Seoul Fashion Week, while steadily improving as an experience for the international community, is still beleaguered by recurring problems. As both a fashion photographer specializing in Korea and a member of the Presidential Committee on Nation Branding, this writer has been able to gain access and direct experience in these areas, but had the chance to speak with many other non-Korean buyers, journalists and other attendees of Seoul Fashion Week.
After canvassing several overseas buyers and journalists about their experiences here, the reactions were as varied as they were informative. Despite the many positives noted by several of those interviewed, including kudos being given for the improved organization, good hospitality, and easy access to interpreters, there are still remain fundamental problems.
One international buyer pointed out a structural flaw in the way that Korean fashion is managed and presented. The peculiar thing about Korea in comparison to other countries, but not so unusual in terms of the way things are managed here at home, is the fact that the government has taken on such a large role and exerts so much influence on the management of Seoul Fashion Week and the promotion of Korean fashion abroad.
International buyers that had critical words asked to remain anonymous. They feared not being invited back for the next show, considering the government paid their way.
One problem that was cited by more than one international visitor was the relative conservativeness of most of the shows. In their words, a common description was “boring.” Especially on the main runway, as opposed to the separate venue provided for new young designers too many shows were described as simply uninteresting, and marked by too many uni-tone colors and conservative styles.
This concern had even been voiced even in the Korean press, as several designers have complained about the conservative selection process for being accepted to show in fashion week, with one noted designer claiming she had been cut for having too much lingerie in her collection.
Another common chord struck amongst the international crowd had to do with the pattern of prioritizing guests. For example, it came to be known that distinctions were made between foreign and domestic buyers and journalists. One buyer for a major domestic chain, who insisted on not being named, bristled at the fact that so-called “foreign” journalists and buyers were seated in the front rows, while “domestic” members of the same field were given lower priority and sat behind. The domestic buyer noted that his chain probably buys more clothes than many of the overseas buyers, so he wondered why he was being treated as a second-class visitor.
In fact, one Korean-American reporter who helped gather interviews for this article, was seated in the front row for a show, along with two other apparently “foreign” members from her own media outlet based in Seoul, but was then told to give up her chair and move to the back since she was not apparently “foreign press.”
The point here is not that no distinctions should be made between press and other guests; it is just that the distinctions should make sense.
On the flip side of too much deference, there is the problem of excessive Korean pride. For example, when pricing clothing from famous Korean designers, one must remember that “made in Korea” is a not a plus in a place such as France or Italy; therefore, to a buyer trying to bring Korean brands overseas with prices similar to Gucci or Louis Vuitton, it becomes difficult to make a profit, as one frustrated French buyer pointed out.
In the end, the overall points and consensus seemed to be that Seoul Fashion Week needs to somehow overcome its tendency towards conservativism as produced by a culturally and socially conservative structure.
Government support is great, but it comes at the expense of turning what should be an edgy and boundary-pushing field into another overly bureaucratic, conservative government endeavor. It wasn’t just one interviewee who complained about exactly this and other related issues: the confusing registration processes, being unable to get a clear answer quickly, and other myriad types of confusion in the process of attending the event.
Instead of heading in the expected direction of making things more difficult, more exclusive, and worrying about making everything appear “high-profile,” perhaps it would be better to make a goal of streamlining overlapping and unnecessary processes, eliminating unnecessary and potentially insulting distinctions, while trying to make the entire process more streamlined, open, and friendly, instead of increasingly closed, complex, and standoffish.
One international attendee noted that Korea seems to be so busy trying to make itself the Paris of Asia that it has never stopped to consider that there is nothing wrong with Seoul being Seoul.
She gave the example of Sao Paulo Fashion Week, which makes surprisingly little effort to bend over backwards to the international community. Instead, more effort seems to be made to promote Brazilian fashion to the Brazilian people, and this makes the fashion much more original, and not concerned with impressing any particular group, or being limited by any particular interests. And for that particular buyer, this is exactly what makes Brazilian fashion that much more authentic and worthy of international respect.
Perhaps the Korean fashion world might take a few notes from this.
By Michael Hurt
The opinions represented here do not necessarily represent those of The Korea Herald. Michael Hurt sits on the Presidential Committee on Nation Branding, which is chaired by President Lee Myung-bak. He is also the co-author of “The Seoul Fashion Report” and editor of Feetmanseoul.com He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Ed.