Korean designers unite ― maybe, someday

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Korean designers unite ― maybe, someday

Glaring white suits on handsome metrosexuals; a “Batman” silver evening gown; milkmaid dresses on fairy tale nymphs: These were all part of a distant, yet hopeful, vision of Korean fashion’s future.
The Seoul Collection Week, which just last April celebrated the union of all fashion associations in Korea, was back to square one. The 2003/2004 spring and summer Seoul Collection Week, held in the COEX Convention Center from Oct. 25 through 28, was disappointing in terms of figures: the number of fashion designers, invited guests, sponsors, press and audience members had dropped by more than half since last April’s Seoul Collection Week.
Missing were the high-flying styles of several new-generation designers: the avant-garde of Park Choon-moo; the Barbie Doll look of Lee Kyung-won; the sexy diva of Park Eun-kyung; the New York glamour of Park Ji-won; the Paris chic of Lee Jung-woo.
And what had changed the mind of those much-revered masters of Korean fashion design?
Consider their collective absence a silent rebuke to the Korea Fashion Association, a Korean government body, which is in charge of handling domestic and international events to improve the scale and image of Korea’s fashion industry.
Part of the association’s effort to promote Korean designers in the international market was to start the Seoul Collection in 2000, the first of its kind in Korea, and it had taken nearly three years to get all of Korea’s active designers to participate in the semi-annual event.
But since the last Seoul Collection Week in April ― and the selection in July of the World Designers, three designers chosen by the association to receive government monetary and promotional support in the global market ― dissatisfaction has been voiced by some Korean fashion insiders.
“Existing fashion designers’ groups, who have more experience and expertise in organizing and promoting Korean fashion, should lead the scene, and the role of the government and its body should be to support the activities and ambition of fashion designers,” said Han Hye-za, one of the leading designers in the Seoul Fashion Artists Association, or SFAA.
The SFAA is the oldest fashion association in Korea. Since its establishment in 1990, the group has organized its own semi-annual shows ― usually in May and December, which were ideal for local merchandise distribution.
The organizers of the Korea Fashion Association hoped Korea’s most-influential fashion organization would participate in their own, much younger event ― scheduled in March and October, to better accommodate the international fashion calendar.
Fourteen designers, including Ms. Han herself (under the trade name Haneza), Jinteok, Rubina, Lie Sang Bong and Caruso by Chang Kwang-hyo, of the SFAA skipped Seoul Collection Week and will hold their own fashion show in early December in the COEX Convention Center. Even though Ms. Han decided not to participate in Seoul Collection Week this time, she said she still believed that Korean designers were in need of steady support from the Korean government.
After they didn’t make the list of 10 nominees for World Designer status, both Park Choon-moo and Lee Kyung-won said they needed to rethink being in Korea as fashion designers, and would take an overdue break.
“Working as a fashion designer in Korea is hard, but competing in the world is unimaginably tough,” Ms. Park said. “It’s crushing for young, ambitious yet financially repressed designers to lose hope, however temporarily.”
Despite all this, Park Young-soo, the manager of the Korea Fashion Association, remains optimistic. “Unified effort of all Korean designers, regardless of local associations, is needed, and we look forward to the day when the Collection represents all Korean designers in the world,” she said.

