Between fashion shows in Seoul last week, you’d switch on CNN from your skyscraper hotel overlooking the South Korean capital. Just thirty miles from the North Korean border, you could practically see the communist regime, whose conflict with the free world has been escalating since President Trump bulldozed his way into the china shop of politics this time last year. On Friday, while Seoul Fashion Week was flexing its penchant for gender-bending streetwear, American cable news was reporting on Kim Jong Un’s newest antics: an open letter to Trump ranting about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. To a fashion tourist, the geopolitics felt surreal, but Seoul’s exuberant emerging fashion scene didn’t appear fazed by the increasing threat from the border. So close, yet so far, seemed to be the message.
“I don’t think it much affects the fashion and youth scenes in Seoul, although people are of course aware of the idea of being attacked,” said Crayon Lee, who fronts the label Kiok with her sister Coco. “The threat posed by North Korea is just part of life for us, so in a way, we’re just numb to it.” Their spring/summer 2018 collection was rooted in Coco’s childhood memories; stuff like Beauty and the Beast, which gives you an idea of the Western mentality in South Korea. They expressed it in cartoonish shapes and denim, structured and boned like corsetry, demonstrating a hand competent for more than the sea of streetwear, which often seems to define the fashion scene in Seoul — a city that takes fashion seriously.
With its booming beauty industry and eager fashion consumerism, South Korea has decided to put itself on the international fashion map, rolling out a six-day fashion week of hourly shows every season. The creative expression you see there is testament to the current cultural youth revolution in a country largely built on conformist Confucian principles melded with traditional Christian values. Young designers are breaking with old-fashioned gender roles in a society where boys in their early twenties are still obliged to spend nearly three years in gruelling military training, a law obviously fuelled by the threat from North Korea. One of those boys was Shin Kyu Yong, who runs the label Blindness with his designer girlfriend Ji Sun.
“After that I had to participate in training for four nights and five days for seven years. It is over now, but I express through fashion the impact the military life had on me,” he said after their show — the first since they were nominated for the LVMH Prize before the summer. The label’s name, Blindness, is itself a nod to the conformist South Korean gender roles the duo wishes to blur through their highly androgynous aesthetics. Perhaps best described as medieval streetwear, Sun and Yong fuse an urban silhouette – styled on a cast of elfin male models – with Joan of Arcean armour elements, princely pearls, occasional ball gowns and, for spring/summer 2018, a few nods to their current geopolitical surroundings.
There were the pollution masks you see people wearing all over Seoul, adapted into beautifully embroidered veils obscuring the delicate masculinity of the models even more. “In the present situation of the state, it is necessary to have the military. There’s an idea that ‘the man should protect the state’, but we want to show diversity through fashion against the prejudice deeply rooted in everyday life here,” Yong explained, noting that the collection’s parachute coats were a direct reference to the political situation. “As the clashes with North Korea occur more often these days, the noise of the fighters jets in the Seoul sky is heard loudly. The image of a large parachute escaping from a fighter jet was reminiscent of that.”
At a closing dinner for Seoul Fashion Week on Saturday night, Blindness was given a USD $180,000 prize to financially aid their budding business, an amazing and much-needed initiative from the South Korean fashion industry, which now – more than ever – has to push the international development of their talented young designers such as Blindness, or the brilliant Younchan Chung’s The-sirius, which won the British Fashion Council’s International Fashion Showcase prize in February, and with it, a Mercedes Benz-sponsored show at Milan Fashion Week this September. At the London shows the week before, Selfridges kicked off Seoul’s 10 Soul, a pop-up selling the collections of South Korea’s most promising young labels.
Still in store, it includes Blindness as well as the camp-tastic Pushbutton and the delectable streetwear of D-Antidote, whose Central Saint Martins-educated designer Park Hwan-sung presented a spring/summer 2018 tracksuit-centric collection last week in collaboration with Fila. The pop-up is the initiative of Selfridges’ American-Korean womenswear buying manager Jeannie Lee, who also serves on the mentoring board for Seoul Fashion Week. In Seoul, she said the international eyes of fashion are turning to South Korea because the young designers there are reflecting the zeitgeist of the global community. “There’s an overall topic of acceptance, because we see exuberance and experimentation and rebellion at the shows here, but not so much in the streets around the city.”
South Korean conformist values considered, Lee argued, “these young designers are not pushing boundaries — they’re breaking them. And that’s really relevant to what’s happening in the world right now. In South Korea, like the rest of the world, people are demanding change. They’re screaming for it. That’s what I feel at Seoul Fashion Week this time.” On a night out in Itaewon, the old Red Light District for American troops stationed in Seoul during and after the Korean War, now populated by tiny gay bars and drag queens, you could feel the same defiance Berlin had during it’s roaring Weimar Republic years so decadently portrayed in Cabaret, or what it must have felt like in West Berlin during the Iron Curtain, where Western freedom was walled in by the communist suppression of the Soviet DDR.
“Fashion is stronger than missiles,” Madam Woo said at a dinner for Wooyoungmi on Wednesday evening in Seoul. The most successful brand to come out of South Korea, the designer is a legend there. With stores around the world and a show on the Paris menswear schedule, she represents what the emerging brands aspire to accomplish. “Life continues the same in South Korea, with or without Kim Jong Un’s threat,” Caroline Kim, the COO of Wooyoungmi, commented. “The current escalating conflict is one of the many countless threats that South Koreans have seen in the past. This has been the political ecosystem that Koreans, young and old, lived in. Since the beginning of Kim Jong Un’s regime, there have been more than eighty ballistic missiles launches.”
This is not to say that South Koreans aren’t impacted by the threat from the north. In conditions reminiscent of previous post-war periods in the country, there have been recent reports of people buying gas masks and preparing for how to evacuate Seoul — a process that would take fifteen days to complete entirely. “When I was a child, when the conflict with North Korea was worsening, my family used to collect water and emergency food at home,” Ji Sun from Blindness said. “It is clear that it is time to seriously consider and prepare for the conflict between North Korea and the rest of the world,” her partner Yong argued, “but because there is nothing to do realistically,” Sun said, “I get on with my work as usual.”
Unnerving as it is, the political climate in Seoul seems to be instilling a new sense of resistance in its youth scene and emerging fashion industry, and the fact that it’s happening on a somewhat subconscious level makes it all the more interesting. “Perhaps the word ‘fear’ is too strong to explain the emotional standpoint of how the South Koreans view the situation,” Caroline Kim noted. “When the fear has been a part of your life for so long, the weight of the ‘fear’ becomes somewhat commoditised, in my view.” The young designers of Seoul Fashion Week may find themselves in a geopolitical hotspot, but after a week in the creative heart of Seoul, it was clear to fashion tourists that their fate is fast turning this capital into one of the most experimental places in fashion right now.
See Vogue’s street style edit from the shows below.