|Kwon Gee-chan. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)|
It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that Koreans’ taste for luxury goods came from this man’s hands.
From fashion buff to successful businessman, Kwon Gee-chan, CEO of Wearfun International, sees himself as one of the first importers of high-end fashion products in Korea during the 1980s.
“I’m always fascinated by the subject of how to make Korean men and women look more gorgeous,” he said. “I want to offer them the special ‘it factor’ that makes our lives more colorful.”
Kwon has introduced some 30 high-end designers’ brands, such as Armani, Versace, Missoni and Kenzo, into the Korean market over the past three decades. He is also the only Korean fashion leader who has been honored by both the Italian and French governments for his devotion to their fashion and art.
In a nutshell, the life story of this 62-year-old businessman is the history of Korea’s fashion and luxury industry.
Born to a family running a textile business in Daegu in 1951, he has had a knack for shopping and style since childhood. During the post-Korean War days, he enjoyed secondhand jeans and T-shirts that were smuggled in from the United States.
His passion for fashion started in earnest when he entered college in Seoul in the 1970s. He ordered jackets and shirts of his own design from small designers’ boutiques that were burgeoning in the then-trendy district of Myeong-dong of downtown Seoul.
“The designer used to display the finished clothes in front of the show window for me to pick up. Then, the design would immediately became a trend among dandy boys at the time,” he recalled with a smile.
After graduation, Kwon, who majored in Arabic at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, joined a construction company and traveled around the world.
His destinations included Europe and the Middle East, places where he discovered the beauty of luxury goods.
In 1986, shortly after the government lifted an import ban on foreign-made fashion goods, he started his own business importing assorted brand items and selling them to high-spending customers here.
“Due to the 30 percent tariff, these items sold at five- to six-times higher than the original price. Despite this, people wanted to get their hands on my goods,” he said.
It wasn’t all peaches and cream, however, as civic groups demonstrated against his stores and tax authorities raided Kwon’s offices.
The big turning point came in 2004 when Kwon received a presidential trade award for his contribution to accelerating the nation’s import market and related industries.
“The commendation by the president was a historical moment for Korea,” he said. “Since then, the luxury business has become a target for praise, not criticism.”
Over the years, Korea has become a top-10 luxury market, with its annual sales exceeding 10 trillion won ($9.4 billion). A growing number of global brands have entered the lucrative market, going on to influence the taste of other Asian luxury customers.
“Luxury fever is not a trend specific to Korea. It is just natural that as people get wealthier, they seek luxurious goods and lifestyles,” he said. “I firmly believe the trend has also helped nurture local designers and the fashion industry overall.”
Amid sluggish sales in other advanced markets such as Europe and the United States, he predicted more global brands will be pouring considerable resources into better appealing to Asian tastes in the coming years.
Following the French Order of Merit in 2006, Kwon last September received the Italian Order of Merit, one of the highest honors given by the Italian government, for introducing Italian fashion and art to Koreans.
By Lee Ji-yoon (firstname.lastname@example.org)