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Designer starts anew with eye on overseas market

KAAL E SUKTAE sees orders from overseas buyers double

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

Extra hangers were lined up in the KAAL E SUKTAE showroom in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul, earlier this month for the 2011 F/W collection ready to be shipped off to 11 different countries.

Orders came in immediately after the brand showcased at Paris Tranoi and New York Train, both well-known fashion trade shows, last year. The brand participated in the industry shows as the brand’s head designer and founder Lee Suk-tae was selected for “Seoul’s 10 Soul,” Seoul Metropolitan Government’s program to support up and coming designers that show potential to succeed overseas.

“It was just amazing. We received orders of about 100 million won last year and this year, the order doubled. Top range shops in Europe, Asia and the Middle East like L’Eclaireur in Paris or Joyce in Hong Kong are buying my clothes. The places are like dreams-come-true to designers, like Harvard, if you compare it to universities,” Lee told The Korea Herald. 
Lee Suk-tae, head designer and founder of the brand KAAL E SUKTAE, poses at the brand’s showroom in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Lee Suk-tae, head designer and founder of the brand KAAL E SUKTAE, poses at the brand’s showroom in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

But it took his brand quite a long time to reach this point of success. Lee launched the brand in 1997, opened a store in Galleria Department Store only a year later, but had to close down the brand within five years because it turned out that the Korean public was not ready for Lee’s experimental clothes.
“The market here is not only small but only focuses on mass production. So department stores in Korea are like, ‘One button-jackets are in trend, so you need to make those.’ Trying to fit in here, I felt like my designs were losing their color and identity,” said Lee.

“Here, if one brand is in trend, everyone copies that. If you come up with something brand new, people turn their backs. There are not many Korean consumers who like a designer brand like mine. But it was different overseas. They were looking for something new and I liked that.”

He relaunched his brand after working for a bigger label for about five years, an opportunity for him to recharge. “Seoul’s 10 Soul” was a spring board for him to pounce back into the game. This time, though, he is only focusing on the overseas market. He knows it can work ― he saw the reaction of buyers in New York last year at Train, which was the turning point of his life.

“I was so nervous ― it was the first time ever that the brand went overseas for a business opportunity. Many advised that I should make something that could sell, and I tried to do so at first. But it just did not work out. Having to make something that could be sold rather than something I want to make was not what I wanted to do again,” said Lee.

So he followed his heart. He made clothes with materials used to make sneakers and mix-matched normally unmatchable colors. The result? There was nothing like Lee’s designs there and New Yorkers loved them.

“And in the U.S. market which is known to be pragmatic! They said that my designs were very unique and many gave me proposals to work together. I am planning to move my base to New York next year or the year after next,” said Lee.

Lee targets very artistic and fashion-forward people who do not hesitate to spend money on exquisitely cut jackets and pants, usually in passionate colors. Well-tailored jackets and coats are the main products in his brand as Lee emphasizes the “structuring” of clothes.

His goal is to participate in Fashion Week in New York or in similar events in other fashion capitals of the world.

“I know the European market quite well but the entry barrier is high. What I am putting priority on right now is the U.S. market. The ultimate goal is to participate in the Fashion Week,” said Lee.

By Park Min-young (
Korea Herald daum