Korean fashion and design that is Having a Moment
July 26, 2014 10:36 PM   Subscribe

Korean fashion and design is having a moment, but what is fueling it? It's complicated. Let's explore the K-wave.

Fashion in Korea calls the surge in all things Korean "the "K-wave":
Worldwide, the attention for K-fashion, any designs from jewelry to clothing, that is distinct to Korea is rising. Only the products marked with 'Made in Korea' label is recognized as a true K-Fashion. The biggest influence behind K-fashion popularity is the K-wave, or the cultural influence of Korean culture. K-wave started from Eastern Asia then spread to America and Europe.

The initiator of K-wave is Korean drama, K-drama. 10 years ago, when "Dae Jang Geum" starring Lee Young-Ae spread globally, many other Korean culture followed the flow. After that, "Winter Sonata", "You're Beautiful", "I Hear Your Voice" continued on the hype. From K-drama to K-pop, and now K-fashion, Korean culture is spreading worldwide.
So Korean dramas and fashion are interlinked, with interest in one (dramas) fueling interest and consumption of another (fashion). CNBC reports that
The meteoric success of "My love from the Star" has also spawned a spill-over effect in the retail industry – a feat that iconic series like 2002's "Winter Sonata" and 2003's "Jewel in the Palace" did not accomplish.

The luxury brands that [Gianna] Jun [star of a K-drama] wears throughout the series have become highly sought after by fans. Meanwhile, lipsticks used in the show – be it Yves Saint Laurent or Korean brand Laneige – have sold out in South Korea, China and Singapore.
Additionally, K-dramas increased Korean tourism; from the same CNBC article:
Hallyu – the Korean term for the popularity of South Korean culture abroad – has boosted the country's tourism sector. Inbound arrivals jumped 9.3 percent on year to a record 12.2 million visitors in 2013, statistics from the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) show.

The KTO has noted an increase in queries related to the drama ["My love from the Star"] from tourists and trade partners since the drama ended its run in February, a Singapore-based representative told CNBC.

The show's filming locations have received a surge in interest from Chinese holidaymakers, according to South Korean media, perhaps not surprising considering that the drama chalked up over 2.5 billion views in the mainland.

One favored destination is Petite France, a theme park in Gapyeong that is two hours from Seoul by subway. Daily arrivals at the park, where the fictional couple kissed, have increased nearly seven-fold, with mainland tourists accounting for 60 percent of the rise, according to Korea.net.
The New York Times, in a piece reviewing an exhibition on Korean design, explains how "South Korea is now developing a distinctive design culture, rooted in its rich artisanal history":
Political initiatives helped too. Having identified a number of industries, including electronics, where it could develop powerful positions, South Korea invested heavily in the resources required to do so, including design schools. Like many other developing economies, it began by importing components from other countries, and copying them on a sub-contracted basis for foreign companies.

South Korea's manufacturers then nurtured the necessary design and technological expertise to develop their own branded products, often focusing on fledgling markets, which their competitors had either overlooked or decided to ignore to protect their vested interests.
So, that's some of the background explanation. What, then, are these dramas and fashions?

Examples of Korean Dramas and Fashions

Here are a few bloggers' perspectives that explain different aspects of Korean dramas and give you some idea of the problems (and fandom) of K-dramas: The website, KDF (Korean Drama Fashion) has a bounty of articles concerning K-drama fashions, here are three: "Love Rain", "To The Beautiful You", and "Cunning Single Lady".

Sol-Sol is a tumblr that documents Korean street fashion (photos of real people with no commentary.)

Korean Street Style has some pretty amazing photography of K-fashion.

From the team-blog, K-world Style, is a post that compares the different sensibilities found in Seoul, California, and New York: Commentary: American vs. Korean 'Street Style'. Discussion in the comments.

20 Korean Brands You Need to Know Right Now — Elaine YJ Lee at Highsnobiety.

K-Pop Concerts has a K-fashion sub-category.

Then there's the Fashion in Korea website, which also has a Facebook page.

