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Designer stitches his way up from scratch

From Dongdaemun Market to New York, Choi pushes his limits with General Idea


This is the second of a series of articles on up-and-coming Korean designers. ― Ed.

Choi Bum-suk’s office in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul, made one want to go on a treasure hunt. Fabric samples, buttons and photos were strewn around everywhere with shelves jammed with books, files, little objects and even old shoes found in the space.

In the middle of the room was a table along with a set of mix-matched antique chairs. Getting up from one of them was Choi, founder and creative designer of General Idea.

“I am sorry the office is such a mess. It has been a crazy day,” Choi apologized, as he hurriedly wrapped up a meeting.

As he brushed off sweat, one could not help but notice how smartly he was dressed despite the hectic scene. A navy striped sweater casually thrown over his shoulders and matching striped socks peeping under his overall gray-tone outfit showed his sense of fashion.

The success story of Choi, who has never received a formal education in fashion, is already well-known here. After high school he started to sell clothes on the streets of Uijeongbu and then in Dongdaemun markets. He went bankrupt a few times until he got a hold of some ‘It’ items and hit the jackpot. Realizing his talent, he began to design his own clothes and finally launched his own men’s brand ― General Idea.

Now he has become a celebrity after making many appearances on TV and giving lectures. Choi, however, said that he has so far only made it up to the third step of success if put on a scale of one to 10.

“Taking the first few steps was the most difficult. At that time I just did not know how. But now, I think I could climb up the steps faster if I just do what I do right,” said Choi.

No matter how talented you are, though, the opportunity for no-name designers to officially debut at a Fashion Week does not come often. When a chance came to Choi around 2003, having been introduced through a friend, he grabbed it with all his might, and ended up with the Seoul Fashion Artists Association.

“The door opened because I would not stop knocking on it. Most quit after one or two knocks, but I just kept on knocking. And I was lucky, too. At the time SFAA was looking for an up-and-coming designer. I used lots of denim while most menswear designers at the time used wool,” said Choi.

General Idea offers wearable yet hip clothes for men in their 20s to 40s who go for the concept of ‘street luxury.’ The brand debuted at the New York Fashion Week’s off-show in 2008 and held its first on-show last year. Including Korea, U.S., Japan, Russia, Italy and Australia, the brand’s collections can be found in about 11 countries. 
Choi Bum-suk, founder and creative designer of General Idea. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)
Choi Bum-suk, founder and creative designer of General Idea. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)

Choi stays in New York at least two to three months a year as the U.S. market has become the brand’s biggest target. It was not easy for a man who barely spoke English to settle there. For the first few years he was harshly ignored, and lost money.

“In Seoul, 50 designers born in the city compete. In New York, 300 designers from all over the world compete while buyers and press members from all over the world are watching. It cannot be compared. But I don’t make any other special efforts, I just do there what I would do here, with confidence,” said Choi.

“In New York, the brand is not known by Choi Bum-suk but just as General Idea. What is important is to not make them take the brand with a sense of difference. I want to stay in New York longer, because it occurred to me that my living here and doing New York Fashion Weeks may seem to them as if some Thai designers were participating in the Seoul Collection,” he said, adding that it does not mean that he is hiding his Korean nationality. He continued using his name Bum-suk even though some encouraged him to come up with an English name.

Choi is working to expand sales points in Europe as well, starting with Paris. General Idea participated in Tranoi, the world’s biggest fashion trade show in Paris last month, with support from Seoul Metropolitan Government. The brand showcased lines inspired by the beaches of southern France.

Expanding overseas, however, means deficit, at least for several more years to come. Choi could have easily made more than just a living if he settled down in Seoul. But he is doing it for his dream ― to travel around the world with his daughter one day and show her his clothes being sold in different shops.

“Balenciaga said ‘I started to earn money after 20 years.’ I guess hopefully I would start to make money earlier than that,” said Choi.

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