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Seven Men To Know In Seoul

MR PORTER meets South Korea’s tastemakers

We probably don’t need to tell you that South Korea is having a moment. In the past few decades, the country’s incredible achievements in the realms of technology, cosmetics and – let’s not underplay it – pop music, have helped its economy and influence across the globe to grow and grow. And while the rest of the world’s cultural capitals snuff and huffle over what seems to be an ongoing crisis of identity, politics and – let’s face it – pop music, the South Korean capital city of Seoul has turned into one of the most interesting places in the world to visit and explore, whether that’s because you’re interested in the future of technology and consumer culture, or you’ve just developed a penchant for the country’s excellent cuisine. But what’s it like to live there? Ever curious, MR PORTER sought out seven men engaged in Seoul’s vibrant community of creators, designers, style aficionados and taste makers, and asked them for their perspective.

Mr Taeil Park

Editor-in-chief, Bellboy Magazine

Born in the port city of Masan, but a Seoulite for the past 18 years, Mr Taeil Park is the editor-in-chief and creative director of online fashion journal Bellboy Magazine, which he launched in 2015 after stints at Esquire Korea and GQ Korea. As a side gig, he co-owns the extremely stylish and appealingly secluded Underyard café in Gangnam.

What’s your day job like?

A lot of the time, I spend my entire day shooting. But in the meantime, everything I see, hear, touch and write about when it comes to clothes is an inspiration for me. When I’m not shooting, the thoughts and images I have collected are put together and recorded. That is the magazine I make.

Is there a good market for magazines in South Korea?

A country that’s interested in fashion is perfect for magazines, but it is increasingly difficult to get people to pay for content.

What do you enjoy about working in fashion?

The long-standing borders in the fashion world are crumbling. For example, who can tell the difference between street and runway now? I try not to draw a line for myself.

How did Underyard come about?

I opened Underyard with my wife in late 2015. The place was originally an office for an interior designer, but we decided to try a café in there. The location in the MR PORTER shoot is the second outpost. The first is being renovated and turned into a lifestyle store.

What’s special about it?

Seoul is a very trendy city, but we don’t want to get caught up in all that. We want a comfortable café. Just a place where everyone can drink good coffee, eat good food and feel familiar and comfortable whenever they come.

Messrs Mr Logan Kim and Mr Hosuk Jang

Founders, Hosting House

Interior designer Mr Hosuk Jang (above, left) and marketing guru Mr Logan Kim (above, right) first met in 2011, while living in New York. After moving back to Korea in the mid-2000s, they decided to join forces and, in December 2018, set up Hosting House, a concept-store-slash-café-slash-rooftop-bar in the trendy Seongsu-dong neighbourhood that aims to bring a little bit of Manhattan cool to Seoul. (MR PORTER had a party there in October, so we can attest that it’s rather wonderful.)

How would you describe the retail market in Seoul?

Mr Logan Kim: The Korean market is very fast and trendy, but that also means that Korean people easily get tired of trends and want something new and fresh all the time. That's why I always need to be ahead of the trends, figure out how to make a business model out of them and constantly come up with fresh business ideas. We are planning to redecorate our current space on a yearly basis, according to the season and the arrival of fresh merchandise.

We’ve heard Seongsu-dong described as Seoul’s Brooklyn. Is that true?

Mr Kim: Seongsu used to be a mecca for industrial production and craftsmanship, mainly shoe manufacturers and printers. However, all cities change with time. A lot of young people are moving to Seoul and interesting spaces are being created here between the warehouses, factories and car repair shops, just like in Brooklyn. Also, in terms of the architecture, there are lots of old red brick buildings, similar to that Brooklyn vibe.

Hosting House looks incredible. How did you go about designing it?

Mr Hosuk Jang: We have three spaces: Shop Hosting, the concept store; Café Hosting, the café and bar; and the Rooftop. I wanted to give them all a slightly different feel, but give it the feel of New York. So, Shop Hosting is a loft-like space that feels like someone actually lives there. For Café Hosting, Logan and I pictured a small yet cosy place somewhere in Brooklyn.

What do you like about working in Seoul?

Mr Kim: Korea, especially Seoul, is not an easy place to survive. Inflation is high and competition is extreme because the population is condensed and everyone is well educated – more than 80 per cent of Koreans are college graduates. But there is something about Seoul that’s like New York. The culture is so dynamic and it never bores me. It constantly evolves and moves in different directions.

Mr Wonsang Ye

Hairstylist and founder, Bless Barbershop

A former creative director at L’Oréal, Mr Wonsang Ye has been working as a fashion hairstylist since 1991. He set up Bless, the first barbershop in Korea, he says, in 2001, after falling in love with the concept when he was in London. The first Bless was a tiny shop in the Hannam neighbourhood, but since 2012 he’s been based at his current, lovingly decorated shop in Gangnam.

Why does the barbershop concept stand out in Seoul?

When I opened, people were like, “What is a barbershop?” People had no concept of it in their minds. What I offered in the meantime was both a very traditional way of experiencing the barbershop, but an approach that was tailored to the individual, whether you were a lawyer or a fashion editor. That’s what makes my place different. Normally, in salons in Seoul, if they want to make money, they all provide the same trendy hairstyles. Everyone ends up with the same haircut.

What do you like about working in Seoul?

