This post is being treatment published here on our site as it goes into the queue and the Huffington Post for obviously much wider distribution. It’s been posted here in order to get editorial feedback during this process.
As part of the Korean government’s larger goal of helping to promote what are commonly referred to as Korea’s “culture industries,” and in the context of the rising global prominence of certain Korean cultural products in recent years that has been commonly referred to as the “Korean wave,” the Korean fashion industry has been the focus of increased attention and investment of public sector resources in the industry event called “Seoul Fashion Week,”the Korean analogue to similar fashion industry event “weeks” across the world, including the major series of shows from Paris to Milan, New York to London, and all the way to Tokyo. Very recently, Seoul Fashion Week has set as its goal to entering anywhere from the top five Fashion Weeks across the globe to the top seven, in which traditional national and cultural rival Tokyo brings up the rear. Whether the goal has been the lofty one of joining the ranks of top Western fashion capitals or merely to bump shoulders with Japan,the Korean fashion industry, as defined by its most prominent designers as organized into myriad industry organizations, has enjoyed generous financial support from the national and city governments ever since it adopted the moniker “Seoul Fashion Week” in the year 2000.
Seoul fashion week most recently displayed the work of Korea’s top fashion designers from last March 25 to March 29, at an event split between 2 venues run by separate organizations working together in tandem to put on the event. The main Seoul Fashion Week brand, which until 3 seasons ago administrated solely by the Seoul city government and its representative body the Seoul Business Association, worked with the private PR firm Innocean this season to kick off the week of fashion shows from the IFC Mall, which is housed in the center of Seoul’s business district in Yeouido. The newly-created Council of Fashion Designers of Korea (CFDK) administered and held about half of the main runway shows at the venue Blue Square in the Hannam neighborhood of Seoul. (CFDK having done 26 main shows, and Seoul City responsible for 30 at the IFC Mall venue) Representatives of both Seoul city and CFDK were eager to point out that the dual venues did not reflect any rift or rivalry between the 2 associated administrating organizations.
The fact that such rifts have existed in the past may partially explain why all parties involved have been so eager to emphasize the existence of a unified front in the administration of Seoul fashion week, with aneye towards staving off any possible rumors that it may be a similar kind of conflict behind the decision to spread the event across 2 separate venues.
Indeed, in the past, Seoul fashion week has been marred by individual fashion design organizations deciding to break off and hold their own separate events, as used to be the case in the recent past, when the Seoul Fashion Artists Association (SFAA) used to regularly stage their own collection of shows completely separately from Seoul Fashion Week.
And most recently in the winter of 2011 and 2012, a personal conflict that had arisen from internal criticisms from an individual within the Seoul city-funded SBA organization reached the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, boiled over and erupted into a public meleé of defamation lawsuits that resulted in all public funding being cut from the Seoul Business Association, which had been the organization tasked with administering Seoul Fashion Week, resulting in a cutoff in funding for Seoul Fashion Week and throwing the question of that event’s organizational administration into the air. As a result, the first SFW season after the internecine battles had subsided, which resulted in the public crippling of SFW’s funding, found itself haphazardly organized and held in outdoor tents in a public park last March 2012 in an event that has been described as having been not much different than a poorly-organized trade show. By the next SFW in October 2012, the remnants of the SBA and Seoul city government organizers had arranged the event to take place in the war Memorial Museum of Korea, which was officially administered by the PR firm Peopleworks, Inc., and was an event roundly criticized by the domestic fashion press as having been poorly carried out and which marked a step backwards for both SFW and the stature of Korean fashion designers internationally.