Don't forget hair. Always the hair.


The rise of Korean pop music ("K-pop") has been another factor in K-fashion. Here's a beginner's guide to K-pop from The Guardian.

KCON USA is a two-night concert for K-pop fans in the U.S. It takes place at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena (August 9-10), and will have food, vendors, panels, and workshops. Their associated blog has decent articles, such as Hallyu Tanya's "The Rise of The Acting Idol".

Korean Design

Huffington Post, Korean Design – Developing a Design Culture: "Before living in Korea for a year, 'Korean Design' had no meaning for me whatsoever, but it now represents a sense of social sensibility and collectivism. Also, good work ethics and striving at improvement though the incremental refinement of proven ideas since failure is frowned upon and risk-taking is avoided."

Designboom has a Korean Design category with a wealth of posts; here is a post on a foam grotto for the Seoul Pavilion project (complete with Vimeo 'making of' video; more about that project); here's one on traditional Korean furniture reinterpreted; and twisted pencil by Giha Woo. Lots more at Designboom.

Tumblr: #korean design

Shopping Korean

Yahoo! Style has a surprisingly good introductory piece for tourists looking to shop Korean fashions: "How to Shop in South Korea, Gangnam Style and Beyond," by Lilit Marcus.

10 hot South Korean fashion brands and where to buy them (CNN, slideshow with article).

Korean Street Style, referenced above, writes about her favorite shopping neighborhoods in Seoul, in reply to a reader's question. From the start of her reply:
Shopping in Korea is amazing! There are so many different areas where you can go shopping in Seoul. You can literally find anything you want. What I like about Seoul is that regardless what you taste in clothes is you will be able to find what you like. Also the clothes are very cheap, at least compared to Europe and the US.
Shopping in Seoul: 28 Popular Korean Clothing Brands to Buy — Keith Kim at Seoulistic.

Language and Memes

A couple of Korean language/meme links might be useful.

"Are you new to the world of K-pop or K-drama, or just need a refresher on what the heck everyone's talking about? Is there a word you've always wondered about but were afraid to ask? We've put together the ultimate list of every single K-pop and K-drama term you'll ever come across. So bookmark this page, and dive right in to the Korean pop culture dictionary!" From DramaFever, 101 Korean pop culture words you absolutely MUST know.

"Ulzzang (Korean: "얼짱," literally meaning "best face") is a South Korean internet slang term that is commonly used to describe attractive looking netizens. Unlike other mainstream celebrities or actors that are known for similar appeals, "Ulzzang" usually refers to an ordinary person who arises to internet stardom solely as a result of his or her good look."

More Korean Memes here, including, of course, PSY's "Gangnam Style".

Previously: Best Korean Dramas 2009 / 2010 / 2011 / 2012 / 2013
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (23 comments total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, more inside, you say? You had me thinking this was just a link to Wikipedia, you sly dog.
posted by Segundus at 10:45 PM on July 26, 2014 [7 favorites]

Unlike other mainstream celebrities or actors that are known for similar appeals, "Ulzzang" usually refers to an ordinary person who arises to internet stardom solely as a result of his or her good look.

The best-looking members of boybands and girl groups are referred to as the "visuals", often former ulzzang who got scouted.
posted by fatehunter at 10:57 PM on July 26, 2014

This is so much fun info. Also, Korean food is super popular and trendy in media right now. For good/delicious reason.
posted by Swisstine at 11:51 PM on July 26, 2014

So, um, there was a story floating around back when I was in such worlds ( four? Years ago?) that the Korean Goverment was subsidizing a lot of art and design students to study abroad so they could reap the investments and become a very fashionable, design conscious "national brand" as it where. Is that true at all cause it sounds like a great I,port replacement tactic.
posted by The Whelk at 11:52 PM on July 26, 2014

As a movie fan, film is what introduced me to Korean culture. Gwoemul, aka The Host, is one of the best monster movies I have ever seen. Oldboy is great too, way better than the recent Hollywood remake. And Attack the Gas Station! is hilarious.
posted by foobaz at 1:28 AM on July 27, 2014

On the Chinese consumer goods websites, products advertised as Korean-designed get premium markup. First noticed this happening in meaningful numbers about a year ago.

