A critic takes aim at Korean fashionFor the Prada-wearing, Gucci bag-toting fashionable Korean woman, Shim Ou-chan has a few words of advice in his new book, “Pari Yeoja Seoul Yeoja” (Paris Women, Seoul Women): Drop the labels and get a personal sense of style instead, just like the Parisian women do.
Conversant in French, English and Japanese, Mr. Shim has traveled between Paris and Seoul for the past decade, making a living by writing occasional columns for various Korean magazines and coordinating fashion editorials and photo shoots for local designers who want to collaborate with French staffers.
His 240-page book, written in Korean and published by Sigongsa, includes anecdotes previously published in local fashion magazines, as well as his personal commentaries on fashion trends in Korea.
If industry professionals outside Korea ever get a chance to read the book in English, they might find the book superficial and full of cliches, but the editorial director of Sigongsa, Lee Dong-eun, said Mr. Shim’s book fills a void in the publishing industry, which has overlooked Korean fashion magazine subscribers, or women in their 20s and 30s.
The author, a 30-something who declines to give his exact age, namedrops like crazy, about celebrities he has never met ―France’s former first lady Danielle Mitterrand, French actress Isabelle Adjani, singers Celine Dion and Madonna ― to make the point that a great sense of style is not just about luxury brand-name goods.
His over-the-top praise of a few stars he has met ― such as Japanese actress Rie Miyazawa, singer-actress Eom Jung-hwa and actress Kim Hee-sun ― and of Samsung’s mobile phones could be seen by some as bordering on commercial endorsement.
“There are many fashion stories written by foreigners that have been translated in the local fashion magazines. His stories with Korean views may sound gossipy, but they can appeal to ordinary people like myself who don’t know much about fashion,” said Lee Sun-hwa, an editor who worked on the book.
In the middle of all these glowing reviews of various women, Mr. Shim tries to get one main point across to his Korean readers: that fashion is not all about promoting luxury but is a lucrative image industry that can boost national pride and revenue.
During a recent interview with the IHT-JoongAng Daily (see box), Mr. Shim had much more pointed criticism about the Korean fashion industry and society in general. He railed on Korean men, saying that they have failed to notice and nurture the beauty and inner strength of Korean women.
“I know people talk about Korean cultural heritage and famous masters and all that, but I think the most visible cultural asset Korea has is Korean women,” he said. “But when I look into Korean society, sadly, the passion of Korean women has been oppressed by Korean men.”
He went on to urge powerful conglomerates, such as Samsung, Kolon or LG, to sponsor Korean fashion abroad only on a long-term basis. “These companies don’t see fashion as profitable business. Korea still has a problem supporting Korean designers,” he said.
He also said Korean fashion industry officials don’t know what’s truly good. Three recipients of government grants, Ji Haye, Moon Young Hee and Enzu Van, all of whom are based in Paris, “didn’t deserve to win the award.”
As for local designers, he dismissed their success, saying they have merely made good real estate investments, not genuine progress in design.
Korean fashion insiders shrugged off his comments, saying they were absurd and that Mr. Shim was untrustworthy.
During a phone interview, Ji Haye, who had just returned from Jordan, where she finished couture dresses for the queen, said there were plenty of accusations she could level at Mr. Shim and his business dealings, but she had better things to do than to ruin his small-time career.
Jeon Mi-kyung, the chief editor of Bazaar Korea, said Mr. Shim tends to be too outspoken.
The disdain is mutual. “You know what Giorgio Armani said after a journalist asked him what he did when his show was over?” asked Mr. Shim. “He said the stage is full of so-called fashion people and that he’d rather go home and sleep than talk nonsense with such boring people.
“That comment epitomizes the fashion world. I know the fashion world in particular is full of jealousy and gossip,” he said.
But it doesn’t deter him from his big love. “I live for the passion of fashion,” Mr. Shim said.
Q. What’s your opinion on Korean women?
A. When it comes to Korean culture, I know people talk about Korean cultural heritage and famous masters and all that, but I think the most visible cultural asset Korea has is Korean women.
When I look into Korean society, sadly, the real passion of Korean women has been oppressed by Korean men, almost by force. Korean women are not only beautiful and stylish ― they stand out, don’t they? ―but substantial in their existence, talent and commitment.
Compared with Korean men, who are ineffectual but full of ego, Korean women are resilient, strong and wise in dealing with situations in life; they are survivors under any circumstances, and they can and have accomplished a great deal in every sector in Korea.
The country has long criticized the passion of such strong and stylish women by calling them extravagant ... it’s a national loss.
What do you think about Korean designers working outside Korea?
It’s too bad that there’s no one who can proudly represent Korea. Japan has big stars such as Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo, who established the reputation of Japanese fashion design. Korea still has a problem supporting Korean designers. Designers think that they can really make it if they can sell a box of clothes at trade fairs; that’s not going to get them anywhere.
Look at how the LVMH and Pinault groups work; if you don’t have that kind of obscene amount of money, you cannot do anything if you’re not part of such mega-huge corporations. You’ve got to start with a kick-ass flagship store on the most expensive Avenue Montaigne so that everyone can notice your empowering financial backing. Korean conglomerates, like Samsung, have that kind of power, but they simply don’t think that fashion can rake in money.
What about three designers, Ji Haye, Moon Young-hee and Enzu Van, based in Paris, who received monetary support from the Korean government?
Are they clothes that Ji Haye makes? She has no talent, whatsoever! The older brother of her boyfriend owns a famous club called Bain Douche, so he’s got a connection to some socialites. I heard that’s how she sells her clothes. I hate Moon Young Hee, who doesn’t deserve to win any support from anyone. Enzu Van has got a little talent, but that’s not enough to make it.
It’s a mistake to have divided the fund into three ― God knows what they did with the money! Do you think designers will actually spend the funds to improve their collection? I don’t think so. The government should have given the money to all and every designer who is working outside Korea, or to just one designer a lump sum of cash, like 3 billion won, so that the designer can actually use the money effectively over a period of time.
I don’t understand how these designers were chosen in the first place. A bunch of old ajeossis who know nothing about fashion trying to control Korean fashion started all this, you know.
Are you more comfortable with yourself now than before?
Absolutely. I’m just so happy with the way everything is now. I’m still very poor; I don’t even have my own house, although my boyfriend does. But just going back and forth between France and Korea, working as a journalist ― I can’t ask for more.
Less than 10 years ago, Korean people used to gawk at me and go, “Oh my God, look at him! What’s wrong with him?” Many things have changed, culturally and socially. Now Koreans are accepting people like me.
There are many gays in Korea who live inside the closet. Some even have cover-up girlfriends! I think it’s better to start off as a gay. I was open about it from the very beginning and never lied. I mean, can’t you tell [I’m gay] by just looking at me?
by Ines Cho