How Seoul Is Pushing The Boundaries Of Men’s Fashion
Five reasons why the South Korean capital is at the cutting edge of style.
This week sees the launch of Seoul Fashion Week SS19 – an event, which, as its name suggests, showcases the very best of the South Korean capital’s established and up-and-coming design talent, with runway presentations taking place in the suitably arresting space of Ms Zaha Hadid’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza. Brands showing range from the well-known likes of Wooyoungmi and Solid Homme to hyped newcomers such as Blindness, a unisex line that was nominated for the prestigious LVMH Prize in 2015. At MR PORTER, we seldom need an excuse to pop out of the office, so we’re currently out there taking in the scene.
But before we took off, we thought it wise to consult an expert about what to expect. According to Mr Kuho Jung, who has been director of Seoul Fashion Week since 2015, the city is particularly fascinating for menswear because its men’s designers have always been operating in the shadow of an exceptionally vast and fast-paced women’s market. “Because the womenswear market is very large and volumes are much bigger,” says Mr Jung, “many women’s brands are more driven into affordable and wearable clothing. But men’s designers, in the beginning, their goal was going to the global markets, so they have more character and are more conceptual.”
Of course, this is far from the only reason that Seoul, as a style destination, deserves your attention. In fact the city, powered by an increasingly world-conquering and aesthetically progressive music industry (as well as, yes, a vast amount of cosmetics) is perhaps one of the most exciting places to be in the world right now. Especially if you like clothes. Below, with the help of Mr Jung, we explain the reasons why.
The South Korean music industry is one of the biggest in the world, and the most well-travelled, producing a steady stream of acts and artists that are enormously popular not just on home turf, but in Japan, China, the US and Europe. In the UK, we’ve been, perhaps, a little slower on the uptake – while in the US, boy band BTS are topping the charts, here they’re on the front page of the The Sunday Times Magazine with the headline “The biggest pop band in the world! And you’ve never heard of them.” Still, the influence of K-Pop continues to grow worldwide, and is overwhelming when it comes to style in Korea. The stylistic references for K-Pop tend to be R&B and hip-hop, says Mr Jung, but what’s even more important is the panache and daring with which its stars put themselves together. “When you look at male K-Pop stars,” says Mr Jung. “Every single one of them decorates themselves. They wear make-up, they wear lipstick, they wear clothes that might seem scandalous.” The market, he says, follows suit, with many brands taking a foundation of sportswear and old-school hip-hop to surprising new places in their designs.
Blindness, one of the most celebrated new brands to come out of Seoul, is a non-gendered brand – its clothes are designed to be worn by men or women, and it shows its creations on both. This is not a completely new idea, but what’s striking about the fashion scene in Seoul is that there are numerous brands taking this approach, either with unisex lines or by mixing clothing for men and women. The popularity of this way of dressing, says Mr Jung, is also related to K-Pop, as well as a digitally savvy customer base that is more concerned about the look of the thing itself rather than who, per se, it was designed for. “These days, the customer, these younger customers, they don’t care if it’s womenswear,” says Mr Jung. “If they like it, they just wear it. There are K-Pop stars that will wear a women’s Chanel jacket with men’s pants, and mix and match. Unisex will grow more and more I think.”
This September saw a first from Chanel, one of the biggest cosmetics brands in the world: it launched a line of make-up for men. Available only in South Korea, it comprises a tinted fluid, lip balm and eyebrow pencil, but, more than that, reflects the way in which Korean men have adapted to the idea of beautifying themselves. We’re not just talking about hair gel and moisturiser, either, says Mr Jung. Korean men (who are reported to be the top male consumers of cosmetics in the world) will use everything from BB creams (a moisturiser containing a very light foundation) to lip stains (like lipstick, but less glossy and smeary). Why has this happened? “I think about this a lot,” says Mr Jung. “Maybe it’s because in the old days, Korean fathers were very chauvinistic. Men were not allowed to go into the kitchen. Or to eat at the same table as a girl. But this generation, they don’t have this kind of heritage background – they can be as free as they want to be.”
Though Korean fashion design might be adventurous, it is also relatively affordable, says Mr Jung. Part of this is, of course, thanks to the country’s own capacity for manufacturing, and its proximity to other key fashion-producing countries including Japan and China. But he also thinks that such pricing reflects an ongoing shift in demand. Though he admits that the big luxury names are always going to exert their influence in the country, he thinks there’s more of a questioning attitude among its younger customers. “When I was a student, I would save all my money to buy the one big-name brand,” says Mr Jung. “But kids today are budget customers. They want to find a brand that gives them what they want within their budget. I think it’s a general trend. Customers around the world are part of the digital generation. They want to look for more stories and philosophy, not just to show a luxury product on themselves.”
It doesn’t, perhaps, fit neatly into an overall style narrative that is about streetwear and pop culture, but according to Mr Jung, Seoul is also undergoing a tailoring renaissance. The same urge that drives men to seek out new, cult brands or distinguish and decorate themselves with make-up and grooming products has made them abandon off-the-peg suits in favour of custom-made and bespoke examples. “A long time ago, we had big suit brands,” says Mr Jung. “But you see less of these every year, and a lot of custom-made tailoring shops are opening instead. There are hundreds of these shops in Seoul alone.” This, he says, explains the local popularity of Mr Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman franchise (yes, MR PORTER did the costumes), in which the young hero Eggsy’s transformation from lout into secret agent is marked by his measuring-up for a bespoke suit. “Young people who look for the tailor made are looking for something different,” says Mr Jung. “Some of these young customers order their own fabrics from Milan, or get tweed from Harris. They’ll provide it themselves, and get it made into their own suits. It’s a very creative process.”
_Seoul Fashion Week SS19 runs 14-20 October. Stay tuned for more updates on the event from MR PORTER. _
What we wore to Fashion Week
Illustrations by Mr Jori Bolton