So, all eyes and ears were closely attuned to what would be happening this most recent season, which took place in late March 2013. Given the fact of many previous factional disputes within the Korean fashion industry in the past, the most recent of which had resulted in the near dismantling of SFW itself, the idea to form a private-sector organization and and get it in front of an initiative to administer Seoul Fashion Week privately, and ostensibly for the sake of Korea’s fashion designers, as opposed to the more nebulous and problematic goal of “cultural export promotion,” began to gain traction, and came to coalesce around Korea’s most prominent and venerated living fashion designer, Lie Sang Bong. With Lee at the helm, the Council of Fashion Designers of Korea formed in early 2013 with the expressed goal of furthering the interests of Korean fashion designers and eventually would come to play a large role in the actual administration of Korea’s representative industry event, Seoul Fashion Week, this past season. The CFDK organized shows for the designers within its membership circle, using combined private-sector and corporate sponsors for the shows themselves, with approximately $6,000, 4,000 and 3,000 participation fees being asked of the designers, dependent on numbers of years active as a fashion designer, namely 20+, 10-20, and <10 years in the industry, respectively. new and inexperienced designers are completely exempt from having to pay any fees, just as in the case of Seoul city-funded shows. in this way, the CFDK is indeed maintaining its very self-conscious purpose , as described by founder and designer Lie Sang Bong, of turning this back into a “fashion even for fashion designers.”He added that this was the first time that there was a single, representative association of and for all Korean fashion designers, with elder members in their eighties, all the way down to brand new designers in their early twenties. And in a status/connections/aged-centered culture like Korea’s that’s no small change to make, and is what Lie sees as a “extremely positive” step forward in the overall development of the Korean fashion industry.
Yeon-ju Park, director and spokesperson for the CFDK, characterized this new pricing and participation structure as having been a quite a fair and smart way of redistributing the bulk of the burden of staging fashion shows back more in the direction of the designers, in a way that would be commensurate with the more experienced designers’ greater ability to shoulder greater financial burden. In short, the privatized participation and pricing structure was not all to different from the $2000 participation fee required by the Seoul city for participation in the event, with all the remaining costs above $2000 being taken by Seoul city, which, in the end, is taxpayer money and creates a somewhat different expectation amongst both the designers and general public about the role and nature of soul fashion week in general, which is arguably one of the reasons that there are always tickets for Seoul Fashion Week shows on sale, and members of the public have the chance to enter and watch any fashion show offered during the week, which is arguably a positive benefit of taxpayer money being used to fund cultural events, in that it makes this top industry event much more democratic than is generally the case in other fashion weeks across the world. Indeed, Seoul Fashion Week is probably the only top fashion industry event in the world in which one can see school uniform-clad attendees standing shoulder to shoulder with other members of the general public, who themselves are no more than a few rows removed from the cultural elites and top invited glitterati sitting in the front press and VIP seats.
This season around, the event was markedly devoid of any easily discernible animosity or organizational ill will. Indeed, although some members of the both the overseas and domestic Korean press found the separate venues inconvenient in that it made it sometimes impossible to attend all shows offered at the most recent Seoul fashion week, despite the schedule being much less packed than in previous seasons, the event itself went off without any sign of friction or division between the two organizations, and worked quite well as a single overall event. Indeed, Hyowon Lee, writer for BLOUINArtInfo, noted that she “preferred Blue Square” because they were “better organized” in terms of press room placement and access, and also lamented the fact that even with the provided shuttle bus between the two locations, it was “overwehelming” in that it was nearly impossible to see all or even a significant number of the shows on the official schedule. Still, the difference between the management styles of the two organizations running the two separate venues was quite apparent to many members of the domestic and international press interviewed for this story. Karen Lee, founder of online fashion and lifestyle magazine Tomimito.com, was decidedly diplomatic when mentioning having had some “issues”with the IFC venue and organizers, and pointed out greatly enjoying the Blue Square venue precisely because of the fact that the non-IFC Mall venue was run by a private organization and PR company, as opposed to the usual suspects from the Seoul city SFW crew.
The top-down and self-important style of the remnants of the city government people and their affiliated PR company made registration and covering of the shows at the IFC Mall much more difficult and irritating than necessary. However, the part of Seoul fashion week that took place at blue Square was unequivocally a pleasure to cover, from the press room to the runway. The CFDK, despite being a brand-new organization and perhaps prone to making the same mistakes as Seoul city government has made from season to season over the years, seemed to have learned from the many mistakes and complaints of previous Seoul fashion weeks and seems to make every effort not to make them themselves. And, subjectively speaking, the shows at blue Square just seemed to be better overall. This is probably no doubt due to the fact that covering the shows was a breeze, and the staff running the event in that venue made a point to bend over backwards to accommodate any and all needs and requests, as opposed to the standard behavior of the Seoul city people, which seems to center around putting up as many barriers to making pictures and producing good content about the events as possible, with a lot of self-important posturing added for good measure.
