Seoul: A Style Story

By Katie Chang

Most flock to Myeong-dong, one of Seoul’s busiest neighborhoods, to scoop up the latest and greatest in Korean beauty products. But it’s what locals are wearing that makes me gawk. In less than 30 minutes, I experience an entire Fashion Week’s worth of looks. An oversized Céline trench coat from designer Phoebe Philo’s final runway show (on a man flaunting gobs of eyeliner, no less), a cherry-red Vetements hoodie (whether purchased at the controversial 2016 “Garage Sale” or a knockoff plucked from nearby Namdaemun Market, I’m not sure) and countless edgier-and-riskier-than-New York looks I can’t place but silently admire. People are here to shop, but they’re also happily making a major style statement too. 

Diversity in Design

In short, it’s tough to imagine a livelier fashion scene right now than that of Seoul. Initially, the meteoric rise of Asian capital’s unique, youth-driven street style and the ubiquity of the fast-fashion industry caught the eye of Western fashion bloggers. However, it’s what’s been spotted on the runways of Seoul Fashion Week—which kicked off just three years ago—that’s captured the attention of the more consequential style set (think magazine editors and retail buyers). And like the boundary-pushing personal style of its Gen Zers and millennials, the Seoul designers making waves are just as individualistic and diverse, producing looks that range from contemporary classics to highly conceptual and directional.

Wi-Fi Code: Fast

South Korea is home to the world’s speediest average Internet connection, which is frequently credited for Seoul’s rapid ascent to the top of the fashion globe. Hyemee Lee, head designer of the womenswear and accessories line EENK, says, “As more information and images came into our culture at a faster rate, it encouraged us to be more comfortable with being unique. Eventually, that opened us to a lot more options.” (No surprise, then, that EENK’s top-selling item is a chic iPhone case bearing a signature gold square handle.)

Change of a Dress

Jae Hyuk Lim, co-designer of Besfxxk, a fringe brand of sportswear and casual wear (Barneys New York recently snapped up one of its multifunctional jackets), agrees with Lee. “Social media changed everything here,” he says. “It convinced us to see different things and, in turn, dress differently.”

In this context, though, what does that really mean?

Until very recently, South Korea was a longtime bastion of conservatism and rigid gender roles: traditionally, men worked while wives stayed at home to care for the family.

While Koreans have always appreciated fashion, styles typically lean toward the conservative side to align with the culture—with widely adored, established European brands dominating wardrobes. “Even though older generations also grew up in a fast-paced environment, they didn’t have opportunities to take risks without the benefits of the Internet,” explains Lee. “So naturally, they had to conform more.”

Fashion Fluidity

In stark contrast to the past, Koreans today (particularly in the fashion community) embrace fluidity between genders. Hoyoung Chi, the head designer of Heta, initially launched a line of “luxury streetwear for men” in 2016 but decided to include women in his upcoming collection by “provoking people’s comfort levels and experimenting with genderless silhouettes.” (This sort of move seems fitting for a man who admitted to flaunting skirts as a young boy merely to test boundaries.)

Korea’s capital city is the fresh, vibrant jolt of exuberance and energy the industry (and, really, the rest of the world) needs right now. As Chi puts it, “So many things about Korean society (K-Pop, Korean skincare and Korean cuisine) are well-adapted to the world right about now.”

Article by Mosaic and provided courtesy of Morgan Stanley.

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