame Woo, and her Central Saint Martins alumnus daughter Katie Chung fuse classic menswear and original ideas with a strong, polished style of branding and promotion in both Solid Homme and Wooyoungmi. The former’s anniversary show took guests out of Zaha Hadid’s impressive but dismal Dongdaemun Design Plaza – which hosts all the shows at Seoul Fashion Week – instead elevating their presentation to the roof of said building with fantastic production value that included a massive sand set and a full cast of the Korean male models loved by international fashion industry.

The K-Fashion scene should take a page out of Solid Homme’s book. These days, a dimly lit runway in a conference centre just isn’t enough. That is, of course, unless the clothes you put on it are something really out of the ordinary. Emerging South Korean labels like Blindness and The-sirius have successfully proved that fact in the past – and moved their shows to London and Milan, respectively – but visiting Seoul on a seasonal basis, that kind of potential is few and far between.

Next to Munn, a seasonal favorite, last week’s runaway hit with the foreign press was Moho, a 32-year-old graduate of Esmod in Paris, who flexed his talent for technique and fabrication is a dystopian collection that would no doubt delight those with a penchant for Rick Owens and Ann Demuelemeester. He said it was about “the sublime,” referring to Kantian philosophy, but his most powerful statement was generated by the question if his two-year obligatory military training as a male South Korean had affected his aesthetic.

“Training for killing people,” was how he described it. “It makes you see the world in a more tragic way.” It’s statements like these that make us understand the bigger picture of K-Fashion in terms of South Korean culture, tradition, and mentality, and that is key if the nation wants a major stake in the international fashion industry. Far too many brands in Seoul seem to fumble around in blindness, trying out overcomplicated cuts and garment concepts that have no unique point of view. After last season, I had great hopes for Maxxij and Heta, for instance, which I found in the runway space devoted to emerging designers.

Returning to Seoul last week, I was sad to see the latter missing while Maxxij had incorporated quotation mark graphics much too similar to those of Virgil Abloh at Off-White in his repertoire. Derivative and reductive fashion is a problem in Seoul. Like they did with K-Pop, South Korea’s challenge is to steer its designers in a direction sufficiently original for a global audience now more focused on authenticity than ever.

In a much different and less trend-driven corner of Seoul Fashion Week, I was pleased to meet Myoungsin Lee, the designer behind Low Classic. Recently bought by Browns in London in a big way, she forewent staging a show in favor of focusing on her new business obligations. “I’m getting closer to the simplicity and clean-cut identity of my brand,” she said, referring to the slick (but mid-market) tailoring that’s been called “the Céline of South Korea,” nodding at the Phoebe Philo era as opposed to Hedi Slimane’s.

Rather than the fussy, often frumpy, and mainly inauthentic takes on feminine tailoring you see on so many Seoul runways – epitomized by way too much detailing – Lee’s work looked considered and chic. It didn’t, however, bring us closer to forming an overall idea of South Korea’s fashion identity, nor how it’s cultural codes and conduct are expressed creatively through K-Fashion. Going forward, this is where Seoul Fashion Week needs to focus its efforts.

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