Korean fashion goes south ― literallyBUSAN ― “Don’t you just loooove that!” says a woman in her 30s, holding a powder-blue Ana Molinari angora blouse up to her chest and admiring its bows and sparkling crystal studs.
Nearby, a friend in her 20s, going through a rack full of imports, zeroes in on a clingy mauve knit top with a plunging V-neck. To match it, a saleswoman picks out a short skirt with three tiers of ruffles.
Looking around the high-end Busan boutique, the older shopper’s eyes twinkle upon spotting a black Yves Saint Laurent bag in the hand of another shopper. She snatches it away.
The stunned victim stands there, aghast. Two saleswomen seem unconcerned. The older woman asks, “So how much is this bag?”
Such are the rules of fashion in Busan: You take what you need to look your best, and nobody had better get in your way.
These are not the refined urbanites of Seoul. The fashionistas of the southern cities Busan and Daegu are to Korea what high-society Dallas women are to the United States.
You’ll see them lunching in glittering sequined tops, floor-length silk skirts and multi-carat gemstones. They love to flaunt their limited-edition fashion finds. And their tastes tend to be on the flamboyant side.
When a fashion brand gets “hot” in the provinces, it’s usually bad news for the brand. It means it’s no longer wanted in Seoul.
But when Chanel Korea announced that it would hold its semi-annnual Mega Fashion Show, the 2004 Spring/Summer Ready-to-Wear Collection, in Busan, industry professionals felt a mix of envy and relief ― envy because Chanel could get away with such a thing, and relief because it meant that they might soon be able follow suit.
“Chanel is different. Because it’s Chanel, they can do it,” said a spokesperson for Celine Korea.
Chanel’s decision has certainly encouraged other leading brands, such as Gucci, Fendi and Celine, to push for market share in Busan and Daegu. But it isn’t any of these brands’ first efforts in the south.
In fact, trunk shows held in the two cities over the past few seasons have been received with wild enthusiasm ― of a sort that Seoul’s high-end clothing shoppers would be reluctant to display.
“They argued over ‘who saw the bag first’ or ‘who grabbed the bag first,’” the Celine spokesperson said of the brand’s VIP show in Daegu last season. “It was crazy, but as the organizer, that kind of positive reaction made us feel good, and the response was great, especially with bright-colored clothing and leather goods.
“We will now have our third store opening in Busan this spring,” the spokesperson said. “It illustrates the importance of the southern market in our overall network expansion and sales growth.”
In addition to its three stores in Seoul, Fendi Korea opened stores in Busan in 2002 and Daegu in 2003. So far, Fendi Korea has organized three trunk shows in the southern cities.
“In Seoul, there are many fashion events and places where shoppers can get access to trendy items imported from Europe,” said a Fendi Korea spokesperson.
“In the south, though, such private fashion shows are rare, and often the merchandise is available in limited quantity. So the mood for competition is created,” the spokesperson said. “We’ve seen women fight over special limited items right after the show. In Seoul, women would leave the venue quietly and return alone the next day.”
Gucci opened a store in Daegu in 2002 and in Busan in 2003. A Gucci Korea representative said each of its shows in the south had gotten “immediate” enthusiastic response.
Even so, the size of the overall market is small compared to Seoul, and the company is still in the process of cultivating it. Gucci Korea plans to hold informal in-store fashion shows in both Daegu and Busan later this year.
Chanel Korea has held small VIP shows in the south of Korea and enjoyed steady growth, but the brand seems to attract a somewhat different clientele. At its first media-hyped fashion show in Busan, the brand’s VIP clients shunned media exposure of any kind.
“Our clients in Busan are just like those in Seoul; they are very discreet. They don’t like to be exposed to the public, and so we’re being protective of them,” said the Chanel representative. That may explain why almost all the guests at a post-show reception were gone after just 20 minutes.
Besides Seoul, Busan is the only city where Chanel offers its full range of products. Last year, another Chanel boutique opened in Daegu, but it sells mainly accessories. Today, both Busan and Daegu have become important markets for the leading French fashion house in Korea.
“This indicates the maturation of Korea’s fashion market,” said a spokesperson at Fendi Korea. “Korea used to be compared with Taiwan, but not anymore.”
An early spring in Busan
Chanel Korea’s decision to move its 2004 Spring/Summer Ready-to-Wear Collection production to Busan last week signaled an evolution of the brand, but not a departure from its core concepts.
The Mega Fashion Show, in the lobby of the Paradia Shopping Gallery in Busan’s Paradise Hotel, was attended by 350 “core” spectators, many of whom (including press) were flown in from Seoul. The high-end boutiques on the lobby floor closed early for the day, and their storefronts were blocked and covered with solid black panels, except for two wall-sized posters of Kate Moss.
With Blondie’s funky “Atomic” and “Heart of Glass” blasting, 20 models roamed among ivory Ionian columns, dressed in light, modern, youthful versions of Chanel’s signature black-and-white ensembles.
Though Mademoiselle Coco’s original inspiration remained intact, the designer Karl Lagerfeld had succeeded in dramatically lowering the age of the Chanel look. No more dowdy boardroom suits with formal hats, please. Classic tweed jackets over French lace and chiffon skirts maintained Chanel’s signature proportion ― long arms, lean torso ― but it was the collection’s retro-funk element that caused rock-concert reactions in the front row.
A socialite dressed in a pink boucle Chanel number gushed non-stop (“That’s going to be mine!”) over various Pop Art-inspired accessories, such as dainty purses shaped like videocassettes and 45-rpm records. Ankle strap sandals with kitten heels and butterfly or mesh uppers, and beige-and-black spectator pumps with chunky heels, seemed to be the new season’s must-haves.
Karl Lagerfeld must have been influenced by L.A. chic. Hot, hot pants and a matching sporty training top, complete with a visor, looked like something J-Lo might be seen in. Cropped bomber jackets and letterman jackets could have tumbled out of the Juicy Couture sisters’ wardrobe. Neither “CC” logos nor camellia prints were anywhere in sight, but the new trenchcoat with a tattered tweed edge spoke the language of Chanel perfectly. (Was Monsieur Lagerfeld trying to win Demi Moore’s affection, after catching a glimpse of her in Yohji’s tattered houndstooth trenchcoat?) In the process of deconstructing that language, and reconstructing it for this hybrid look, nothing was lost in translation.
And those sophisticated Chanel gypsies: Exquisite black-and-white crocheted bikinis, mini dresses and halter gowns with long fringes that moved as if from a summer breeze, made for an elegant, modern update of ’70s bohemian style. Just outside the lobby, an icy ocean wind blew that could cut through fur coats, but indoors, in this lush garden of luxurious crepe de chine, silk chiffon and soft fluid knits, pink camellia blossomed.
It felt like an announcement of the arrival of spring. And the spring look, apparently, will be elegant and comfortable, as shown in loose, low-waist skirts as well as signature chain belts and necklaces with dangling ladybug and butterfly charms. Nature’s bounty had returned for everyone, whether in Busan, Seoul, New York, London or Paris.
by Ines Cho