How the West was won
Doo-Ri Chung, a Korean-American designer based in New York, has US$800 draped dresses hanging at Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman in New York, Ron Herman in Los Angeles and Harvey Nichols in London. Late last year, Style.com lauded her collection as 'fresh and interesting'.
Last month Hong Kong saw the first showing of a unique shirt-suit combination from Young Kim, another Korean-born designer and artist. CFDA-nominated Richard Chai designed for Marc by Marc Jacobs before launching his own line. Military-inspired pieces from Eudon Choi can be seen hanging next to Costume National and Anne Valerie Hash. And Jessica Alba is often seen sporting a rather lethal-looking spiked cuff, courtesy of designer Joomi Lim.
Korean designers are having their moment in the spotlight these days. A craze for Korean cultural exports, from pop stars such as Rain to video artist Paik Nam-june, began in the wake of South Korea's rapid economic growth and the spread of globalism. Now, a number of fashion designers have cracked highly competitive markets in the United States, Europe and Asia, launching successful lines and being snapped up by the best stores.
Lim, who was born in Korea and moved to the US as a teen, says that she draws her influences from everywhere.
'No doubt, the Korean work ethic has played a big role,' the New York-based designer says. 'But in a design sense, I am more influenced by French culture. Not just because of my French husband but because my love of French culture began in my childhood living in Korea. I just love all the beautiful things French people make - their music, architecture, furniture, dessert, fashion. Even their history is beautiful.'
Lim, a former freelance designer at Victoria's Secret, has parlayed that cosmopolitan outlook into a dramatic collection that can be found at stores such as Bergdorf Goodman and Opening Ceremony, in the US, and the 10 Corso Como outpost in Seoul. The collection, which retails for up to HK$2,400 for an elaborate necklace, has an interesting duality, as in, say, lustrous pearls paired with punk-inspired spikes. Her new collection, Metali-feroce, expounds on the Goth-meets-debutante theme, while core collections feature whimsical pieces made with pearls and crystals.
Indeed, Lim's work is representative of the new breed of Asian designers whose creative outpourings are steeped more in big-city sophistication than any cultural heritage. That, combined with the fact that these designers show their collections at global fashion events in New York and Europe, has lent them a high degree of accessibility and credibility.
According to Audrey Sun, chief operating officer of Harvey Nichols in Hong Kong, Eudon Choi's collection resonated because of its 'sexy and feminine' aesthete, which Sun has pegged as one of the key trends this season.
'Besides the military theme, the designer has also enhanced the femininity of the collection by using light chiffon fabrics on dresses and slim-fitted silhouettes on sweat tunics,' she says of the line, which carries an average retail price of HK$9,000.
Choi, whose designs have been worn by the likes of Sienna Miller and Jade Jagger, is the latest in a line of Korean labels to have been carried by Harvey Nichols since it opened in 2005.
'Compared to a decade ago, we notice that there is growing intention to focus on the Asian market and designers among international fashion people,' she says. 'Besides, considering the fact that Korean designers started to show their collections in New York and Paris Fashion Week in recent seasons, we believe that they have become more recognised by the international market.'
Young Kim, aka Suitman, takes a slightly different fashion tack. For the past decade, he's been wearing what looks like a regular crisp white dress shirt.
'But when I take my jacket off, everyone cracks up,' he says. 'They wanted to know where I got it.'
It's is a bib-like creation that goes under a suit jacket, giving the appearance of formality without the heat and stuffiness. Kim partnered with Japanese design label Visvim to create some unisex limited edition suit and shirt combinations.
For Kim, who lives between Tokyo, Hong Kong, Korea and the US, the project is something of a foray into the fashion business, but retains the tongue-in-cheek whimsy for which his work is known. He says that although he was born in Korea, he feels he has 'come full circle back to where I came from. Growing up in the US, I didn't care much about Korean or Asian culture or history. But coming back here for work made me rediscover and redefine who I am. As a Korean, I want to learn more about my own history and people. I think it's the natural course; we all should know and be proud of our roots.'
He agrees that there is a new artsy vibe happening in Seoul these days, spearheaded partly by the Rem Koolhaus /Prada 'Transformer' that was launched last year, as well as young local artists and designers creating their own movements.
'There is some interesting stuff happening there now. A lot of young designers go off to London or New York to study but then they come back to Korea to restart their whole movement. There's a fun, exciting energy similar to what Tokyo had in the '80s, in the days of Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo. In Korea now, there's a re-emergence of that. It's not about money. It's about individual expression.'
Where to find Korea's finest designs
Doo Ri: available at www.doori-nyc.com
Eudon Choi: available at Harvey Nichols, The Landmark, Central, tel: 3695 3388
Joomi Lim and Suitman: available at On Pedder, New World Tower, Queen's Road Central, tel: 2118 3489
Richard Chai: available at www.lagarconne.com