In short, Seoul Fashion Week seems to be going in the right direction, which is that of increasing privatization and hopefully a wresting away of control from the city government and the standard top-down Korean style of management, especially of its so-called “cultural industries.” Still, the Seoul Fashion Week brand is still owned and controlled by the city government, in the industry has grown quite accustomed to the generous flow of easy money and ample support for cultural events promoting brand Korea, a goal for which the government has always been willing to reach deep into his pockets. The question becomes one of how much the private sector is willing to take on a much greater financial burden in order to have a greater amount of control and independence. assuming that privatization is indeed the way forward, the next question becomes that of whether the city government and other even higher ups will be willing to relinquish control to the private sector. This is actually the quintessential question when it comes to nearly every aspect of Korean society or the last 30 years, since nearly every part of civil society today was once under direct government control. When considering these questions, as well as any others on the on the Korean Peninsula, one must remember that until the early 1990s, South Korea had essentially lived under military dictators ( the 1st of which, Park Chung Hee, had banned fashion shows outright after his takeover in 1961 as part of austerity measures designed to weed out as negative elements of bourgeois society and what he viewed as the activities of subversive intellectuals. as in all other sectors of life, South Koreans are still wrestling with the challenge of disentangling civil society from government control—what has made this process all the more interest gained in the case of fashion as a “cultural industry” is the fact that these fields have welcomed government money and support with open arms in the name of nationalism—that is, all bets and concerns are off when it comes to the laudable goal of promoting Korean culture abroad. Now, the Korean fashion industry, which has long been historically and financially inured to this potentially problematic mingling of public and private-sector interests, has reached a crossroads of sorts.
When asked whether the city government suits might find it difficult to relinquish increasing amounts of control to private sector, (namely CFDK), Director Park did indicate thiscould possibly become an issue in the future, depending on how much and how quickly the city government will be willing to relinquish direct control over Korea’s flagship fashion event, which will go very much against the grain of Korean management and government habits in general, as well as go against the pattern of how the government sector in Korea tends to try and take a very central role in what has become a common catchphrase here: the “culture industry.”
Especially in a country and culture used to a government-centered and controlled export model for everything from consumer goods to what is increasingly being seen as an exportable commodity — culture. Ever since Korean films began garnering attention in overseas film festivals, the nationalist streak in the society has created a tendency for government officials to quarterback, if not completely control, policies and practices related to what has been called “cultural exports.” In fact, it was when government suits and organizations began to get involved in the “cultural export” action that both the idea and catch phrase “Korean wave” became widely used and solidified in the public mind. Unfortunately, the top-down, micromanaging style of Korean central administration and government organizational style is ill-suited to actually produce success in creating cultural items or trends that actually catch on outside of Korea. A recent, glaring example of this can be seen in the breakout success of Psy, of “Gangnam Style” fame. It’s interesting that this rapper and performer in particular quickly became the prodigal son of the successful explosion of the so-called “Korean wave.” In fact, Psy has always been on the fringes of the Korean mainstream, and definitely never defined the standard, safe commercial fare that pleases the palate of most Korean music consumers. In fact, Psy is a performer who has often flirted with controversy and made risky artistic choices against base commercial interests as a musician. Even his recent explosive success overseas cannot be explained according to the logic or practices of the domestic Korean music industry, nor is his style form representative of what has come to be solidified and defined as “K-pop.” In short, his success is not because of the machinations or processes that constitute what we now call the Korean production machine that is “K–pop,” but despite it. SFW is not too different in this regard, since the ongoing relative success of this event over the last several years has not been due to the enlightened choices or good management of the city government that has been in charge over the better part of the last decade, with progress having happened despite their bumbling and incompetence. It has been the raw talent of Korean top designers, combined with the dynamic flowering of Korean street fashion culture on the ground, along with the accidental and unexpected overall rise in prominence of Korean popular culture, that have all combined to bring more attention in general to what is happening on Korean fashion runways and the streets of Seoul.
