In recent years, Korean street style has become something of a cultural marvel and treasure, due to the unique mixture of a Korean desire to stand out from the crowd that a recent rise in income and consumerism has brought, amplified by a uniquely Korean intense sense of competitiveness. But this is still tempered by the reservedness found in Korean public culture and the concern that most folk still have about the approval and disapproval of others. In the end, this leads to a lot of interesting outfits, which is specifically something that has become rarer in the West, as the twin American epidemics of an extremely casual fashion aesthetic and expanding waistlines have made the fashion choices of the more formal and appearance-obsessed 1960’s irrelevant and harder to pull off.
Recently, Korean popular culture has enjoyed new attention, especially in the fields of music and cinema. The Korean government and what are called “culture industries” here are now scurrying to capitalize on what the Korean domestic press refer to as the “Korean wave.” Now, nearly everyone on the planet with a computer and an Internet connection knows how to “dress classy and dance cheesy.” And now that Gangnam style has made its imprint on the international imagination, its seems high time that the world started getting to know what Korean street fashion actually looks like. Beginning with the epicenter of the truly unique and stylish in South Korea seems like a logical choice. Unlike the somewhat misunderstood and misrepresented Harajuku in Tokyo, Japan, the Hongik arts university area in Seoul, Korea is a real center for the truly stylish, creative, and just plain unique. The real story on Harajuku in Tokyo is that the people who dress in that very special neighborhood of downtown Tokyo are not at all representative of most of the Japanese or their style at any given time. And while there are interesting people who get all dressed up for photographers and their own respective communities in this neighborhood, the people who dress up in that famed so-called “fashion district” are barely a step removed from those who engage in what the Japanese have coined as Cosplay or “costume play.”
One can’t get much of a sense of what the Japanese are actually thinking or what most Japanese actually wear from observing anyone in this area. It’s basically a neighborhood where the extremely sartorially bizarre hang out to be seen and photographed. And the people in that area offer themselves as great fodder for those participating in the chronicling of “Weird Japan” for the West, as in the Japanese-fashion-culture-as-curio book Fruits.
However, it’s been quite a while since Gwen Stefani mainstreamed this Japanese fashion district to the western world, and while Japan, through Tokyo, is now one of the top world centers for all kinds of fashion–while Korea isn’t yet–South Korea has meanwhile quietly established itself as the center of street and ready-to-wear fashion and the Ground Zero of style trends for all of Asia. What the West doesn’t really know yet is that the Chinese, Japanese, and Taiwanese who come to Korea because of other so-called “Korean wave” exports have taken an extremely strong interest in Korean everyday fashion and the trends on the Korean street. And at the center of all this is Korea’s preeminent arts university — Hongik University, which has been the center of everything fringe, alternative, and cool for decades, and has lately solidified its reputation as one of the hippest areas of Seoul. Hongdae (the popular abbreviation for both the University and its immediate environs) is, simply put, where the cool kids hang out and where one dresses up a bit for. The difference between this place and Harujuku, the Tokyo district where one goes to put on a costume, is just that: Hongdae is where one goes to look good, in an everyday, socially acceptable Korean sense.
Yes, one might occasionally find a Gothic Lolita or a slashed up, real punk rocker on the streets of Hongdae, but those people would still draw somewhat mystified stares. Hongdae isn’t categorically different from most trendy places in Seoul where you might want to get gussied up in the latest trendy, girly fashions and be sure to wear what every other size S, shoe size-6 Korean girl is wearing, but you are still encouraged to do so according to one’s own styles and tastes.
Put simply, Hongdae is ready-to-wear and real, while Harajuku tends to be conceptual and haute couture. And now, it’s about time that people outside of the peninsula start to see this hidden gem Korean of Korean culture. There are myriad aspects of Korean pop culture slowly coming out of the woodwork now, but are often hard to access directly, despite them being every bit as infective as the musical stylings of South Korea’s most famous horse trot dancer.
My photo student finishes shooting one of her fellow students who is on her way out of classes.
Korea is one of the world’s last bastions of women wearing one-piece dresses and heels every day, even to class, everywhere. Not that all women do, all the time, but it’s a mode that is constant and ubiquitous. One reason for this lies in the fact that Korean people dress up as a general rule, and the default mode is a kind of constant formality, or at least purposefulness, behind people’s dress. Non- Koreans iving in korea often joke that Koreans don’t do anything in moderation, but rather go at things 150%, cranked to the max, in triple overdrive. So if one has to dress to impress, one will utilize all tools available, meaning that makeup,heels, demure dresses, sexy hot pants, and whatever else adds to one’s arsenal is fair game during the morning preparations to greet the world. And this is especially true during college, when it is a no-holds-barred, Battle Royale for dates . No pajamas are being worn to class in Korea, and most women, specifically, would consider it nearly social suicide to e seen without makeup in social spaces. Nothing is unplanned about an outfit in Korea, in this land where paramount importance is placed on chemyeon, or “face” — everything is about how you look, your public face to the world. This, after all the world capital of plastic surgery. for just that reason. And clothes help define that face to the world, here in Korea.
Just going to class, y’all.
This is actually the second of a series of short pieces designed to introduce key neighborhoods of Seoul that convey aspects of Korean style and culture, because it’s been far too long that the world hasn’t known about the sharpness of Korean fashion sense and what will surely be the next big thing the West “discovers” about South Korea. Forget Gangnam style. Next up is “Korean style” in the general sense.
Here’s one of my Hongdae students,
whom I bumped into while covering
Seoul Fashion Week.
I’ve been covering Seoul Fashion Week for about 6 years now, and was the first street photographer to start photographing attendees in line, back in around 2008, when no one was doing it. Since then, well, actually, from around 2011, actually, SFW has become quite the scene, packed, like other fashion weeks are, with eager street fashion photographers. rocking the patterned “tattoo” stockings that have become popular on Seoul streets lately.
Of course, since it’s Seoul Fashion Week, there’s a bit more swag to the looks and people are a lot more blinged out and ready to really let it loose. I’ll be clear right now that my eye tends to go for a balance of completely performative street fashion and stuff that looks normal — and you’d be surprised at how blinged out “normal” can be in Seoul, and what they’re remixing into truly Korean style.
And meanwhile, away from the main show venue, I found a great, very uncasually put-together casual fall look. Knits and boots, almost like a crazy LL Bean catalog shoot.
Oh, and the piece de la resistance, a bag you won’t find anywhere else than Seoul.
Really, Seoul has its own thang going on. And now that you know where the cool kids hang out in Asia and Korea.
Next stop, women’s fashion district Myeongdong!