120 Hours At Seoul Fashion Week

Instagram moments abound at Seoul Fashion Week. Down the gently sloping concourse of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, designed by the late Zaha Hadid, wannabe stylistas lean nonchalantly against the wall supposedly oblivious to the linger of a lens around them, or perhaps arrange themselves on the railing, in the hope of being snapped. If they aren’t, then a selfie, several, will work too.

Charm's Spring/Summer 2019 show in Seoul. Photo: Courtesy of Seoul Fashion Week. 

Everyone is taking selfies. And everyone is dressed up. One girl, dressed in a transparent A-line skirt over trousers and a halter apron top over a crisp white shirt, her hair dyed pink, with hoop earrings and a Danse Lente-alike bag, is crossing the road and there’s no need to guess where she’s going. Later, she pops up on the front row at several of the first day’s shows.

There are teens and tweens and even children – the street style set starts really young here; matching outfits, mad outfits, and group outfits. The crowd – made up of press, the public, and celebrities – is young, eager, and all-embracing.

Mi Hyun Kang, 23, a web designer, who says she took three hours to get ready, came last year and enjoyed it so much she’s back. Dressed in a little red dress, fishnet tights, and hat – though she waits on the concourse, she says she’s not here to be photographed. Yes, it’s nice to be photographed, but for her fashion is about expressing herself. “Whenever I’m stressed, I dress up and go out,” she says.

Meanwhile, at the bottom of the slope, the scene, too, isn’t dissimilar to that of seagulls feasting on food – only this is all about Seoul feasting on fashion. There are three lanes set out for incoming guests and just beyond them, a sweeping blue staircase: it’s down these Disney-like steps that K-pop stars and celebrities descend into a basin of photographers before making their entrance into the shows (Key from the band Shinee made his solo debut and performed at the Charm’s show). On the other side of the lanes are the unofficial photographers’ spots, dedicated fans who arrived early this morning complete with their own ladders, from step stools to serious step ladders, and a long lens to catch a glimpse of their favourite stars.

Backstage at the Munn Spring/Summer 2019 show in Seoul. Photo: Courtesy of Seoul Fashion Week. 

“I’m waiting for Jung Eun-ji from A Pink,” says one such fan, Donald Lam, perched atop his ladder, who will post the pictures on his fan Twitter account, and hopes to see some of the other artists too. Celebrities get dropped off at the top of the stairs, cars snaking along down the road, moving up one at a time as a crowd gathers to see as they step out of the cars, are given a onceover by their stylists, and make the grand descent. “WOOOOOO,” coo the audience, who have been camped out for some time. Because K-pop is key to the fashion industry.

“It’s all about celebrities and designers, which is linked directly to sales,” Jackie Lee, the London-based Korean designer behind J. JS Lee, tells me before the trip. “People are obsessed with their idols; [it’s about] endorsements and K-culture.” Indeed, one of the buzziest names on the schedule, Munn, from designer Han Hyun-min, collaborated on-stage outfits for BTS, one of the biggest K-pop bands around right now. “There is a huge marketing effect and lots of people get in touch with me on Instagram asking questions [following the collaborations], so it’s very important,” he says. By the end of the week, Munn has scooped a clutch of awards, including supportive monetary funds, at the closing gala.

Minjukim Spring/Summer 2019 show in Seoul. Photo: Courtesy of Seoul Fashion Week. 

“There’s a young energy and fast trends,” describes the LVMH Designer Prize 2014 semi-finalist, H&M Design Award winner, and Royal Academy of Fine Arts graduate Minjukim. “Korean people really focus on the trends and try to be part of the ‘in-group’.” Hence the prevalence of streetwear and sportswear, Americanisms, and current European design zeitgeists.

It’s a different kind of fashion system, one that isn’t so embroiled with the snobbery and politics of the big fashion four capitals, one that is happy to trade on celebrity and social media worth. And, clearly, it’s just as important and effective given the accelerative growth and spotlight on Seoul over just these past few years.

“The latest change in Korean fashion was the people are more focused on contemporary fashion now and there is momentum to it,” says the designer behind established brand Songzio Homme, whose focus is on tailoring, elegance, and historical sophistication. “When you are outside the fashion scene, it seems like change is very quick, but if you are in it, it changes slowly.”

Backstage at the Songzio Homme Spring/Summer 2019 show in Seoul. Photos: Courtesy of Seoul Fashion Week. 