"Made in Korea" doesn't quite carry the premium that products from Japan do, never mind Europe. That might change if Korean companies can establish name recognition overseas; right now a lot of Korean luxury good companies seem to be fumbling towards how to go about doing that.

The inevitable consequence of that (Korean products being assumed good, but product identities not being firmly established yet) is that on amalgamated sales sites like AliExpress you can sometimes compare the same cheap commodity item (such as an apron with a cartoon character on it) being sold by two different vendors, and one will claim that the item is Korean and have a higher asking price.

Korean phone cases really are well-designed. Mobile phone accessories are serious business there. I first saw wallet-style cases used (by pretty near everybody) when I visited Seoul and after returning home started shopping for one for myself. The problem is that almost all the cases sold in the US had unnecessary crap on them like straps, buckles, plastic trim, or were just plain badly made; I eventually found a good fundamentally-designed case through Ebay... designed, made in, and shipped from South Korea.
posted by ardgedee at 4:47 AM on July 27, 2014

Oof, this is gonna take me a while to click and read through but thanks already, jcisfa, for stealing my precious free time.
posted by bigendian at 5:31 AM on July 27, 2014

I'm still working my way through the links (thanks!), but that rant on Big doesn't even begin to touch the fandom reaction to that hot mess.

(Also, side note: the Hong sisters did more than two dramas. In addition to You're Beautiful and My Girlfriend is a Gumiho, they wrote Greatest Love, Hong Gil Dong, Delightful Girl Chun-hyang, My Girl, and Couple Fantasty, all of which are their certain brand of hilarious absurd-ism that are more delightful than their Big disaster -- except for maybe Couple Fantasy [a take on the film Overboard] that I thought was just "meh." They also wrote Master's Sun last year, which was a total delight. I usually have a love-hate relationship with their shows, but they did manage to redeem themselves after that flop. /drama pedant)

But it has been fascinating seeing how much You Who Came From the Stars totally created a new market for "chimaek" (chicken + maekju [beer]) -- plus, of course, Jeon Ji-hyun single-handedly being responsible for the total sell-out of the YSL pink lipstick.

Branding is especially interesting when watching dramas, because you're supposed to believe that this poor, hard-working girl with a bajillion part-time jobs just to make ends meet, also has a closet full of designer goods and, of course, the latest cell phone. It's one of those things where you're like "this would never happen in life" but you just roll with it, because that's just how it is in Dramaland.

It's also strange to see US-based brands get a higher profile attention, like Subway. The paid product placement in shows borders on the ridiculous (but hey, fewer ads to break up the episodes!), but seeing Subway touted as a fashionable and trendy place to eat makes the average American go *head-tilt*.

But I admit that I am a little excited that Korean-brand cosmetics are starting making a splash in the States, though, because I happen to enjoy a lot of the Korean skin care products (what I wouldn't give to have a Face Shop or its ilk near me!).
posted by paisley sheep at 5:37 AM on July 27, 2014

Also the comic from "My Korean Husband" (which is a fun comic, especially if you're familiar with Korea and Korean entertainment) is totally spot-on with regards to how it seems so many dramas end.
posted by paisley sheep at 5:38 AM on July 27, 2014

While Big might have been somewhat weak when compared with the rest of the Hong Sisters output, it was still much better than 95% of all other Korean rom com dramas. I could never quite see why people were so mad about the ending, given that you only have to fart in the general vicinity of someone in a kdrama and they'll end up in hospital (especially those goddamned Chaebol evil mothers) and body switcharoos seem to be a fairly common trope. (cf Secret Garden)

I have to say though, if the clothes that the leading men wear in kdrama is any indicator, Korean fashion might be the lamest fashion I've ever seen in my life. Just about all of it looks as though it's on the screen to push whichever useless designer the producer happens to be fucking/have invested in.

