Korean fashion sallies into the world

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Korean fashion sallies into the world

When Korean fashion designers assembled the first Seoul Collection in October 2000, it was yet another attempt by Korean designers to break into the highly competitive international fashion market.

But this time, it was different. For the first time the Korean fashion industry had support from the Seoul Metropolitan Government and the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy. The two political bodies offered managerial and financial support with the expectation that Korean designers would become commercially successful and eventually triumph in the global fashion industry network.

According to the Korea Fashion Association's most recent annual report, domestic apparel was a 14.9 trillion won ($12.4 billion) industry in 2002 and is expected to grow by 3.6 percent this year. More than 100,000 people work in the fashion industry, plus 9,000 more in product design. Each year, Korean fashion academies yield more than 22,000 graduates, with an unknown yet increasing influx of students returning from fashion schools overseas. Korea is already saturated with job seekers and various technicians within the industry.

The history of Western attire in Korea began when Hendrick Hamel and his Dutch crewmates shipwrecked on Jeju Island in 1653 and discovered the "Hermit Kingdom."

But the real revolution in apparel didn't take place until 1885, when King Gojeong ordered his government officials to wear Western uniforms. Even so, Western-style clothes were exclusively for the privileged few, and ordinary Koreans in Western suits were dubbed "modern," a term bearing negative overtones among the general public.

Surplus goods from the United States dramatically changed the scene as American fashion became popular in the postwar era. The first fashion show in Korea was in 1954 in Chosun Hotel in downtown Seoul, followed by the second in 1956. Both shows were staged by a Korean designer named Norano.

Under military rule in the 1960s, fashion shows were not only banned but stigmatized as a vain social evil, a bitter remnant of American imperialism.

But the government's aggressive efforts to sell garments and stuffed animals overseas boosted the textile industry in Korea. During the next two decades, mass production of fabric and clothing for overseas retail chains solidified the development of the local apparel industry.

The fashion industry changed again in the 1980s. The introduction of color television in Korea stimulated public awareness of fashion elsewhere, and imported fashion magazines sold like hot cakes. Fashion boutiques became lucrative entities, using newly paved distribution channels and profits made from real-estate speculation to expand their outlets.

The media, meanwhile, was reporting how Japan was achieving international recognition in fashion as Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawabuko, Issey Miyake and Kenzo victoriously swept the ultra-conservative runways in Paris.

With dreams and ambition, a multitude of young Koreans sought careers in fashion design in Tokyo, Paris, Milan and New York.

Enormously successful designers in Korea began to make their marks internationally in the mid-1980s. Designers like Han Hae-ja, Bakangchi and Sul Yun-hyoung began to sell their clothes overseas, while others like Jinteok, Troa Cho, Lee Young Hee and Miwha Hong opened boutiques or showrooms on the most fashionable streets in Paris and New York. Sales were slim, while the price of entry was enormous.

For decades, fashion in Korea was considered a difficult industry that required sensitivity: understanding both local and international trends, and also the particular needs of consumers within their cultures. The task was left to a handful of small and medium-size firms targeting domestic consumers only.

Today, few Korean designers have succeeded in taking their companies outside Korea. The domestic fashion industry, however, has never stopped growing, except during a brief slump during Korea's economic crisis in the late 1990s.

Professionals who have returned to Korea after their ventures have failed overseas have learned that they need more than creative directors who analyze trends and attempt to predict consumers' whims.

Jiwon Park, who has been actively promoting her brand in New York, is overwhelmed with her new-found tasks. "Selling clothes in an overseas market involves a lot more than just designing and planning. For a designer needs a full-scale and long-term business management system, from manufacturing, inspection, marketing, finance, promotion to distribution worldwide," she says.

The locally successful designer Han Hae-ja has held shows known as Haneza in the New York Collection for the past three years. She aspires to someday become the next Donna Karan. But she recognizes the challenge, describing her attempts to succeed overseas since 1985 as "feeling like an eggshell crushed under a rock."

Ms. Han says that her recent decision to close her boutique in the Soho district of Manhattan is only a "temporary retreat."


Korean designers to win new grants

Korean fashion designers who have been working at home and abroad are now eligible for financial support from the Korean government.

The project, tentatively called "World Designer," is being funded by the Seoul Metropolitan Government and the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy.

A committee of Korean and foreign fashion experts next month will name three to five Korean designers whom they believe to have the best potential to succeed in markets overseas. The winners will split a 500 million won ($400,000) grant.

"The grant will help these designers participate in major exhibitions and collections," says Kim Se-joon, the director of the Fashion Industry Division of the Ministry of Commerce. "That will stimulate competition among Korean designers and upgrade the quality of the fashion industry."

The project is aimed at helping designers whose companies have long-term plans for promoting and distributing original Korean fashion overseas.

Mr. Kim says fashion is important to the Korean economy. But while Korea exports huge amounts of clothing, it has yet to make its mark in the world of design. "We're looking for a world-class Korean designer who can represent Korea," he says.

by Ines Cho
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