Politics aside, at the recent Seoul Collection Week, less seemed more when it came to inspiration and imagination, at least in the minds of the 24 designers who did participate.
For these seasoned underdogs, time was unstoppable, and optimism prevailed. As if the current economic stagnation were a bad dream, they staged their visions by choosing themes of romance, innocence and imagination, with jubilant music as a backdrop. Even the retro feel evoked by trappings of fashion’s most glamorous eras, the ’50s and ’60s, was more fantastic than nostalgic.
On a white stage was a white, bare tree, from which crystal drops hung as the sound of birds chirping was heard. This conveyed a fairy tale-like peace to complement the designs of Enzu Van, the designer Hong Eun-zu’s brand in Paris.
Ms. Hong, best known for her exotic, ethnically rich wardrobes inspired by central Asian culture, changed her stylistic approach this time. Instead of, say, pink-cheeked Mongolian shepherds in heavily quilted manteau and embroideries, she opted for European nymphs wandering in a meadow, wearing a series of deconstructed numbers. Gauze, lace, brocade silk and jersey dresses and robes were ruched, gathered, tucked and nipped, mostly in black and white, and adorned with child-like ladybug and butterfly appliques.
The change from Asian motifs surprised and disappointed many, as she had been chosen to represent Korean fashion as a World Designer, but Ms. Hong had business in mind. “I needed to change my style to meet the market needs in Paris,” she commented after her show.
At Miwha Hong, whose collection had already premiered in Paris Pret-a-Porter earlier last month, it seemed that the designer’s usual nymphs had found jobs in the countryside as milkmaids. Youthful models paraded in various shades of hand-dyed blue in cottage dresses, country blouses with puffy sleeves, loose overalls, aprons and more. The opulent mix and match of multiple layers, using skirts, tops, bustiers, aprons, pants and dresses made of rayon, cotton, lace and crochet, were truly unique to Ms. Hong. Such detailed, immaculate workmanship and coherent art direction, incorporating a simple acoustic melody as background music, were a sheer pleasure to watch.
Everyone who has been to the Seoul Collection Week for the past three years remembers Lava Woman by Lee Jung-eun ― weird, sexually ambiguous models in G-strings who wobbled atop seven-inch-high platform sandals. Ms. Lee didn’t disappoint anyone this season. The models wore her signature platforms, were still sexually ambiguous, and cooed and wooed in scanty nighties. Surprisingly, though, her how-can-you-wear-that clothes ― lovely baby doll dresses, hot python jackets ― were actually wearable. But where?
Speaking of wearable fashion, Sarah Sim introduced a line of very wearable and very cool mod numbers, mostly in white and black. Ms. Sim, who won private sponsorship from a Korean corporation, has held shows in Paris in past seasons. Best known among industry professionals for meticulous pattern-making, and for developing her own fabric through her connections to textile manufacturers in Korea, she made sure the models walked to show off the flowing quality of the fabric. Constructive tailoring, black-and-white contrast, graphic elements and classic details, such as box pleats, worked well with the mod theme, the season’s hot look.
Perhaps the most memorable production was Han Song Couture. A reprisal of the designer’s Paris haute couture show in July included a collaboration with Max Herlant, the international makeup artist at Bourjois, the French cosmetics company. Formerly a magician, Mr. Herlant began the show with a surprise magic and makeup show at the end; the enchanted audience broke into generous applause.
Han Song’s famously gothic collection bore the designer’s easygoing sense of humor and contemporary interpretation of traditional haute couture. His trademark, entertaining the audience with theatrics, not only worked well with Mr. Herlant’s dramatic makeup, titled “Black Constellation,” but with Han Song’s wardrobes consisting of pointed vampire-like jackets, sexy tube dresses and exaggerated evening gowns. The bold contrast of silver cobweb design and shimmery black details using lining materials and rich taffeta silk ― tattered, on dresses, in the pattern of the Batman emblem ― was youthful and eye-catching.

Also noteworthy was the softer, sensual focus on Korean men’s fashion and styling for metrosexuals ― the increasingly heard term for heterosexual men who enjoy fashion and personal grooming ― by a few men’s lines.
Lone Costume by Jung Wook-jun was a parade of lean, lithe male models in white against white. The designer, one of the best tailors in town, knows exactly how to cut his own collection of suits each season. He presented more than a few great numbers: impeccably tailored white trench coats, white fleece drawstring pants and memorably sexy white bikinis. Models wore simple black thongs and toted white sacks, messenger bags and carry-alls in iridescent crocodile prints on white leather. His casually chic, “honest” jackets were without linings; instead, black jackets were taped at the seams with thin, mint green tape.
Another men’s fashion designer, Kim Seo-ryong, presented a similarly soft, relaxed and modern take on men’s summer outfits: think purple. Lanky models with tousled hair wore purple turbans and loose-fitting summer jackets and slacks, which were light and cool. Knitted linen and crinkled or distressed cotton were layered. Romantic colors, from shell-pink, mauve and ocean blue to brown, were strewn all over the stage, as if this poetically lethargic and peaceful theme had been derived from one slow, summer afternoon at the beach ― far away from the Seoul Collection Week.

by Ines Cho
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