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Designers split on Seoul Fashion Week chaos

Corruption-stained Seoul Fashion Center closed and SFW searches for new organizer


With the Seoul Fashion Center shut down, Seoul Fashion Week, which has been hosted by the center for the past 12 years, will be run by a private company.

Seoul Metropolitan City said it aims to “expand participation of private companies and enhance professionalism,” but everyone knows there is more to the story.

Seoul Fashion Center, an affiliate of Seoul Metropolitan Government’s Seoul Business Agency, which has been running 17 of Seoul City’s fashion-related projects including SFW, turned out to have been a hotbed of corruptions.

As many as 62 cases of irregularities were discovered in January after the latest auditing. As a result, 15 officials received disciplinary action, 28 received a warning, and one official’s contract was cancelled. Three executives who were accused of embezzlement, sexual harassment and illegal personnel appointments resigned during the inspection period.

Fashion industry insiders say that it came as no surprise.

“The officials were already infamous in the fashion industry, so it was pretty much expected. The center’s budget management was known to have been a mess as well. For example, while buyers pay for their own hotel and flights to attend high-profile fashion weeks like Milan or Paris, organizers here covered all the expenses for foreign buyers, which obviously means that less support went out to the designers,” said a buyer at a local multi-brand shop who wished to remain anonymous.

Soon after the announcement of the center’s closing down, Seoul Metropolitan City said in January that all projects previously run by the center will be operated by private companies through an open bid. The posts are open to any companies or organizations that have experience in running fashion-related businesses.

About concerns that the newly selected “private company” may also turn corrupt, the city government answered that there will be less of such practices compared to before.

“Seoul Fashion Center did not directly operate the fashion week but hired another subcontractor to run it. So there were many steps where corruptions could occur, not to mention the inefficiency and too much commission fees,” said Ma Chae-sook, director of cultural industry at Seoul Metropolitan Government. 
A view of Miss Gee Collection’s show during the 2011 F/W Seoul Fashion Week (SFW)
A view of Miss Gee Collection’s show during the 2011 F/W Seoul Fashion Week (SFW)

“The newly selected private company should not have such problems, and we will be watching carefully. We expect that there will be less corruptions as less companies will be involved.”

Seoul City will accept applications until Feb. 14 and decide on the operator a week later. The jury pool will first be composed of fashion experts from the fashion and retail industry, media and universities. Among the jury pool, the companies participating in the bidding will draw about 10 juries who will actually screen the companies out a box.

Seoul City said that the event will be held in northern part of the city as well as the Gangnam area, and benchmark successful fashion weeks overseas. Official decisions on which fashion week to benchmark have yet to be made but Ma expects that SFW will soon grow as big as New York’s Mercedes Benz Fashion Week.

“SFW used to have a weak brand power, but since about two years ago its image has gotten much better. It used to receive a sponsorship of only several tens of millions of won but recently, the amount grew to a billion. So in the near future, I think SFW will receive more sponsorship,” said Ma.

Seoul Metropolitan Government allocated 8.6 billion won for fashion-related projects this year, about 2 billion less than last year’s 10.4 billion. Expenses related to the basic infrastructure of the fashion week is covered by the city government and fashion designers are responsible for the rest.

Going through the transition period, local fashion designers are voicing different opinions. Several designers of the older generation, especially members of Seoul Fashion Artists Association, are leading younger designers to form a designer alliance to deal with the current situation.

“The (older) designers seem to think that Seoul Metropolitan Government is disregarding designers. So they are forming a temporary alliance to claim their rights in terms of participating in the SFW, and also prevent further problems,” said a designer who participated in a recent meeting but wished to remain anonymous.

The designer added that SFAA seem to be taking this crisis as a chance to return to the main SFW stage. SFAA has been holding separate shows for several years now, independent of SFW.

Meanwhile, some relatively younger designers say that they were satisfied with the support that had been given from Seoul Fashion Center.

“Designers have to pay for everything, even the venue at foreign fashion weeks but in Seoul the organizers cover for the venue. It is hard to find governments that support designers like Seoul,” said designer Choi Bum-suk, who has been participating in both Seoul and New York Fashion Weeks for several years.

“(Older) designers say SFW should support all expenses for the designers and be open for any designers to showcase. We (younger designers) are used to being judged and we were sometimes even judged by the established designers so we are ok. But they (older designers) are reluctant accept the fact that they may have to go through the screening process once the operator changes,” said an up-and-coming designer who refused be named.

The designer added that many young designers feel that the proposed designer alliance is turning too political. If it is for the older designers to maintain their vested rights, he said he will not participate. Some designers already decided not to participate in SFW but hold individual shows.

Industry insiders expressed both hopes and worries about the fact that a private company will be operating SFW starting this season.

“A new and less experienced operator may have a hard time understanding the designers’ needs or be less efficient in running SFW. I am hoping that a new operator may be able to promote the event better to the public,” said a fashion designer who has been participating in Seoul Fashion Week since 2010.

“The budget management may be more transparent when a private company runs SFW, but I am worried that the company would try to push its own fashion brands too much, if it is a fashion company,” said a local buyer.

SFW has been held in March, but this year, will be held for a week from April 2 due to the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit which will be held from March 26 to 27.

By Park Min-young  (claire@heraldcorp.com)
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