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Everything You Need to Know About Seoul Fashion Week

Despite the fact that the moniker "Seoul Fashion Week" hasn't been in use for more than 5 years, the Korean fashion industry has been on the international scene for far longer than that, although very much behind the scenes.
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Models present creations by South Korean designer Moon Young-hee during Seoul Fashion Week in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, April 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
Models present creations by South Korean designer Moon Young-hee during Seoul Fashion Week in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, April 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

...besides the fact that it took place and ended two Mondays ago, right between the news cycles for Hurricane Sandy and for the American presidential election?

The first thing one needs to know about the Korean fashion industry is that despite the fact that the moniker "Seoul Fashion Week" hasn't been in use for more than 5 years, the Korean fashion industry has been on the international scene for far longer than that, although very much behind the scenes. Much like the national economy that has been developing for decades since
, the Korean fashion industry had distinguished itself by virtue of its export-oriented nature. Many of those deep in the fashion industry already know that South Korea has been a major exporter of high quality textiles for decades already. but the country's fashion industry has been moving from just being a textile export powerhouse to producing world-class designers on the runways and sportinglooks worth following on the streets for some time now.
Korea has the unfortunate luck to be generally overlooked by the West until such time as historical or cultural accident places South Korean cultural industries into the international spotlight, often to the surprise of not just the rest of the world, but South Korea itself. Witness the recent surge in interest in South Korean films by Hollywood following the film
Old Boy'
s sweep of international film festivals, namely the one in Cannes, and the more recent interest in K-pop following the success of Psy, who is South Korea's most recent

Something similar has yet to happen for Korean fashion, but short of a Korean designer suddenly finding a way to be catapulted into instantaneous world fame, that will probably have to happen by virtue of the quality of the Korean fashion aesthetic -- which has been quite visible on the streets of Seoul over the last several years, which I started documenting back in 2006, and which is becoming more noticeable as more fashion bloggers and smaller media producers continue to take interest in South Korean fashion designers, who are chock full of talent and skills, but have yet to receive their full due attention from major international fashion media.

It was only a few years ago, back around 2008, if I recall correctly, that the various fashion industry shows around Korea started billing themselves as a singular event: not the "Seoul Collection" or the "Korean Fashion Designers Association (KFDA) Show," but as "Seoul Fashion Week." This change in confidence and attitude came along with the central and city governments' decision to heavily financially back this event as a part of its overall effort to encourage higher interest in and actively promote Korean "cultural industries" abroad. As a part of what many South Koreans like to now call the "Korean wave," the fashion industry has not enjoyed the success of other sectors of other so-called " cultural industries," such as in film, television and pop music. But this is not for lack of talent within the industry, but rather lies in the fact that "cultural industries" are simply difficult to promote for promotion's sake, but usually require a pivotal specific cultural product to blow up and lead the way. Unfortunately, the government suits who sit in big board rooms and command large amounts of money generally like to engage in promotion for promotion's sake, and don't generally understand that interest in Korean culture doesn't generally result from interest in Korea itself, but rather the "perfect storms" of interest that pop up around specific people or cultural products. That being said, the work for the Korean fashion industry is cut out for it, since fashion runway shows and even the most flamboyant designers generally don't cause as much of a splash as a YouTube video featuring a guy doing a hilariously infectious dance to a catchy tune, or a shockingly dark and gory film for French film Festival fuddy-duddies to go gaga over.

For a while now, Seoul Fashion Week, in the form of the government suits who have given the event major financial backing over the last few years, has made it a stated goal to elevate themselves into the top fashion week events in the world, which presently include New York, Paris, Milan, London, in no particular order. But the one that most people would agree would go last in any list that includes such cities would be Tokyo, a city and a fashion week that Seoul ewould be more than happy to bump out of last place. so, the city of Seoul is taking itself very seriously in carrying out "soul fashion week" on a large scale and at an international level of quality that would be ready for the likes of Anna Wintour to and take her place in the front, prime press seats near the front of the runway.

However, the planners of Seoul fashion week can't expect Anna Wintour to show up with her notepad and attention ready just because they want that to happen. Before the major international fashion media takes notice of Korean fashion, there needs to be enough buzz by notable medium-level fashion media outlets doing stories on Korean designers and the street. And to get to that level, there need to be enough English speaking bloggers and journalists doing stories on Korean fashion and soul fashion week to generate the basic information, pictures, and stories on Google for this process to even start. The biggest problem for the Korean fashion industry is the same problem that other Korean cultural industries have had-- South Korea is a pretty insular culture, both online and off. There is a lot of information about Korean fashion designers on the Internet. however, most of it is in Korean, written with the common Korean cultural assumption that no non-Koreans would care, anyway. This is combined with the fact that even with international events about which non-Koreans probably would be assumed to care, no one bothers to put the relevant information into English, anyway.