I'd love to see Trot Lovers or Joseon Gunman on Fanfare though.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 6:37 AM on July 27, 2014

I find this to be an odd collection of links. For example, the three dramas referenced from Korean Drama Fashion neither had high ratings nor were they fashion influences in Korea. The Yahoo! link is definitely a tourist's guide to shopping and doesn't quite reflect how Seoul-ites shop. I realize that much of what Koreans write about fashion and design remains untranslated, and so one must often rely on what foreigners write.

An entertaining way to glimpse Korean fashion and style is to browse through Korean cable channel OnStyle's offerings ("No. 1 Style Channel"). Their website offers short clips of shows, both current and past ones. I admit to religiously watching Project Runway Korea Season 4, which was ultimately won by a Parsons grad (my personal favorite was Kim Sung-hyun, but sadly his skills couldn't match up to his vision). The previous season was won by a SADI (Samsung Art and Design Institute) grad and it was emphasized how she was a homegrown product, who had not studied abroad. The episodes show a lot of running around in Dongdaemun Market, which is where a lot of Koreans shop but the FPP's shopping links curiously omit.

The current OnStyle competitive design show is Sold Out, which this season has 100 "trend shoppers" voting on the designs. There are several former Project Runway Korean contestants among the designers, including Lee Ji-Seung, who studied in Antwerp.

(Bonus: how to do a facial massage AND apply makeup)
posted by needled at 6:37 AM on July 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

> The paid product placement in shows borders on the ridiculous (but hey, fewer ads to break up the episodes!), but seeing Subway touted as a fashionable and trendy place to eat makes the average American go *head-tilt*.

American fast-food franchises are often different overseas, in terms of what their menus are, how good they are, and in how they're perceived. Which is not to say Subway is inexplicably great in Korea, only that it's plausible that it doesn't have the same status of food-of-last resort there.
posted by ardgedee at 6:51 AM on July 27, 2014

Thanks for the extra links, needled!

American fast-food franchises are often different overseas, in terms of what their menus are, how good they are, and in how they're perceived. Which is not to say Subway is inexplicably great in Korea, only that it's plausible that it doesn't have the same status of food-of-last resort there.

Oh, yes; I quite agree. I learned that first-hand when I was living overseas (the excitement when a Chipotle opened up within a three-hour drive in a country that does not understand Mexican food cannot be explained in mere words). But I do see quite a few American drama-watchers befuddled by the constant appearance of Subway in shows (Big Man/You're All Surrounded/Prime Minister & I/etc.) because it seems like such an uncool restaurant here. A friend who lives in a smallish town in Korea explained that a Subway opened up recently there, and for the first week or so there was an hour wait. So I can totally understand that there's a different cachet, but as a casual viewer who doesn't live in that culture, it's an interesting take on the idea of what's trendy/fashionable.

I'd love to see Trot Lovers or Joseon Gunman on Fanfare though.

Ha, I think the fan meltdown on the last few minutes of Trot Lovers ep 10 was almost as severe as the meltdown over Big.

The thing with Big, though, wasn't so much that it was a mediocre drama -- it was a Hong sisters drama, and they have a certain cachet. You kind of expect a different quality when you watch one of their dramas, and it was like they didn't even try. I almost gave up in a rage-quit around episode 8 because I was completely bewildered that they would skip over the wedding (because that would have been a scene ripe with body-swap hijinks, if not worthy of an entire episode since that was a huge step in her decision to go along with everything). But... Gong Yoo! How can I ignore a drama with Gong Yoo?!?!

