In Seoul, even toddlers out-dress you at the shows. Fashion is a Big Deal here. An integral part of K-culture, it’s fuelled by a generation of kids who devour fashion with a no-boundaries, inherently genderless approach that doesn’t conform to their parents’ ideals, and an emerging scene of designers who fly the flag for self-expression. People use the word ‘freedom’ a lot, and it’s hard to be in the midst of this undiluted ode to individualism and not let your mind wander to the situation north of the border. Ask South Korean designers about it, though, and most will tell you they’re more worried about the President of the United States than their dictator neighbour. Which probably tells you everything you need to know about Donald Trump.
It’s quite tempting to quote the Spice Girls in relation to Yeonjoo-Koo and Jinwoo-Choi of J Koo. From their design philosophy to their partnership, it’s a ‘when two become one’ kind of thing: hybrid pieces and a meeting of minds. “We both studied menswear at CSM and love tailoring. Yeonjoo has a feminine touch while (I have) an interest in street culture,” Choi explains. The duo set up their label in London in 2010 but the recession didn’t exactly make for an ideal start-up situation, so they came home to Seoul to show here. Now a womenswear brand, they work around reassembling classic pieces, playing with proportions and body awareness. “We’ll put small with XXL and connect them with a string,” Choi says of their love of unexpected garment construction. Case in point: SS18’s dresses with drawstring that lowers or raises hemlines.
Seung Gun Park admits he wasn’t always into politics, but with everything going on in the Korean Peninsula and elsewhere right now, all that has changed. “Fashion becomes almost a voice of rebellion in the current political climate – the colours, the loud prints, it’s all about the idea of freedom and freely inspiring people with clothes,” he says of his work. Park partly credits K-pop for the way Seoul’s fashion scene has almost organically emerged from it. “Young people always desire something new. The fashion scene in Seoul has the potential to reach fans far beyond Asia.” Launched in 2009, his label Pushbutton is a jolly romp through decades past, like SS18’s executive forties-eighties realness and boys in corset-back office trousers and heels. “You want to have the confidence where guys can wear heels, too. Plus, heels were a guy thing first, right?” Park notes, adding: “And if guys want to look pretty they can wear girls’ clothes.”
Moohong Kim’s CV isn’t your usual fashion bio. With a PhD in politics from the UK, he set up his brand in 2013 wanting to bring his subject theory into fashion. “As I majored in social science, I endlessly attempt to draw ideas from literature and apply them to my designs. I always try to adopt counterintuitive thinking,” he says. For SS18, he printed ‘Standard Kills’ on his fluid, pieced-together silhouettes. “As soon as standards or social norms are established, people who don’t adhere to them are excluded so easily. I want to point out that kind of story.” Like many of his fellow South Korean designers, Kim resists conventional silhouettes. Jackets come back-to-front; trousers are pinned to the body instead of worn. “The new generation of designers here are doing really interesting experimental stuff. I think Korean fashion nowadays is about diversity and the dynamic.”
There’s a sense of inclusivity and positivity to Kimmy J. Christened after the designer’s nickname plus the letter J – which pops up in the names of a lot of her friends – Heejin Kim’s work feels like a squad of like-minded but individual people where there’s room for more than one look. Her clothes are glossy and upbeat: streetwear via techno kids and nineties hip-hop with a sprinkling of unicorn motifs, holographic workwear and pastels thrown in for good measure. “They’re quite graphic,” she says. “I devote a lot of time to the task of organising imaginative moments and images into curious shapes.” Originally a human environmental design graduate, she unveiled her label in 2013 after studying at CSM. For Kim, it’s an exciting time to be in Seoul: “The fashion industry has undergone a transitional period in the last few years and I think it’s matured now.”
The evening before the Blindness show, Wooyoungmi’s creative director Katie Chung – daughter of Madame Woo – noted how the Korean devotion to beauty and fashion is perhaps an extended, elated post-war moment, Dior New Look-style. And that for the boys, their conscription is a catalyst for rebelling against conformity. Looking at Blindness (LVMH Prize finalists last year) where male models drifted past in crimson ruffle clouds and white lace dresses, it makes total sense. Do the designers agree with Chung’s theory? “Kind of, yeah.” KyuYong Shin and JiSun Park had been thinking about Shin’s army duty and how the older generation want men to be men. “We wanted to break the concept of that,” Park says. “There are no genders in beautiful things – that’s a motto of ours.” Similarly, they’d concealed the identity of the models behind pearl-encrusted Korean pollution masks, bringing a sense of preciousness to the mundane and putting focus solely on the clothes.
Sisters Crayon Lee and Coco J Lee are a whirlwind of whimsy, like their clothes. Take SS18, where they referenced Mrs Potts from Beauty and the Beast in a frilly, faintly fetishised skirt. Both Lees studied and worked in New York (Coco at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Crayon at Pratt Institute) before returning to Seoul and now bring their different perspectives to the label founded by their mother, Kiok Kang. “The cultures of countries, races, sexes, neighbourhoods, cities – these frictions and differences inspire our work.” There was a tongue-in-cheek domesticity to their collection via Minnie Mouse with cartoonish oversize bows and aprons. “Basically this collection is about [Coco’s] imagination when she was a child, what she thought was the grown-up world.” It was a jolt of energy and fun in slightly gloomy times. “Trump and Kim Jong-un are like… a crazy match. I don’t know what to say. It’s crazy.” Yup, what you said, Crayon.
Hair Gary Gill at Streeters using EIMI by Wella Professionals and ghd, make-up Siobhan Furlong at LGA Management using NARS, models Max Overshiner at Next, Atty Michell at Viva, photography assistants Alannah Louët, Jackson Bowey, styling assistant Felix Paradza, hair assistants Kirstine Engell, Tommy Taylor, make-up assistant Miranda Baron, casting Svea Greichgauer