Fashion awards cause nasty spat in industryAt the government-sponsored Seoul Collection last month, hundreds of spectators, including local celebrities, politicians and the usual fashion industry professionals and observers, gathered to watch Ji Haye’s highly anticipated show, the Paris-based designer’s first in Korea.
But the buzz surrounding her show wasn’t about her collection, which was inspired by traditional Korean motifs beautifully translated into distinctively French nouvelle couture. Observing Ji Haye’s unusually tailored suit, a few front-row guests whispered to each other: “So, is she supposed to be all that good?”
Although she has been listed in the traditional French Federation of Haute Couture and recognized as a respected designer in Europe, Ji Haye was virtually unknown in her native country until she won one of three World Designer Awards last year, a new program funded by the Seoul metropolitan government and the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy to promote Korean fashion overseas.
Cattiness and vicious criticism are to be expected in any fashion scene, but the vitriol in the Korean fashion industry ramped up considerably after the Korea Fashion Association selected the first recipients of the cash award last year, which the government said would total 300 million won ($250,000).
The three designers ― Ji Haye, Moon Young-hee and Enzu Van ― are all based in Paris, prompting an outcry from disgruntled industry professionals based in Korea who think the government should back designers in Korea, who need all the help they can get.
Heyday of Korean fashion
Local designers weren’t always struggling as they are now. In the early days of the Korean fashion industry, just as Hyundai and Daewoo automobiles thrived in the era of protectionist markets, the first Korean designers had virtually no competition. Goods bearing European names such as Pierre Cardin, Christian Dior and Gucci were nothing but cheap, locally made hand towels, socks and umbrellas.
Designers such as Jin Teoc, Rubina, Sul Yun-hyoung and Bakahngchi, the pioneers of Korean fashion in the 1960s, capitalized on their soaring popularity and fame in a market closed to foreigners, busily building their empires along then-empty Cheongdam-dong avenue in southern Seoul.
The second-generation designers, many of them descendants of the nation’s most successful and perhaps wealthiest fashion professionals, used their success at home to set their sights outside Korea. Designers such as Vack Yun-zung, Lee Jung-woo and Park Ji-won gained near-celestial status in Korea, but becoming the darling of local fashion editors wasn’t what they had in mind. If their predecessors didn’t try to make it in Paris, New York and Milan, the new generation’s members decided that they would.
Besides, they saw how Japanese designers such as Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake, Kenzo and Rei Kawakubo had won over Europe, and they were determined to take on European labels on their own turf.
Unfortunately, competition is a two-way street. As Korean designers sought to enter the European market, European designers were entering the Korean market. Local designers had to contend with the likes of Tom Ford, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen. And those who were able to show collections, albeit sporadically, in Paris and New York had to drop out, mainly because of a lack of financial support.
In response to these struggles, the Seoul Fashion Artists Association (SFAA) was created 14 years ago by first-generation designers to promote local talent, mainly through semi-annual collections. Its regular shows fit the domestic fashion cycle, but not the international fashion calendar.
The government decided that the fashion industry could use an additional boost, so it began the nation’s first international show of Korean designers almost four years ago, also held semi-annually, but scheduling it around the international fashion calendar in the hope of attracting buyers from abroad. With both the Seoul Collection and the SFAA show, 50 Korean designers could showcase their talent. But the SFAA resented that the government put on a show without its involvement.
The already strained relationship between the two organizations got more chilly when the Korean government gave cash grants to three Korean designers last year in an effort to raise Korean fashion’s international profile. The recipients would also be able to show their work during the government-backed fashion show.
After finding out that the recipients were not based in Korea but in France, some angry designers blasted the Korea Fashion Association, which was in charge of the selection process, and some disillusioned ones, like Park Choon-moo and Lee Kyung-won, dropped out of the semi-annual collections. Sour fashion journalists wrote that they had felt left out.
Some questioned whether the grants would actually help the industry at all.
“The intention of the World Designer Award was to help selected Korean designers, but we realized that the award negatively affected other designers who are active abroad,” said Joo Shang-ho, director of the Korea Fashion Association. “To designers who failed to get the government’s ‘recognition,’ the impact was terrible.”
Because of all the controversy, the Korean government is thinking about pulling the plug on the awards.
“We’re seeking ways to help all Korean designers,” Mr. Joo said.
One World Designer Award recipient says the reactions of her Korean colleagues are discouraging.
“No one can understand just how hard it is to survive each season out there. Because I’ve received the [award] money and there’s harsh criticism from the fellow Korean designers, I just have to stay mute,” said Hong Eun-ju, founder of Paris-based brand Enzu Van, who became tearful.
The grant itself hasn’t been as much help as she had hoped. The 100 million won the government promised turned out to be less than that; she received 60 million won.
“If it weren’t for the consulting fee I get from my other job, I would have failed to hold my fashion shows in Paris,” she said.
However, Mr. Joo said all three designers signed a contract that states they would get “less than” 100 million won per person.
As a designer who had trained in Paris, Ms. Hong says she often feels frustrated and embarrassed by the weak support from her home country.
“So many Korean designers went to Paris with great ambitions and plans, only to quit after a few seasons. CJ Mall promised to sponsor five young Korean designers, but after only a few showcases, the deal was gone.
“Now the reputation and image of Korean designers are bad, while Japanese designers are regarded as very important. To make it internationally, designers need national or huge corporate backing like LVMH or the Pinault group,” she said.
Another award recipient, Ji Haye, moved to Paris in 1990, aspiring to become the next Kenzo. Her time there brought her both national and industrial attention, yet her absence in her native country made it difficult to gain support back home.
Last month, she made the most of her Korean debut. Her intricately hand-crafted bow details, shoulder pads inspired by Korean roof tiles connected to soft, puffed sleeves and the slender waistline accentuated a feminine silhouette.
And who wants to wear black this year? Ji Haye knew better ―sweet hues in snow white, pastel pink, turquoise blue, navy blue to cafe-au-lait brown were such a welcome sight in a wide range of luxurious materials, such as flowing silk charmeuse, buttery lambskin, classic tweed, jersey knit, silky velvet and chantilly lace.
Ji Haye’s outstanding show was a testament to her 13 years in French haute couture. But local journalists were more interested in the gossipy entertainment side of the show rather than a critical look at the collection.
Even if the local press didn’t notice Ji Haye’s talent, FnC Kolon Group, a Korean apparel conglomerate, had. When a swarm of reporters flocked to Ji Haye right after the show, the beaming designer thanked her supporters: “Without the support of FnC Kolon group and France’s Comite Colbert [an association of French luxury brands], today’s show would not have been possible.”
Shin Sang-ho, the vice president of Corporate Business Development of FnC Kolon told the IHT-JoongAng Daily, “By supporting an internationally successful Korean designer, we want to show a vision of Korean fashion design in the future.
“Until now, foreign brands have been flooding Korea. It’s about time Korean brands go abroad. Ultimately, we aspire to have Korea’s Ralph Lauren or Armani on the world stage, but it’s a long, long way from now.”
Felix Boukobza, the French partner of Ji Haye, was exhausted after the show but remains hopeful. “We just work so hard not knowing whether the next show will actually happen, and we’re just grateful that we got support of any kind. To us, each show is a small miracle.”
by Ines Cho
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