Right now, there is a global K-wave. It follows on from K-pop, K-beauty, and a pop-up love for kimchi in the west. None of this, perhaps, is surprising once you’ve visited Seoul. It’s not hard to fall in love with the place. The shopping malls stay open until 5am; the street style is next-level indulgent, brazen, unapologetically and celebratory so; it’s a true fashion haven where wearing the wild and imaginative is totally the norm and makes the street style looks of New York, London, Milan, and Paris look conservative and boring by comparison.

“There’s a strong sense of tradition, but at the same time so many modern developments coexist in a way that is very Korean,” describes Madame Woo, whose brand Solid Homme celebrated its 30th anniversary this season, of the contributing backdrop. “Technology and design collide in a way that I think intrigues people globally.”

Because being connected and online are now deeply ingrained into the culture, the idea of “picture or it never happened” all too prominent among a switched-on social media generation. “People are always looking at their screens!” says Lee. The relationship between brand and internet is even more important here.

Dressed in a tight blue dress, fuzzy jacket, and transparent boots, Min Joung Kim, 24, is a part-time model and tattoo artist. She’s at Seoul Fashion Week in part to be seen – as a model she hopes for more people to know about her if she has her picture taken and to get more followers. At the D-Antidote show later in the week, his front row lined with young and gorgeous K-pop stars, rappers, and actors dressed in his FILA collaboration clothes, and that’ll be no problem for designer Park Hwan-sung. The paps went crazy for them.

But back outside among the street style set, it seems strange to see so many children all dressed up. And even stranger to see just how in tune they are with turning it on for the camera. One mother tells me her daughter is a professional child model as she snaps away. Presumably others are here in the hope of becoming one. Outside is just as much of a catwalk as those officially inside.

Doheon Seong is part of a university fashion group called Kloset and every year he comes to shoot street stylers. It’s become a bigger event, he says. “They come to take a picture of themselves and then upload it to their SNS. Not all the people are professional models; they just like fashion.” I point out some seem to have more than one change of outfit with them. “In order to show their many fashions to photographers and agencies,” he says.

And when it comes to taking a picture, he’s truly spoilt for choice: between the nu-rave goths, mods and rockers, the twin looks and neon leopard print and stud options, style tropes abound and new ones are invented. It’s not hard to feel like a slob by comparison.

D-Antidote Spring/Summer 2019 show in Seoul. Photo: Courtesy of Seoul Fashion Week. 

“The fashion crowd here is very young,” re-iterates Jung Kuho, himself a fashion designer, and the man responsible for putting Seoul Fashion Week on the radar as its first executive director. Seoul Fashion Week, though, has been going for at least 15 years in various guises, and even before that – given that some of its biggest exports celebrated the big 3-0 this year. Parkchoonmoo, launched in 1988, and over at the DDP venue celebrated with an archive exhibition, footage from shows in the 1990s on display.

But it’s only recently, potentially in some ways down to the wake of the internet years, that Seoul has grown into what it is today (this one instance where fashion and tech do successfully work together). “My goal in the big picture obviously is to be the number one fashion week in Asia,” says Kuho. And so designers go through a substantial vetting process, applying and then being put before a panel compiled of Korean and overseas members.

Averaging between 30 and 40 years of age, of the designers showing, a lot of them are from Seoul, where fashion education exists far more than you might think. Every university, Kuho points out, has a fashion division, there’s ESMOD, the Samsung Art & Design Institute, and FIT has just opened up, as well as there being many exchange programmes on offer.

Of course, as Madame Woo points out, there are, however, still struggles for all emerging designers: “Striking a healthy balance between being creative and pushing boundaries, but also having a viable business.” Not to mention combatting the comparisons with western brands. Streetwear has been big in fashion for several years now, and it underpins the Seoul fashion aesthetic. Sometimes it seems like too much – there were certainly a little too many of the sports/street hybrids we’ve been seeing for a while here and a lot of shirts for whom sleeves were just here for fun and not arms. They felt a little too familiar and this wasn’t necessarily interesting, but it was being worn (so, clearly being bought) outside.

Backstage at the Ordinary People Spring/Summer 2019 show in Seoul. Photo: Courtesy of Seoul Fashion Week. 

What was interesting were the names like Munn and Ordinary People. And what was even more interesting was that wearing a western cap at times seemed like a moot point. Here, designers have the opportunity to be as creative as they like; there is support for that, and there is a thirsty audience for that. Those three big boxes ticked and it seems like Seoul is a living breathing fashion paradise.