Fashion industry tries to rescue Busan from industrial decline

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Fashion industry tries to rescue Busan from industrial decline

BUSAN ― The young and fashionable who live in Korea’s second-largest city are rarely seen outside the bustling shopping district in Seomyeon, central Busan. Over the next few years, it is precisely these style aristocrats that Busan city hall wishes to attract to its ambitious urban project, called Centum City.

Since 2000 Busan has used a fashion show, Pret-a-Porter Busan, as its main enticement for Centum. The fashion-savvy crowd ― as well as industry professionals and the press ― have been taking the bait now that fashion designers from Korea and abroad have used the event to showcase their runway shows.
For four days from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, the shows at the BEXCO Convention Center drew about 15,000 spectators and more than 100 journalists. The event’s improvements in the last six years include the presence of important designers from major international collections ― such as Richard Chai from New York and Peter Jensen from London.
Korean journalists who regularly attend the Seoul and international collections are beginning to see the attraction of the Busan show. “Busan is close to Seoul and we can see very interesting shows that have the best of the international collections,” said Hong Seok-woo, a GQ Korea reporter, who also covered the Seoul Collections last week. “And it’s a very beautiful city to visit.”
Compliments about the Busan show give the event’s organizer, Toh Shin-woo, a lot of encouragement.

When Mr. Toh, the chairman of Model Center, was asked to start a big fashion show in 2000, he felt like a pioneer in the wilderness. “There were already so many fashion shows, so I wanted to distinguish Busan from others,” said Mr. Toh, who established one of the leading Seoul-based modeling agencies in the late 1980s, when the Korean fashion industry was in its infancy. “The ‘Pret-a-Porter’ name was the way to make Busan stand out so, we purchased it from France and included representative designers from fashion capitals around the world.”
Although the collections included six designers from Korea, the spotlight went to six foreign designers ― Richard Chai, Peter Jensen, Maria Cornejo, Pierre-Henri Mattout, Kohshin Satoh and Wenbo Ji ― and their outstanding work, despite the fact that their 2007 spring summer collections had already been shown in New York, London and Paris. The real benefit for many interested industry professionals and journalists was to meet with these designers in person and see their working practices up close.

“Even if I knew that the clothes had already been shown, I got to see how they were put together again for the show, as if the designers were starting from square one. I was very impressed,” said Yoo Jae-boo, editor of Fashion Insight. “Korean designers in the Seoul collections can learn a lot from these young, competent designers.”
As a veteran fashion professional, Mr. Toh feels his event is far from perfect and he says he needs to work harder to make it complete. The support from the city of Busan is a mere 300 million won (about $290,000), Mr. Toh said, and sponsorship makes up a total of about 600 million won, allowing for only one show per year. “When the situation improves, we hope to have two shows every year. We’ve got a long way to go,” Mr. Toh said.
Considering the transformation underway in Busan, his wish might not be too far distant. Except for Seomyeon and Haeundae, business is slow in most of the city and styles are dowdy, as if the clock stopped 10 years ago. That might change too. BEXCO, the venue of the Pret-a-Porter Busan, is surrounded by a forest of skyscrapers and vast construction sites, where as early as 2008, Korea’s four major department stores ― Shinsegae, E-Mart, Hyundai and Lotte ― will have created Asia’s largest shopping complex.
The reported $1 billion project covers a total of 462,000 square meters in Centum City, combining the shopping center with a 16-screen movie theater, an aquarium, a leisure/sports center, a giant supermarket, with a design center and office buildings nearby.

The plan for the new city, so the city government hopes, will create jobs for locals and attract visitors from all over Korea and abroad, competing with Hong Kong’s Harbor City and Japan’s Nara Port. This is only part of a grand plan set up by the mayor Hur Nam-sik, who said during the interview with the IHT-JoongAng Daily earlier this year,that he wanted to “make Busan the maritime capital of Northeast Asia.”
Once the prosperous capital of the south and a cornerstone of growth for manufacturing in the 1950s, Busan long ago lost its lustre, except for its gorgeous Pacific ocean coastline. Factories ― famous for shoes, textiles, ships and wood ― that helped build the modern Korean economy had shut down by the late 1980s, except for Renault-Samsung and a few shipping companies that are still scattered around the city. Since the ’90s, Busan has been left out of the country’s economic boom.
Vast tracts of land along the coast, formerly factory sites, subsequently made tycoons of the past richer than ever as they sold them to developers, while the majority of Busan citizens saw their lives descend into economic depression. Many moved out in search of jobs. A low birth rate and stagnant population growth made matters even worse. Despite such problems, the Busan city government is making a brave attempt to improve its economy, by helping to create colossal investment in the city’s infrastructure. Real estate developers have followed suit. Ten-story apartments built on factory sites are again being transformed, almost overnight, into ocean-front skyscrapers. A small unit there starts at $600,000 or more, nearly the price of a decent home in Seoul. Everyone from real estate developers to private investors to government officials want to see the real estate market start to take off, but they acknowledge this is some way away.

Local newspapers recently reported that top-notch penthouses located in Seoul’s prime estate were selling fast, despite a faltering economy. In Busan, less than 30 percent of brand-new luxury apartments have been purchased, leaving most of these buildings dark at night.“When the Pusan International Film Festival started in 1996, no one ever knew it would become so big. How Hong Kong came to be a hot spot in Asia is another good example,” said Mr. Toh. “A famous fashion show, a big film festival, along with large-scale conventions, can generate huge revenues for the city and the country. The film festival was an ingenious idea for this city at a time when its economy had virtually nothing left. Now it has made Busan a special destination in Asia.”
It took nearly 10 years for the Pusan festival to rank as one of the top 10 festivals in the world. On that schedule it will be 2010 before Pret-a-Porter Busan starts to rival Paris ― and for young Busan fashionistas, the clock cannot tick fast enough.

by Ines Cho
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