The ending got a lot of hate because it answered nothing, and so it felt like all the hours invested in "will they be able to swap back?" were totally wasted. Not to mention that was the dumbest lead character they ever created, even more than innocent nun Go Mi-nam/Mi-nyeo from You're Beautiful. Which, again, is such a pity, because Lee Min-jung is fantastic and was totally wasted in that role (as was Gong Yoo, but that's a story for another day, sigh...).
posted by paisley sheep at 7:11 AM on July 27, 2014

while we're on the subject of spoofing kdrama tropes and the Hong sisters

spoilers for My Girlfriend is a Kumiho, technically, I guess? The framing device is two comic relief characters wildly and incorrectly speculating about the leads, so.
posted by kagredon at 7:12 AM on July 27, 2014

My mother-in-law watched one Korean movie with my wife on a visit. Next thing you know, she's learning Korean online so she can follow the shows without relying on subtitles. And the next thing after that, she's teaching English to Koreans online, and answering annoying mall surveyors in Korean to throw them off.
posted by Foosnark at 7:28 AM on July 27, 2014

Now I'm hungry for a Doni burger.
posted by carsonb at 8:21 AM on July 27, 2014

There are a lot more troubling aspects to discuss in some of the kiss scenes in Korean dramas, ESPECIALLY "Playful Kiss", ugh, than a simple lack of chemistry between two actors. Almost all of them are men forcing themselves on women. The male lead (or even the rival/villian!) is rarely if ever reprimanded for this.

Look, some women like some forcefulness in a guy. There are cultural differences I as an American can't fully understand here. American rom-coms romanticize stalking (the Korean ones do sometimes as well, but they also make stalking pretty damn creepy at times). Certainly some dramas do a better job of making the kisses seem at least somewhat consensual than others. But there are a lot of ways to ignore a woman saying no in the situations. And I worry about people forming romantic ideals around that.
posted by maryr at 8:34 AM on July 27, 2014

Sorry, "worry" sounds condescending. I think Koreans are just as susceptible/resistant to TV values of romance as Americans. I don't "worry" about the influence of K-dramas any more or less than I do the influence of 80s movies.
posted by maryr at 8:46 AM on July 27, 2014

You Who Came From the Stars totally created a new market for "chimaek"

I was obsessed with the drama (how is Jun Ji Hyun so flawless? why is Kim Soo Hyun so gorgeous? am I allowed to lolship them irl? those were the questions), but I never got into the chicken-and-beer thing. That was the manifestation of Cheon Song Yi's daddy issues. I didn't like how the script handled her parents.

The drama was so popular in China that KSH became a big star there overnight (right after Lee Min Ho hit the Chinese jackpot with The Heirs). It was a case study of the power of Hallyu.
posted by fatehunter at 10:26 AM on July 27, 2014

I live in downtown Toronto and there is a new strip of Korean restaurants that have opened up along Dundas near Bay/University in the last couple years. The big signal to me that the bulk of their staff are new here is the hair and the fashion. It's something I haven't seen in Toronto before. I find their male fashion especially interesting. They seem to blur gender lines, or at least not insist that masculine = macho. There's a wider range available.

Plus the food is great. Banchan ♥!
posted by heatherann at 10:26 AM on July 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Funny that this got posted today. We were looking for a laptop backpack for underpetticoatrule, and we found absolutely nothing attractive until we stumbled upon an eBay shop selling Korean backpacks. And then we found a LOT of cool bags.

Regarding Subway: I don't know about Korea but holy cow is that chain ever huge in Brazil. It really took me by surprise.
posted by rednikki at 10:52 PM on July 27, 2014

Ten years ago, some friends came back from a year in Seoul with a suitcase full of the coolest t-shirts I had ever seen. When they'd wear them around hipster Brooklyn, people would eagerly ask where they could buy those awesome shirts. I figured then that it was only a matter of time.

My friends attributed it to the ubiquity of art class in Korean primary schools. Everyone learns basic drawing, and doing "tweens" for animation studios is a very common post-college job. (I haven't checked this, so grain of salt)
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 6:41 AM on July 28, 2014

As far as men's fashion goes, Korea has the market cornered on slim-fitting clothing.

The quality is hit or miss when ordering from sites like YesStyle but boutique Opening Ceremony has carried high end designs since a feature in 2012.

Koreatown in LA is full of smartly-dressed young men. There's a distinct style going on.
posted by yuchan at 10:17 AM on July 28, 2014

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