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[Weekender] Luxury refashioned

From ‘swag-fake’to local labels, more avant-garde brands luring young Korean shoppers

Graphic by Nam Kyung-don
Graphic by Nam Kyung-don

In the 1990s, the nation’s surging middle class wanted to show off its wealth and started indulging in foreign luxury brands. These were the years when Louis Vuitton’s Speedy tote earned the nickname “3-second bag” for being almost ubiquitous on Seoul streets.

“Unlike in other countries where ‘It Bags’ are enjoyed mostly within the fashion community, they became a national fever in Korea at the time,” said Lee Ji-hyun, a fashion magazine editor.

After two decades, Korean shoppers’ expensive tastes have made Korea one of the top 10 markets for luxury goods globally. The annual sales are believed to exceed 10 trillion won ($9.4 billion).

Even though the fever for luxury goods still shows no signs of abating, there has been a shift toward more avant-garde labels recently as consumers in their 20s and 30s are no longer intrigued by traditional big names.

“Traditional luxury brands still remain strong players. But in recent years they have lost cachet,” said Lee, the editor. “Members of the younger generations feel more edgy carrying less-expensive clutches from Clare Vivier than Vuitton’s monogram bag.”

The local retail industry is promptly responding to the ever-evolving luxury tastes of young shoppers. Conglomerates like Samsung and Shinsegae have been working aggressively to secure sales rights of previously unfamiliar names like Balenciaga, Martin Margiela and Balmain.

Major retailers like Shinsegae and Lotte dedicate a whole floor of their department stores to their own “multi-shops” selling a selection of luxury fashion items consisting of more-unique designer goods targeting the young.

With traditional brands fast losing their aura of luxury, young shoppers also don’t hesitate to mix and match pseudo-brand bags or shoes together with sophisticated, pricey items for reasons of practicality and fun.

Even among wealthy Gangnam women who have a collection of ultra-expensive Hermes bags, the $200 fake Balenciaga canvas bag by the Korean label Any Bag is widely embraced as a practical diaper bag.

In the meantime, these new fashion trends and tastes offer fresh opportunities for young Korean designers who have long been overlooked by luxury shoppers.

As many of them have been educated and trained in international fashion centers like New York and Milan, their clothes and bags have global appeal and they have just started to attract followers on their home turf.

Korean designers like WOOYOUNGMI and Juun J. are already prominent names in the global menswear market. They now share floor space with top brands like Lanvin and Saint Laurent at major department stores in Seoul.

Kwon Gee-chan, CEO of Wearfun International, one of the first importers of high-end fashion brands in Korea in the 1980s, explained that the latest luxury trends are reshaping the fashion culture in Korea.

“Korean designers have learned from French and Italian designers and they are now creating their own styles for an international audience, including Koreans,” he said. “It is a natural way forward for the nation’s fashion and luxury industries.”

By Lee Ji-yoon (