Keeping fashion cool, but also marketableAs the curtain rose on the 2005 Spring Summer Seoul Collection earlier this month, the first runway for the opening show, usually reserved for name designers, presented Latulle, a little-known local brand displayed in department stores’ special section showcasing young designers.
The brand’s 30-something designer, Cho Sung-kyong, organized a collection of highly commercial pieces: trendy, pretty separates and ensembles that could have come straight from store racks, although the audience was expecting to see spectacularly bizarre art forms that are meant to shock or provoke.
This represents a big shift in direction for the five-year-old Seoul Collection, toward focusing on commercially viable pieces. And that clearly reflects the leadership of Won Dae-yun, who in February took the helm of the Korea Fashion Association, which has organized and hosted the semi-annual event since September 2000.
When it was launched in 2000, the Seoul Collection was intended to become part of the major international fashion collections along with Paris, New York, Milan, London and Tokyo. For local designers aspiring to go global, it was a channel that was supported by the Korean government.
But, as grand as the initial goals might appear, disappointments and confusion ensued. Korean designers were dissatisfied with the minimal attendance of foreign buyers and press at the collection. Private associations among local designers failed to come together under one national collection.
The World Designer Award, a Korean government program to financially support select Korean designers on international runways, caused an uproar in the Korean fashion industry, which resulted in the annulment of the program and the resignation of the former chairman of the Korea Fashion Association.
As if to put that painful past behind, the 10-day Seoul Collection event, which opened Nov. 2 at the COEX Convention Center in southern Seoul, once again embraced all 50 Korean fashion designers who belong to three designers’ groups ― Seoul Fashion Artist Association (SFAA), Korea Fashion Designer Association (KFDA) and New Wave in Seoul (NWS) ― as well as 13 non-member designers.
To increase the coverage of the collection overseas, the Seoul Fashion Design Center, part of the Seoul Industry Promotion Foundation, financed trips for 50 foreign press members and buyers, mostly Japanese and Chinese.
Kim Myung-ho, the director general of the Seoul Fashion Design Center, is concerned about the big investment. “It is very costly to do fashion shows on this scale, but this year we needed to have the presence of foreigners at the collection,” Mr. Kim says. “So, out of a budget of about 100 billion won ($90 million), we spent more than 10 billion won to invite foreigners. I wonder if it will actually bring good results afterward.”
One of the first goals set by Mr. Won is to open communication with Chinese and Japanese fashion associations. “Through discussion and visits to each other’s fashion collections, we’re now trying to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of each country, so each can mutually benefit in Asia and grow internationally,” he says.
Mr. Won urges Korean designers to first establish a strong foundation in the domestic market. “For Korean designers to make it abroad, they need to be successful locally; they need a strong foundation in Korea, which will support them financially in the global market.”
Indeed, money has become a major factor in the fashion industry. Designers, both new and established, are more sales-conscious than ever, and there were more buyers in the audience than previously.
A buyer from Aekyung Department Store said buyers in Korea previously didn’t have to go to fashion shows to actually purchase clothes as deals were usually made in designers’ boutiques, but to discover new designers and possibly to add new clothing lines, they began to attend shows on a regular basis.
The concern with marketability was evident in the trends seen at the show this year. Rather than the splashy creations offered previously, this year’s were very wearable and versatile separates made of metallic and shiny fabrics, such as satin, tulle and leather.
The new look for ultra-sophisticated jet-setters lounging around trendy clubs is the “Matrix” look. Those who want to spice up their wardrobe for the new season can add splashes of vivid color, such as turquoise and orange.
Going commercial means that most designers stayed away from distracting side shows by non-models and stage decorations. Presenting a collection on minimally designed runways means that serious talent in fashion boils down to the designer’s ability to entertain jaded industry professionals soley through the clothes and models’ bodies.
“A Star Is Born” moment occurred at the premier show by Kim Gyu-sik, one of six designers to present men’s fashion, on the final day of the event on Thursday.
For Mr. Kim’s brand, “Taste Maximum,” launched earlier this year, a parade of extremely fit, black models wearing razor-sharp metallic blazers and pants heat-fused with graphic motifs like computer keyboards, reptile skins and fossils were excellently presented and wildly entertaining.
But when four of the futuristic-looking backpacks worn by the models were quickly transformed into super-cool zip-up jackets with utility pockets and details, the mesmerized audience burst into loud applause: a rare but memorable event perhaps heralding the new era of Korean fashion.
Association head takes a CEO’s approach to the industry
Won Dae-yun, 58, the chairman of the Korea Fashion Association since Feb. 11, says he is using corporate CEO techniques to lead the Korean fashion industry. Formerly the president of Samsung Cheil Industries, Mr. Won is currently the president of SADI (Samsung Art & Design Institute). Mr. Won spoke to the IHT-JoongAng Daily about his commitment to Korean fashion.
