Veteran designers keep eye on China, ParisDuring Korean Fashion Week, two leading menswear designers showcased their fashion vision: Chang Kwang-hyo, a veteran designer who has helped shaped the history of Korean men’s fashion since the 1980s, and Jung Wook-jun, a new generation designer known for his modern take on classic suits.
Since Mr. Jung leapt into the fashion scene in 1999, his Lone Costume brand has set a new standard for locally tailored suits. His minimalist styles have intricate patterns and sophisticated detail; on runways, the overall effect ― amplified by the latest club music and perfectly matched luggage and shoes ― are comparable to the avant garde works of the Antwerp inspiration ― urban, sexy and very today.
This season, his sharper-than-ever suits were worn with loose-fitting windbreakers inspired by mountain climbers. Also thrown in were trendy colors, such as his own creation, “Moroccan blue,” and emerald green, as well as Glen checks and Moroccan motifs.
“I wanted to reflect the ethnic trend of the moment but wanted it to be chic and modern. The graphics and colors I found in Morocco were perfect,” he said after the show.
Does the designer find Seoul Collection useful for his business? “I don’t think the government should have spent big money to invite Chinese buyers looking for cheap stuff,” he said. “Doing a show in Korea is good training for me.”
Part of his experience as a designer in Korea includes selling an inexpensive second line through GS (formerly LG) Home Shopping on TV. Although his clothes were a commercial success with phenomenal 70 billion won ($70 million) over a six-month period, Mr. Jung said his earnings remain minimal. “There is little support from the government or the large corporations in nurturing local designers,” he said.
The hardest obstacle, he said, is trend-oriented Korean consumers. “There is no stable market that nourishes various fashion themes in Korea,” Mr. Jung said. “The same people move from hip hop to sexy suits to grunge. So I’m not sure how my sleek suits will do when the fad is over.”
If there is a designer who couldn’t know Korean fads better, it’s Chang Kwang-hyo. His Caruso brand created a major people-traffic brouhaha, and the cause was none other than the designer himself. He currently makes cameo appearances on a TV sitcom, and the designer is treated like a celebrity. “I learned that the brand and the designer have to be a star,” he said. “Look at Giorgio Armani.”
His runway featured strong looks for urban metrosexuals who don’t mind wearing eye makeup and jewelry for special occasions. Dressy items, such as tuxedo and bell-boy jackets, were worn with decorative accessories, such as heavy necklaces, earrings and knit capes. Such gender-confusing styles made some watchers ask one another, “Are they men or women?”
The scene was quite different 17 years ago. “When Korean society opened, so did consumers’ eyes, and they saw that Korea had no clothes. So I did extremely well,” recalled Mr. Chang. “There were of course clothes sold in Dongdaemun and Namdaemun markets, but they were not considered wearable.”
Mr. Chang was among a handful of Korean fashion designers who benefited from sudden social and economic changes in the country, but that was until another consumer sea change took place. By the mid-’90s, the suffering of Korean designers became critical. “Suddenly, consumers who used to buy our clothes turned to imports,” he said.
Recognizing the importance of internationally recognized brand names, he went to Paris to hold fashion shows, but that only hurt business more. When he thought he was back to square one, he got into Internet shopping in 2002. Caruso’s ready-made suits earned CJ Shopping Mall 100 billion won over three years, an unheard-of success that drove others to follow.
“The fad passed quickly,” he said. “The Internet business will linger for a while, but it’s not doing well now.”
The latest challenge for Mr. Chang is China. He recently began exporting his clothes there, and sales are expected to reach $4 million by the end of this year. By September, he will open five stores, targeting China’s high-end consumers. When asked if Mr. Jung would be interested in going to China some day, his answer was simple: “To me, China comes after Paris.” Mr. Jung wants his Lone Costume brand to be tested in Paris, the ultimate arena where the world’s most talented compete. Both designers agree that the current influence of Korean pop culture might be short-lived, and long-term viability is possible only if brand go international.
“In the end, the clothes will speak for themselves, so they need to have the designer’s individual character,” Mr. Chang said.
by Ines Cho