Seoul’s fashion industry enters new world

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Seoul’s fashion industry enters new world

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It is noon in the middle of Samseong-dong, southern Seoul. Office workers have taken to the street for their one-hour lunch break. This afternoon, they stop to watch an unusual scene as perfectly polished black limousines pull up one by one. The well- dressed occupants who step out from the gleaming sedans are women who all look 35. On dainty Italian heels they quickly disappear from the gaze of curious passers-by as young valets dressed in black suits guide them into a cream-colored European-style building. At other times, the building would house a wedding. Today it is home to an invitation-only Eliden fashion show for some 200 Korean ladies. They lunch and shop with saxophones playing and each drops around $3,000 on designer clothes, accessories and shoes.
The women who float in this rarefied atmopshere represent a new fragment of Korean society, whose extravagant lifestyle ordinary people might glimpse through the windows of a Gangnam restaurant.
To fashion industry professionals, these exclusive fashion shows are nothing new, but the kind of rarefied event the Avenuel department store organized sets a new standard that makes it necessary for everybody in Seoul’s fashion industry to work harder.
At the Samseong-dong show, local brand managers of luxury fashion labels sold in Eliden, the multi-brand shop on Avenuel’s fifth floor, worked to greet and find seats for the VIP customers who had come to ogle the fall and winter collections. Occasionally the shoppers break their still faces to sigh or gush. One might inadvertently blurt out, “Oh! Look at that!” Nearby young mothers fall madly in love with a Jimmy Choo snake bag. Both mother and daughter-in-law give deep nods of appreciation to Tuleh’s elegant skirt suit. Everyone envies the lustrous fox fur coat by Givenchy.
The show put together a select but truly delectable collection of about a dozen rare fashion brands, reserved for discerning fashionistas with big money. These women seek to earn head-bobbing respect by namedropping the likes of Peter Som, Jitrois, Gilles Rosier, Wunderkind. And who needs an entire collection from one designer anyway?
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This is what makes the landscape of today’s fashion in Korea remarkably different. It was less than a decade ago that Korea’s high society women, and wanna-bes, used to symbolize their status through a tiny range of luxury fashion brands which soon became cliches. Then, in a still volatile society, the uniform of Korea’s high society consisted of nothing more than an Armani suit worn with a Chanel quilted bag and a pair of Ferragamo ribbon pumps. To make the fashion scene more depressing, the popularity of such basic items made the entire country look like a small time duty-free store, which was very frustrating for shoppers from abroad, like Japan, who found the range of items on sale here limited.
The road to a fully mature Korean fashion market has been built by a new breed of merchants, those who have opened small import stores specializing in select but highly fashionable brands in trendy parts of southern Seoul. In 2000 Shinsegae International, a leading distributor, opened its first multi-brand store, Boon The Shop, followed by Handsome Corporation’s Mue, which catered to the niche market that buys “real” fashion. These were the landmarks that demonstrated Korea’s fashion market was becoming more mature.
Then, last year, when the Avenuel department store opened on some of the capital’s prime real estate in downtown, its challenge was to take the Korean consumer market to another level. The store has offered by far the most prominent presence in Seoul of global fashion houses, such as Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Bulgari and the like on its first floor. Plus, the department store adopted and added Eliden, a store-within-a store, whose already popular choice of cutting edge designers is enhanced by personalized customer services.
When asked about the most visible change in the Korean fashion industry over the past few years, Daniel Mayran, the president of Bluebell Korea, who oversees the importation of 23 European luxury fashion brands, said, “Korea is now a mature market. When customers begin to look for clothes with no brand logos visible on the outside, it’s a sign that fashion brands no longer stand for ‘status,’ we have moved beyond that.”
And so, while Korea’s fashion industry was once a desert filled with the occasional oasis of Armani it is now a sea of discreet brands that offer a full range, from Araks to Zac Posen. And that’s a serious fashion statement.