What does it take for a fashion designer to succeed?
A fashion designer may possess great talent, but that’s not all that’s necessary to make his brand successful.
In Korea there are so many talented designers, but there is no one with the needed combination of traits ― designers with a mind that understands marketing and marketers who understand creativity.
For Korean designers to make it abroad, they need to be successful locally; they need a strong foundation in Korea, which will support them financially in the global market. Of course, there can be a few exceptions.
The Korea Fashion Association was harshly criticized last year for giving awards to Korean fashion designers who only work abroad.
That comes from people’s close-mindedness. For a fair selection process, the Korea Fashion Association chose a panel of judges who are figures in the fashion industry, including business people like myself, university professors, journalists and so on.
I insisted that the World Designer Award, with cash totaling 300 million won ($270,000), should be given to just one designer, because even that amount might not be enough for him to become a top designer in the world. And it was better to offer help to those who were already in the forefront. But the government was sensitive to consensus, so it wanted to give financing to as many as possible. The compromise was three designers based in Paris.
Those who didn’t make it on the list were so angry that it spun out of control, I should say. I was told later that some designers with political connections appealed to the Blue House. The last thing the government wanted was a problem, and the Korea Fashion Association was powerless to handle the mess. So the former president, Gong Suk-bung, resigned and I was asked to fill in.
Irritated government officials decided to quit the project, so it looks like those angry designers dug their own graves. Now they have no chance to win any award from the government. Designers who have already received the awards can extend their term, but the program has ended. I'm trying to revive it.
How can Korean designers withstand severe competition against import brands with huge power?
Korean designers and brands should consider China as Korea’s second domestic market.
In 1997, when I was still with Samsung Cheil Industries, I built two factories in Tienjin in China and introduced Samsung’s four brands to the Chinese market.
Now Rapido’s garments, for example, are sold at higher prices than Nike’s in China. Young people bought Nike products just for that simple, swoosh logo. Nike does have much better shoes, but as far as garments are concerned, ours were better in quality, color and production. In the beginning, when I introduced the Korean brand, we set the price lower than Nike’s, fearing that it might not sell well. But, after a nationwide survey and research, I knew that I could take advantage of shoppers’ psychology. The Korean brand name was No. 3 in the minds of Chinese consumers. Knowing that our Rapido had higher quality fabric and was well-made, I knew it would be possible to mark up the price, and it worked.
When you launch a brand, the first impression is the most important thing. Who does what at the beginning matters. And it takes a CEO’s intuitive decision.
What is the biggest difficulty in the Korean fashion industry?
One of the biggest obstacles has been the people’s general view and attitude toward fashion. For a long time, Koreans have regarded fashion as part of the textile industry, which is too broad because it includes just about everything, from threads to fabric manufacturing to garments. And Korea has a long history in the textile industry, which means things are made in bulk and at low cost.
Korea’s economy has relied on manufacturing, but now the country has grown richer and more stable, and it needs to move on to the next stage, which is the fashion industry.
The fashion industry is strong only in advanced countries. The next stage here is a fashion industry with infinite possibilities, that can produce added value. If there were one designer who had a global name value, the brand could easily be subdivided into a number of businesses, and other Korean designers could become part of that added value system and benefit from it.
While giving speeches at various institutions, I tried hard to convince Koreans that fashion is a cultural industry with huge growth potential with high added value present in advanced countries. If I were to write a book, the title should be my slogan: “Fashion is passion.”
What is the direction for the Korea Fashion Association from now on?
My position is, precisely speaking, an honorary chairman who “contributes” his expertise for free. Because I’m too busy with my other work, I turned down the offer [to become chairman] four times, but now that I decided to accept the position I am working voluntarily.
Basically, I took over a dwindling company with a lot of debt and problems.
The executive positions, such as chairman and vice chairman, of “associations” in Korean society had been coveted by retired bureaucrats, who don’t necessarily have expertise in the field. I believed the reason people wanted me to take the position was because the association wanted a major change. To carry out such a task, I needed a partner. I found someone who knows the local industry very well, who understands what it’s like to work with fastidious fashion designers and possesses the leadership to embrace existing designers and brand names of all kinds in Korea, from small boutiques to established names to national brands.
For the Korea Fashion Association to become a productive, well-functioning association with influence, I began to operate it like a real company. I changed the pay system for employees to a performance-based annual salary system. I have urged 4,000 contacts in the fashion industry to become members of the association. Our employees will have to support that, and their performance will affect their salary.
by Ines Cho