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Johnny Hates Jazz by Choi Ji Hyung

Seoul Fashion Week A/W 09 Roundup

A tug of war between commercial viability and creative output hampers Seoul's fashion week but fresh and interesting talent was still showcased through platforms like Generation Next.

Seoul's debonair Mayor Oh Sea Hoon plans to defy the recession, not give in to it. "We are aware that other cities are cutting down their commitment to fashion," Oh Sea Hoon said as he signaled his ambition to make Seoul into Asia’s fashion leader on par with Paris, Milan, New York and London. "We are increasing our investment in fashion and Fashion Week, in order to fill in the cracks in the industry."
On the surface, Oh Sea Hoon’s generous statement seems to bode well for Seoul’s fashion community. And Seoul is a city where every successive mayor strives to find a signature way to assert his personality and legacy. Unfortunately, advantages achieved those areas by each administration are rarely carried forward by subsequent officials. Unless systemic changes are embedded in Seoul fashion’s economic infrastructure, Seoul is at risk of backsliding, right at the point when its fashion scene is showing striking promise and its Fashion Week is starting to come into its own.
A number of genuinely fresh, promising and remarkable talents were on view at Seoul Fashion week. As long as the city is able to maintain the pace, energy and platform established by Oh Sea Hoon after his term expires, Seoul certainly has the talent to attract foreign press and buyers who can provide a nurturing safety net for the more risk-taking designers.  It is the ones who Oh Sea Hoon terms “symbolic designers” representing Seoul’s intellectual and creative potential who give this city a strong basis for becoming a significant fashion center.
The most innovative and interesting shows were staged at Generation Next, where the eleven young designers bravely refused to give way to mere commercial concerns and presented a range of wearable yet thoughtful and thought-provoking collections. The highlights were:
Art schools are packed with girls trying to resurrect the spirit of Frida Kahlo, yet few have created as independent and interesting an homage as Ye Ran Ji.  In her last two seasons with her “The Centaur” label, Ye Ran Ji channels the joy and vitality in the Mexican artist dubbed “heroine of pain” in her country of origin. But she also created one of the most desirable and mature collections during Seoul Fashion week. Based on the idea of concealment versus disclosure, Ye Ran Ji’s collection is one of the few to flatter any age group or body type. The peaked shoulders of her sculpted wool jackets typify the trend for strong shoulders this season. Worn with trousers snipped at the knees and a fabric bra underneath and embroidered with Kahlo-inspired birds, or as part of a full merlot-hued three-piece dandy-style suit, they were one of the most unique, investment-worthy and confident items to emerge on Seoul’s catwalks. A woman of Kahlo’s strength and spirit could not do better.
Choi Ji Hyung selected the name Johnny Hates Jazz for the spirited sister-line to her eponymous brand because she liked the snarky sarcasm of the eighties English pop band’s name. The band found their name because a friend of the lead singer hated the group’s musical influences. On her part, however, Choi Ji Hyung maintains an appreciation for the classical forms she playful tweaks in her Korean-based line.
The F/W 09 collection was inspired by nature, with an earth tone-based palette and seashell-prints on tee-shirts and a seashell-inspired runched waist. The line’s sharp silhouette and Hoxton-style hipster cool, with a fur-adorned cap, gold leather mini-skirt and Sol le Witt-style print on a little summer-dress make the collection stand out as sassy city-wear.
Walking down the catwalk at the Kring art centre to happy misanthropy by The Smiths and The Pixies were boys who emanated nice nerdiness. Undersized for models, with hunched shoulders and hair in their faces, they wore cornflower blue corduroy suits, sweat pants, knit caps and other signifiers of geek gear. The single model with the right proportions and heart-breakingly beautiful sensitive features looked as though he might have a cold as he ambled down the runway with a red nose and wet eyes. However, like the overlooked nerds who turn out to be future successes or at least funnier and better boyfriends, the garments’ apparent slumpiness hid their fine fabric and admirable cut.
SETEC provided a wider range in its drab, visually overpowering conference hall setting. On one side was the terribly trashy yet popular wedding gown designer Jae Bock Hwang, who staged a show of synthetic designs adorned with rhinestones, frills and bulbous fabric flowers, one of which was improbably attached to a model's bottom like a bunny tail. But on the opposite end were three extraordinary designers’ collections.

England has Henry Holland and Berlin provides a playground for Michael Michalsky, but the designer who brings rock-star energy and showmanship to Seoul does more than dabble in a lot of disciplines. He is a real pop polymath who is a celebrity of the hightest order in Korea. Ha Sang Beg presents a hugely popular style program on Mnet (Korea’s version of MTV) and is a star DJ; he’s also a former top model and learned tailoring in London. For this season, he pulled off a show of wearable pieces inspired by the carnage of war. As the figure-head of fun in Korean fashion, Ha Sang Beg showed yet another facet: his ability to be a serious artist.
While Ha Sang Beg’s show was operatic in feeling but thoughtfully in synch with a wider reality, Jung Wan Son’s show was as fun, silly and escapist as the latest series of “Dirty Sexy Money.” And the show’s looks made that soap opera’s pseudo-sophisticated wardrobe seem staid. In a the style straight from “Jem and the Holograms.” The entire catwalk and backboard was covered in Mylar, which mirrored the shiny metallic surfaces of the flamboyantly shiny and sexy collection. With top to tail glittering gold, soft silver PVC as reflective as a disco ball and lots of swishing pleats, layers and swing dresses, the real shock was how well-made the wares by the local celebrity favourite actually were.
Youth rules the runways and garners press attention. But maturity also has advantages, which are admirably demonstrated by Young Hee Lee. Lee is Korea's equivalent to Christian Lacroix. Her label is immune to trends because she creates traditional designs for older, established clients in the most sumptuous fabrics available. Alongside the traditional Hanbok designs which earned her a plum place as the first Korean to show in Paris's prêt-a-porter collections, Lee also shows a series of chic day and evening wear combining Parisian élan with traditional Korean costume. Her collections are consistent reminders of the wonders wrought by mastery of the design and creative process, rather than a prodigy’s bursts of energy.

Offering the best elements of both firm heritage and creative verve is the rejuvenation of the internationally recognized Troa line. For Han Song’s debut prêt-a-porter collection as the inheritor of his mother’s line, a favourite among Korean matrons, the NYU Political Science major and rock devotee updated the brand by returning to traditional textile and dye-making. The result was a line of floral prints and easy sensual shapes which avoided appearing dainty or dowdy, and instead conveyed the undomesticated real beauty of nature.

* Look out for my interviews with Ha Sang Beg and Ye Ran Ji for The Centaur as separate profiles in the Fashion section.