When you’re living in the city, you don’t feel that much what’s going on. I often get European customers who say, “Wow! Seoul, it’s so amazing”. But I don’t notice it so much. One thing I would say is that all the trends, which come from Paris, or London, or Milan, the European market reacts to them, but still retains certain foundations, style wise. But here, we are very sensitive to trends, because it’s a recent thing. People are really sensitive to trends and they are following all the K-pop stars. One famous K-pop star wears something and everyone just follows it. So, it’s really fast, but we don’t have a core here. That’s why I’m interested, with Bless, in building something authentic, which has a relation to a tradition.

How did you decorate the shop?

You can’t imagine how difficult it was. I couldn’t source anything from here. I had to get everything from New York, or San Francisco, or Japan. For the floor, I wanted tiling from an old, American barbershop. I contacted all the suppliers here, but no one could, or wanted to do it, so I had to do it myself. It ended up being a really hand-crafted shop.

Mr Kwangho Lee

Designer

Part furniture designer, part artist, part artisan, Mr Kwangho Lee is a multifaceted creative whose work defies easy description. Born and raised in a village outside Seoul, he’s now based in a small studio in Seongsu-dong. His work – from seating to lighting to interiors –mixes austere modernist forms with organic textures, and he uses materials such as enamel (“Skin, Enamelled Copper Series”, 2010), straw (“Zip”, 2010) and, in his Obsession series, a range of yarn-like fibres that he knots into solid forms, such as chairs. His accolades and achievements are many, from collaborating with Fendi for the 2011 edition of Design Basel/Miami to being named Artist of the Year by the Korean Ministry of Culture in 2011.

Describe your design process.

I always look at the material first and think, this will work for a light, this will work for a chair. It’s like with clothes. You look at the fabric first and then you think, will this make a coat or a pair of trousers?

What’s your typical working day?

Generally, I come in at 9.00am and finish at 6.00pm. I have a family and three kids. By the time I started working, I already had my first child, and now I have three. I get inspired not by particular things, but by the routine of my daily practice. I’ll work on something, then come back and see it the next day, and see how I can take it forwards.

How does your appreciation of materials affect your choice of clothes?

I don’t buy a lot of clothes, but I love going to look at them. You see clothes presented in spaces by brands such as Acne Studios and Celine, and you see how everything works together to fully express a brand. It’s a larger communication, which is really interesting.

What are your future plans?

I used to live with my grandparents in a small village in the countryside. They’ve passed away, but I want to renovate the house they lived in. I want to create a place for my kids to grow up in, but also integrate it with my furniture work and my own happy memories of growing up there. As my work and life are so intertwined, that makes a lot of sense to me.

Mr Chris Choi

Photographer

Mr Chris Choi has spent the past decade working as a street-style photographer – under the moniker Streetper – capturing some of the world’s most stylish people in Seoul and beyond (he’s a particular fan of Milan, and would love to live there some day). Alongside his photographic work, he runs an online shop, shopstreetper.com, which sells menswear essentials and amply speaks of his predilection for a certain classic, European style.

What inspired you to take up photography?

It started I suppose when I was young. My father took many photographs of the family, so I got really used to it, and I have a lot of memories associated with photography. At one point, my father became too busy and couldn’t take the family photographs any more, so I decided I’d do the photos and bought a camera.

What interests you about fashion?

It started when I was at university. Before that, I didn’t know anything about fashion. In Korea, men have to do military service. When you do that, you can’t really do that much in your spare time, so I ended up looking at lots of fashion magazines. After I finished military service, I started picking up more of the clothes that I liked, and gradually developed my interest.

How would you describe the fashion scene in Seoul?

It’s important to follow the trends, which move very fast here, but it’s not my favourite thing to do. The Sartorialist is one of my favourite photographers. Because he doesn’t just capture the trends. He’ll capture a guy who wears old vintage suits, capture an individual’s taste and how he wears clothes, rather than just what the clothes are. It’s very much about chasing trends here.

Mr Seungmin Jung

Founder, Trvr and Vacantworks

Industrial designer Mr Seungmin Jung was a rather precocious student. He launched TRVR, his vintage-inspired accessories and lifestyle brand, before he graduated in 2009. Since then, he’s produced a range of simply but beautifully designed hand-crafted products for outdoor use, including caps in collaboration with Washington woollen mill Pendleton, a handy hunting chair and, more recently, a jacket in collaboration with historic French workwear brand Le Mont St Michel. In 2012, he launched Vacantworks, a creative agency that allows him to put his eagle eye for design to work for other clients. MR PORTER visited him at his offices in Itaewon.

What drew you to a career in design?

It’s all about essence. The process of approaching this essence – of analysing, planning, finding a way and producing the final creative – is something I find exciting.

Why are you so interested in vintage American style?

It is a look that has a story. When we talk about aged garments, in particular, the traces that emerge naturally over time become expressed in style. The story of each individual is left on the clothes and they have a charm that becomes part of a personal history.

Why did you base yourself in this neighbourhood?

Just a year ago, we were in a quiet village next to Changdeokgung Palace called Insa-dong. The scenery was beautiful and it was great to enjoy the tranquility, but there was no interaction with people. Five years before that, our office had been in Itaewon, and I missed my neighbours and friends, so we came back. Itaewon is a very progressive neighbourhood. Many foreigners live here and there are lots of exciting things happening all the time.

What do you like about living and working in Seoul?

It’s fast moving. There’s no boredom and there are a lot of cultures co-existing side by side. That’s what makes Seoul such fun.