Designer Park Seung-gun’s pushBUTTON brand remained a must-see show this season as well.
In fact, my ability to produce fashion content about Seoul Fashion Week has been despite the best efforts of the Seoul city government people to keep me out of the event. I’ve used my extensive personal collections in order to find my way into getting a press pass for the last 3 seasons, since I have been constantly turned down by the city government people for access, despite having been one of the 1st and only foreign journalist covering SFW back when there was very little interest overseas in the event, since around 2007. The organizers over the last few years, when the event was controlled by the SBA, or in other words, the city of Seoul, were quite happy when I filed stories on SFW for CNN Travel and other overseas venues, such as the Japan Times and other smaller outlets. However, the event’s short institutional memory has inevitably led them to forget all the hard work this writer has done to promote Korean fashion overseas and in the English language Internet, much like a confused goldfish continuously bumping its head against the glass of the fish tank. Add to this a good heaping helping of actual incompetence, in that they have now for the past 2 consecutive seasons denied press access to me as a representative of the Huffington Post, mostly because of the impression I have that they have no idea what the Huffington Post actually is, and you have a situation in which I have to call in favors and cover the event under the auspices of a local industry fashion newspaper at which I have been a freelancer at times in the past. That is actually the way I got into the shows with a press pass this most recent season, and came up against the attempts of one particular member of the Seoul city people group to nurse what I can only understand as some kind of grudge against me for getting past her best attempts to keep me out of the event, despite the fact that I was house photographer for 3 separate designers SFW this season However, this was very much not the case when dealing with the blue Square venue that was controlled by the CDFK, the representatives of which actually sought me out between shows to make sure I was finding good seating and that might team members had adequate resources in the press room.
If both the institutional competence and overall helpfulness (along with what seems to be a genuine desire to see SFW succeed as a fashion event for the fashion industry) of the CFDK organization is any sign, and control of SFW moves in the direction in the future, the future of Seoul fashion week looks very bright. And given the recent success of the event this most recent season, combined with the overall positive impression that the fashion industry and fashion journalists seem to have developed in response to the outstanding job that CFDK did in this, their 1st run as an organization and also the 1st experiment with the privatization of SFW, it seems inevitable for the Council of fashion designers of Korea to assume a much larger role in the management of Seoul fashion week, something that can only bode well for the Korean fashion industry in general. Indeed, a private sector with a vested interest in its own industries success is destined to do a much better job than a bunch of stuffed-suit civil servants whose main goal is to simply do the numbers and do the bare minimum required to please the boss.
In sum, there are bright days ahead for the Korean fashion industry, especially in terms of how much it’s flagship event seems to be moving in a much more positive direction. Just like in its other “cultural industries,” the timing is almost right for Korean fashion to make its grand appearance on the world stage, especially if the stars of fate and circumstance line up for any of the many talented Korean designers out there at present, who will surely manage to break out into the spotlight with a breakthrough individual masterwork that can turn the world’s attention into the direction of the Korean Peninsula in general. Perhaps it will be a famous American star who falls in love with a particular Korean fashion designer, or perhaps Anna Wintour might do the same and inexplicably dedicate an entire issue of Vogue USA to the subject of the “newest, hottest designers in Asia” or something nearly as fantastic. Or maybe will.I.am will produce a K-pop-inspired music video with Nikki Minaj an whole coterie of backup dancers clad in the hottest new Korean designer fashions. Who knows what historical accident and artistic convergence might result in the new next thing? Indeed, I still think there’s a strong sense of constant surprise and elation on the part of Koreans watching one of their quirkiest and off-mainstream musicians producing the video that has become the talk of the world and even cause for that artist to be invited to perform in the White House, especially given the common knowledge here of that musician’s superficial musical stance of very directed, affected anti-Americanism in the past. Indeed, who would have predicted just last year around this time that Psy would become the next major superstar, nay, the biggest musical superstar in the world, even if that status is fleeting. Given the bizarreness of the fact that a goofy Korean rapper who is the Korean cultural equivalent of Weird Al Yankovic has become the King of YouTube as well as dance using in the world, why would any bet that Korean fashion will soon have its day and its due necessarily be a long shot?