Except, that is for the intrepid and stubborn few of us documenting Korean culture industries in English and providing the basic information on the ground that needs to be created before anything can go anywhere. The reality is that Korean fashion isn't enough of a blip on the radar for most cash-strapped media organizations to send writers and photographers to cover. The Korean government has in the past invited and sponsored international journalists cover its events, but the government suits frankly have no idea what they are doing and whom to invite. Unfortunately, the Korean way of doing things is very top-down, and the tendency -- especially since they have begun to take themselves very seriously -- is to start at the top and move down, by inviting major media outlets and other famous names in the industry, who, when they Google some of the names that might appear in a poorly worded translation from a Korean press release, will find very little information on Google. Koreans have only recently begun to deal with the reality that most of the world uses Google as the main search engine and not the domestic favorite, Naver.

It's for this reason that Seoul Fashion Week has recently started getting into the habit of not allowing bloggers and smaller news outlets press access, even if they were producing content in English about the event and its designers, which they sorely need. even for this story, written by a longtime blogger about Korean fashion who is already based in Seoul and has been covering the event regularly for the last 10 seasons, my own press application was denied, and when Huffington Post's Style editor agreed to send an email to register me as international press, her requests went unanswered, and I was told by the organizers that they had never heard of the Huffington Post. After all, it's "just a blog," right? The only way I got access this season was by calling an old favors at the local fashion industry newspaper I was once a stringer for. with publicity strategies like this, I wouldn't be expecting Anna Wintour to have anything to Google and start packing her bags over anytime soon. It seems that the Korean press strategy here is to simply build it, and she will come. unfortunately, that's not going to work. bugs needs to be created on the ground, and in English, before Seoul fashion week will be anything more than a blip in the fashion news radar in Asia.

But since this post has already grown long in the tooth, I'm going to move right to talking about the week itself, albeit in the form of an interview with someone who is an actual fashion journalist, with something useful to say about the fashion of Seoul fashion week itself. as for me, I'm just a photographer with an eye for color, patterns, and overall tasteful looks, but not very adept at explaining why certain things are worth looking at in great fashion-oriented detail. I'll do what I do best, which is figure out what's hot, who's wearing it or talking about it, documenting that, and reporting that back. here, I'll defer to someone fashionable who also knows how to talk about fashion, and then punctuate some of his points with pictures from shows he mentioned, as well as from other major Korean fashion designers whom anyone in the industry here would agree is worth paying close attention to...



Korean "dandy style" for men is epitomized by Ko Tae Yong.

The powerfully, playfully feminine styles of Doii Lee, an SFW favorite.

Yang Hee Deuk has also been an SFW regular, and has been getting a lot of attention outside Korea for his celebratory takes on lavish and elegant modes of women's wear.

Kwak Hyun Ju is another regularly-awaited SFW regular, with edgy, often playful looks for both men and women.

Imseonoc is one of the most respected names in Korean fashion, with classy, often minimalist looks that always define her artistic sensibilities and thematic motivations from season to season. She is also well known for her innovative mixture of markedly different materials and processes, including plastics being woven into traditional fabrics. One never knows quite what to expect in an IMseonoc show.

Lie Sang Bong is arguably Korea's most well-known, venerable elder designer, taking up the mantle from a former favorite designer of Michael Jackson, Andre Kim, who died a few years ago, and who had been until then, arguably Korea's most well-known overseas designer. Lie's shows are known for being extravagant and technical masterpieces, and his shows regularly utilize Korea's top modeling talent.

However, getting back to this season's shows, the favorite new name on the scene was that by the brand Pushbutton, by designer Park Seung-gun.

And Seoul Fashion Week wil continue on, twice a year, in realative obscurity until...something happens that thrusts a singular designer into the spotlight, or someone finally gives Korean Street fashion the attention it deserves, which will bring more attention to the Korean sartorial sphere, and perhaps more foreign journalists will appear in runway seats. And given the fact that this will likely be the final season that SFW will be handled by self-interested event-fumblers such as the city-chosen PR firm Peopleworks, Inc., who conducted this season's Seoul Fashion Week with unbelievable incompetence (perhaps due to the inherent conflict-of-interest that comes with receving a set amount of government money with little accountability in the system for catastrophic levels of incompetence and what is to be done with tens of thousands in USD in unspent funds -- note that it is only under Peopleworks that SFW has been without the catering that generally goes along with Koreans' habit of rolling out the red carpet for international events -- roast beef sandwiches must suddenly look more expensive when you get to keep the financial leftovers after the contract with the city ends, I trust). But the rumor mill (both in the local fashion press and over lunch with a couple prominent designers) is that things will be privatized come next season, and word on the ground is that LG is courting favor pretty hard to take it corporate and do it right.

Perhaps when that happens, SFW will get smart enough to get more media-friendly -- especially to the much-needed English-language press while maintaining its open-to-the-public ways, such as selling runway seats to the public, since even the Korean public is still as-of-yet not familiar with its own nation's designer beyond those who show up on TV as judges -- and this is a culturally-nationalistic country the size of Illinois, so that's saying a lot. I trust that Korean fashion will get its due, but like other culture industries that successfully bust out of Korea, from Korean firied chicken to Psy, it will probably happen by dint of cultural happenstance. This column will do its best to play its part in the meantime, however.