Fendi bags transcend commerce for high art

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High fashion today is all about wearing a tantalizing mixture of things, old and new. Since the leading ladies of “Sex And The City” fought for the most covetable pouchette, Fendi, an Italian luxury furrier-turned-global fashion house, has churned out a series of status handbags ― from the Baguette to the Biga to the Spy. The latest must-have is the bucket-shaped Palazzo Bag, inspired by the facade of Palazzo Pitti, a famous historic site, where Fendi first showcased its ready-to-wear collection in 1969.
For the launching of Fendi’s latest bag, instead of an outlandish party featuring the usual list of pre-paid local stars toting the product, Fendi Korea organized a two-day art exhibition in the artsy Samcheong-dong neighborhood in northern Seoul. The message was clear. In a mature luxury market, status is more about appreciating the artistic quality and history of well-made products than brand exposure and hype.
At Gallery Ihn, three Korean artists, all in their 30s, showed their version of the Fendi bag and the famous Italian palazzo, which currently houses the largest art gallery in Florence.
The artist Kwon Oh-sang displayed ivory-colored clay columns and tables, which are strewn with modern-day objects, such as coffee mugs, oxford shoes and a camera. The overall effect is reminiscent of classic Italian marble statues, yet upon close inspection, the details represent the jumbled time periods found in contemporary society where new and old co-exist together. Looking at Kwon’s work, Simonetta De Felicis, the vice director of the Italian Cultural Institute, said, “It’s a reminder of the past and present, the synthesis of the old and the new”
The approach of Lee Jung-keun was more technological. He computerized the consecutive pattern of the palazzo and mounted various print versions on the wall, sub-titled “Mind Game” and “Mind Space.” These decorative patterns were also printed on the glossy satin upholstery covering the stools surrounding a pair of coffee tables, entitled “I Love You, Double F.” The pair of black tables signifies the famous inverted “FF” log, created by the German designer Karl Lagerfeld, who currently heads Chanel in France. He began his rise to fame with the the Fendi family in 1965.


Sweet scents of Provence descend upon Sinsa-dong

When the L’Occitane store disappeared from “cosmetic avenue,” south of the Galleria Department Store in Apgujeong-dong last year, loyal fans of its natural soaps and shea butter cream were crushed. Now they can celebrate. With re-openings at five counters in several department stores L’Occitane, once distributed through an agent, is back, this time directly through L’Occitane Group’s Korean subsidiary. Next year a new flagship store will open in Sinsa-dong.
Korea is the second biggest market in Asia for us,,” said Andre Hoffmann, managing director of L’Occitane Far East Ltd., based in Hong Kong, who will now visit Seoul four times a year to oversee the brand’s re-launch. As with many luxury brands, L’Occitane started small through local agents but then decided to change its strategy. It closed down its stores and has begun again from scratch to “properly introduce L’Occitane to Korea,” said Mr Hoffmann.
L’Occitane was created in 1976 by Olivier Baussan, who made a home brew of rosemary oil in a old copper still in a small village in Haute-Provence. Today, with 750 outlets around the world and 270 million euros in revenues in the last financial year, L’Occitane represents a unique success.
Having lived and worked in Hong Kong for 25 years, Mr. Hoffmann has expertise in the Asian market. Mr. Hoffmann, a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, said his perception of beauty and femininity changed when he came to Asia in the early 1980s. “Asian women spend many hours looking after their looks; for them, going out without makeup is like going out without clothes. In this environment I’m happy working with a brand that stands for natural beauty,” he said.
To create commercial magic in Seoul with its rapid trend cycles Mr. Hoffmann decided to start with the “right” address. Together with Park Nam-hee, the general manager of L’Occitane Korea, the French-American spotted a site for the brand’s first flagship store on Garosu-gil, a two-lane street in Sinsa-dong, lined with chic cafes, bars and galleries.
“L’Occitane is about ‘geography’ ― authenticity and purity of the nature Provence can offer,” he said, “And, we thought a street lined with lush trees would fit perfectly the image of L’Occitane.”


by Ines Cho

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