Styling Korea - national brand designers tailor to fashion-savvyMeet Vark Ji-won. He is 26. He grew up reading Japanese fashion magazines to learn how to dress. His passion for fashion got serious, so while studying fashion design in college in 2002, he began working as a stylist and assistant to fashion editors. He says he considers himself to be one of the growing number of Korea’s “paeshyeon otaku” [roughly translated as “fashion nerds”], who spend hours daily, on- and off-line, to learn about the latest fashion as well as digital gadgets. Almost always seen wearing a military cap, Vark is something of a hip style icon in the fashion industry. His Cyworld Web page gets 350 visitors a day. A lot of people are curious about where he hangs out and buys clothes. He says his favorite brands are APC, Number 9 and Helmut Lang, and he has admired fashion designer Martin Margiela for a long time, but they are all too expensive. As a fashion professional, he rarely pays full price, and he says the average price for any item he buys would be $100, more or less.
Last year, he was offered a job at Eloq, owned by GNCO Inc., a Korean apparel company, where veteran fashion designer Park Soon-jin had newly taken the helm to revamp the six-month old brand’s dowdy look, fitting the current market need for Korea’s young generation. Over a full one-year cycle of the fashion season, their plans to make Eloq appeal to young fashionable Koreans seems to have worked; the brand’s target customers ―“expressive, independent and culturally advanced, early adopters, aged between 24 and 32,” to be exact ― are not only paying attention to the sleek images plastered on the intracity bus, but are actually wearing the latest collection. It’s a simple fashion formula: When models, DJs, actors and their hip friends endorse certain items, everyone else follows.
Currently, local brands such as Ssam, H+ and Codes Combines seek to attract the same customers ― trendy young Koreans with attitude and style ― by putting out similarly styled advertising images. Together they have formed a new niche market.
But what about the young, hip brands that ruled Korea in the 1990s? The difference is those super-trendy brands were worn by mostly Korean women, while their boyfriends wore plain shirts and labelless jeans. More than a decade later, their younger and more fashionable brothers are not only informed and knowledgeable in fashion but also fastidious about details. They are also more price-conscious than women.
For fashion-savvy customers like Mr. Vark, who are often stuck between buying a $5 T shirt at Dongdaemun market and a $500-shirt by Martin Margiela, Korea’s own attitude brands are great news.
A versatile black jacket with cool military details, a best-seller from last season, at Eloq costs 198,000 won ($208). Eloq’s skinny jeans in matte gray, with a 12,800 won price tag, sold out as soon as they hit the brand’s 25 stores nationwide. “Reasonable” is the consensus among buyers in this particular fashion zone, because a pair of imported jeans from such brands as Calvin Klein or Seven can cost more than $300 in local department stores.
Sensing the market shift, Ssamzie, a leading Korean fashion brand, hired London-trained fashion designer Ha Sang-baek to transform its younger brand, Ssam, whose advertising images are similar to those of Eloq. Under Ssamzie, Mr. Ha has launched his own brand, H+, targeting the more fashionable, or even edgy, crowd in Korea.
When the new Eloq launched in June, 2005, it had a 50/50 ratio between women’s and men’s lines. A year later, the men’s line makes up 70 percent of the company’s products. Another popular brand, Code Combines, with 180 stores in the country, extended its men’s line beginning in Aug. 2005. There, a pair of jeans averages 110,000 won and a jacket 160,00 won.
Such value-for-money has a lot to do with the way brands are projected publicly. Mr. Vark, who is in charge of marketing, promotion and advertising at Eloq, went to London to find an uber-chic image for the 2006 fall/winter collection, as he strongly believes in the importance of “packaging” a brand, which may include choosing the right visuals for magazines, advertising buses and billboards, as well as having the clothes be worn by chosen trendsetters. “It’s actually a lot of work to create the image of ready-made clothes. ‘Packaging’ includes the way clothes are wrapped and put in what kind of bag, and also what kind of complimentary gift the customer gets,” he said.
In February, Mr. Vark went to a trade show called “Who’s Next?” in Paris and landed a small contract to sell Eloq items at a select shop called Christel Gloria (51 Rue Paradoux 31000 Toulouse) in southern France.
