Although the Korean fashion industry is still not as recognized or popular as its Western counterpart, in recent decades Korean style has started to acquire increasing momentum by boldly voicing its unique presence in the market. In late October 2012, the Seoul Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2013 saw a growing number of foreign buyers despite the venue’s relatively small size. In an interview with the Korea Herald, Elisa Pervinca Bellini, editor of Vogue Italy commented “Menswear collections have evolved tremendously and established a Korean identity over the past years, which is still lacking in womenswear.”
However, womenswear is likely set to change quite soon: with the recent election of South Korea’s first female president, Park Geun-hye, the leader’s fashion choices have now become of much interest to her supporting designers. Some believe that in order for the president to have a “confident, lively and posh” look , she must use colors that allude to her party, to her country’s flag, and that point to her decisiveness in a historically male-dominated political arena.
But the most interesting changes are occurring in the streets of the bustling country. South Korea, which has lifted itself out of poverty and placed itself among the leading world economies within a working generation, is breaking from the conservative fashion of yore and drifting into a new age of experimentation and self-expression through fashion.
Documenting this fascinating phenomenon are two young girls: Danielle Potgieter – a fashion major from South Africa – and Caroline Bryan – a fashion and design major from the U.S. Both initially moved to Korea in search of work and exciting new experiences. With time, however, they started seeing the appeal of South Korea’s developing fashion industry. Spurred by their passion, the two recently developed a website called ROKStyles – an acronym that means Republic of Korea Styles – that strives to cast a light on the nation’s alluring street fashion, which many foreigners are entirely oblivious to.
The East Asia Gazette has interviewed them regarding their eye-pleasing online project:
How did you come up with the idea?
Caroline has a background in the fashion industry and I (Danielle) majored in graphic design. We met through some mutual friends and discovered we both have a passion for style, people and fashion. I told her how I wanted to start a site about Korean fashion from a Western perspective and she thought it was a good idea. We then sat and discussed ways in which we could promote Korean fashion and style to an international audience. Korean fashion is diverse and the streets are filled with eccentric styles and looks. We decided the best way to showcase Korea is through its people and stores. We are soon going to expand into videos showing interesting people in Korea and their lifestyles.
Do you find Korea's street style to be distinctly different from Japanese and Chinese style? How does it differentiate itself from European styles?
We have no first-hand experience in Europe so it’s hard to say. However, given our background and experiences in the countries we have traveled to, we can provide a list of some of the differences.
It's really hard to generalize styles in the West because it's such a vague concept that covers many countries that include millions of people. That said, we believe Koreans are far more dressy than your average American or South African. Most women in our countries would never wear 5-inch heels on uneven icy roads like many Korean women do. Women (and some men) here also wear a lot more fur. You run the risk of getting paint thrown on you for that in the U.S. We've also noticed that designer brands bags seem to be a lot more popular here.
In Korea, Louis Vuitton bags are referred to as the “one minute” bag because you can almost literally spot one every minute walking down the streets in Seoul.
Korean men seem more into fashion than their American or even South African counterparts. We see many dapper looking gentlemen suited up on the subway everyday where back in our countries they are much more into comfortable and casual looks. Also, Korean men wear more tailored and slim fitting clothing which is not bad on the eyes. We really wish more Western guys would buy clothes that fit them properly or would go get them tailored so they do.
Korea & Japan
Japan has a large variety of fashion styles and they're not afraid to be more “out there” with hair-dos, colors, and just fashion in general. There seem to be many more fashion subcultures in Japan compared to Korea, like the kawaii (Japanese for “cute”) style of goody-two-shoes girls wearing cutesy outfits. One thing in particular we noticed in men’s fashion were all the Dragon Ball Z anime hair styles. Koreans don’t usually gel their hair out like that. They seem more prim and proper in style compared to the Japanese. Also, many Japanese people still wear traditional clothing such as the yukata and kimono, and they can often be seen casually strolling through parks or watching fireworks during national events, whereas we only see Korean wearing their traditional “hanbok” for very special occasions like weddings.
Korea & China
Having spent only short amounts of time in Shanghai and not knowing the areas to go to hunt down stylish folks, it’s hard to say. However, we do know that many Chinese have recently been taken by all-things-Korean. They love Korean fashion styles and beauty products. We’ve heard the Chinese are huge fans of Korean dramas and there’s a big following of K-Pop stars there too. Many Chinese also regularly travel to Korea to buy cosmetics and apparel. In terms of fashion, it seems like China isn’t as extreme as Japan nor as posh or dressy as Korea.
There are some pictures of couples dressed with matching styles on your website. Can you tell us a bit about Korea's fashion within the dating sub-culture?
Couple's clothing is huge here. There are many companies that cater specifically to couples who are into matching and make garments for just about every occasion you could think of. We're talking about matching sweaters, shoes, swim wear and our favorite – underwear. We just saw recently a Levi's lingerie store selling a denim bra and panty set with the matching men's denim boxer briefs. We're not sure what makes people want to wear the same outfits as their significant other, but it's kinda cute in a way. This is definitely not a trend in the West.
You also take photos of Japanese people in Korea. Is there something particularly Korean about the way they dress?
We are a website about Korean style and we mostly promote Korean fashion, but for Street Style, we want to show people who are out on the streets of Seoul looking fabulous and it's not an issue if they aren't Korean and/or aren't wearing Korean designer clothing. People we photograph are still in Korea and we want to give our viewers a glimpse of what kind of style you would see on the streets here. We did feature these two Japanese twin brothers who were wearing some really eccentric outfits that reminded us of G-Dragon's style, so we do think they took some styling cues from the Korean artist.
Does ROK styles advocate fashion tips or is it more simply a diary of Hallyu style?
Right now we aren't necessarily giving any fashion advice. We do have a have a monthly editorial we put together and feature some on-trend Korean fashion which might be helpful to some people who could take some styling cues from it. I would say it is like a fashion diary in some ways. We go out almost every week and find new stores and stylish people on the streets of Seoul to write about.
You seem to be portraying a very appealing image of South Korea - not only its colorful people but also its streets and stores. Do you also plan to embrace other types of Korean “street style“ such as architecture or cuisine?
We try to showcase a range of different street fashion looks, some of which are not our personal style, but we still think look cool on the person we photographed. As for covering other areas like cuisine or architecture, we probably will not do that. We would like to focus on the area we love and feel is truly lacking in coverage.
The stores you direct your audience to seem to be very stylish and positively particular. Are places like these gems in the rough or are they common in Korea?
There are so many great stores and places to shop, but we try to choose ones that have an “it” factor to them. There are definitely some gems in the rough, and we like to document them especially when they aren't in major shopping districts like Gangnam or Myeongdong. For example we featured a really great store called “OTBWA” near Singal station which is a recently added subway stop that is kind of out in the sticks in Yongin, in Gyeonggi province.
While the project is relatively new, it is already starting to gain a fair bit of attention through its Facebook followers. The website is subdivided into categories that showcase not only Korean street fashion, but also “Local Gems” – stores that are worth a visit – and a soon-to-come ROKtv section among others. Overall, it provides a fresh outlook on the direction Korea is headed in terms of street style, and might be particularly interesting for those looking to work or live in South Korea, as did Danielle and Caroline. For all fashion aficionadi, and for people brave enough to venture in the styles of the far East, ROKStyles is certainly a project worth looking into.