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South Korea is having a moment in the spotlight. This is good and bad for domestic fashion brands.
Although the country has long held the status of Asia’s trendsetter, thanks to the endless fascination with K-pop stars Blackpink and BTS and general Korean pop culture, high local and tourist demand and government support for foreign operators, it has emerged as a particularly reliable place in APAC in recent years. , while neighbors like China are still under the influence of Covid blockades and shop closures. LVMH-owned Dior, Kering’s Gucci and French designer brand Ami have targeted South Korea, staging fashion shows, store openings and parties.
This global hunger for Korean culture is raising the country’s profile on the world stage. But for up-and-coming local fashion brands, this means stiff competition at home, where support for local talent is already weak.
Creativity and commercialism have long been at odds in South Korea’s culturally homogenous market, says Seoul-based fashion designer Dongjoon Lim. It also dominates chaebolsor Korean conglomerates such as Lotte, Hyundai and Shinsegae (which brought Acne Studios, Proenza Schouler and Loewe to the country in 2013, a year after launching Celine and Emilio Pucci), due to their strong financial prowess and large distribution network.
Unlike cities like London and Copenhagen, where up-and-coming brands vie for a spot on the official fashion week schedule, many Korean designers avoid Seoul Fashion Week due to low international attendance and visibility. Customers are also not interested, as many local boutiques often prefer international fashion brands over local brands, believing they are “better” and cost the same anyway. This environment makes innovation difficult for Korean creatives, Lim believes. “Most Korean fashion buyers like Japanese or Western brands. They don’t buy local labels.”
As a result, many Korean designers are playing it safe, focusing on affordable, everyday basics, says Lim. “They don’t make experimental pieces or try new designs because no one will buy it.”
Now, a rising cohort of Korean designers is bucking the trend with bold designs and a global growth strategy that captures the attention of modern shoppers at home.
Social media launch pad
Lim’s conceptual menswear brand is gaining popularity abroad and at home. In 2018, he and Sookyo Jeong co-founded Post Archive Faction (PAF), which uses technical, multi-purpose fabrics to create smart, structured silhouettes. From 2020, PAF presents its collections in the Paris showroom, directly to customers. In 2021, the brand was shortlisted for the LVMH award. Today it has over 40 global retailers, including Ssense, H Lorenzo and Dover Street Market. PAF, which has been self-funded to date, is profitable, with $2 million in revenue in 2021. The brand will close around $4-5 million by the end of 2022, a 200 percent increase in sales, Lim says.