To create clothes that sell each season, Ms. Park, the design director at Eloq, scrapbooks magazine clippings and photographs for a concept image. To decide on a central theme, she consults with all staff members, including Mr. Vark, in their headquarters office in Samseong-dong in southern Seoul. Designers then churn out sketches of some 150 to 200 individual styles, followed by selecting colors and materials.
Ms. Park, who graduated from Esmod Korea in 1997, worked for several trendy brands before heading the 14-member team making the Eloq brand, but like many trend-setting fashion professionals working in southern Seoul, she says when it comes to daily dressing, Korean-made clothes weren’t previously her choice of cool fashion. Many local brands are regarded as worthless copy cats of imported brands.
For years, young fashion-conscious Koreans with attitude and style have found it frustrating to search for clothes they can afford to buy and be proud to wear. At the top of the Korean fashion market are venerable “luxury” imports that feature in upscale department store windows. Local brands are largely viewed as “designer’s brands” and “national brands.” In Korea, designers working at large-scale companies are dismissed as sell-outs while designers working for private labels are revered as “real artists.”
Aspiring designers fresh out of fashion school have a choice to make ― either to pursue an independent design career by opening a store or to enter a large apparel company as a salaryman. Thinking she needed knowledge, depth and experience, Ms. Park decided to take the more commercial path. She briefly operated her own brand in 1996 but soon quit and took a job again at a company. “I realized I really wasn’t ready,” she said. “A designer’s confidence is related to her ability to earn money [through her clothes]. In a company, I get to use someone else’s money at least, and I’ve been learning what the public likes and wants.”
This year, Ms. Park’s goal is to reach 20 billion won in total sales by the year end from Eloq, and every morning, the director checks sales data to figure out which items appeal most to buyers. GNCO, the mother company behind Eloq, has seen a 45 percent increase in total sales over the past six years.
Ms. Park believes the Korean industry still suffers from selfishness, and designers remain separated adhering to their own differences in opinion. “Their expectations are different. National brand designers ask, ‘Who can be the real talent, who works hard?,’ while private label designers ask, ‘Which brand can make sensible designs?,’” she said, adding that the generation gap [in the Korean fashion industry] has narrowed. “We have designers like Jung Wook-jun and Seo Eun-gil, who can understand the commercial aspect of fashion. They are the private-label designers who know how to present themselves and promote their fashion. They even take side jobs to collaborate with national brands.”
Perception of national brands is also changing. When the semi-annual Seoul Collection included fashion shows by national brands, such as Bon and Le Coq, two seasons ago, opinion among industry professionals split. But, the direction for Korea’s international collection seems to wish to embrace “all” fashion collections from now on. Joo Sang-ho, the director of Korea Fashion Association, who has organized the Seoul Collection since 2000, addresses a supportive climate for national brands and their hard-working designers: “Chanel and Prada are after all national brands, too, and if we don’t support our national brands ourselves, who will?”
Often viewed as less creative or artistic, brand directors sketch fashion’s future
The IHT-JoongAng Daily spoke with Park Soon-jin, the design director for Eloq:
Q. How often do you travel abroad?
A. I’d say once or more a month. Business travel has taken me to many trendy cities in Europe, Paris, London, Tokyo, and Berlin. These days, Berlin is a very cool, trendy city, where I went to see a trade show called Bread & Butter. In China, I go to Guangzhou where we have our production facility for accessories. Here, I make many trips to Eloq stores outside Seoul, and of course, check out the stores in Seoul.
Where do you find your fashion inspiration?
I get a lot of inspiration from sharply dressed men in the streets of London and Paris. When I travel, I usually check out happening clubs and admire how well dressed those beautiful young clubbers are there. Once at a restaurant in Berlin, I saw a strikingly handsome couple, who were probably in their 20s. They were so lovely that I had to tell them how beautiful they were before leaving the restaurant. In Korea on weekends, I enjoy going to gay clubs to see how creatively dressed people are. I’m easily carried away by beautiful people.
Do you have a muse?
In Korea, I would imagine Fhifan, who modeled for us for two seasons last year, might dress for himself and design some outfits. I also think about what might look good on my boyfriend.
What are you into these days?
I really like old things, so when I go traveling, I almost always make time to visit antique and flea markets in the city. I wanted to collect something for myself and found it. Recently, I’ve begun collecting vintage watches, dating between 1910 to maybe up to 1970s; At the moment, I only have two, a 1940 Omega and a 1945 Tissot.
by Ines Cho