Shoe brand Suecomma Bonnie proves Psy is not Seoul's only export
It's no secret that Korean brands are having their moment in the style spotlight, but one of the pioneers was shoe label Suecomma Bonnie. Regarded as Korea's first luxury shoe brand, it was founded by stylish entrepreneur Bo-hyun (or Bonnie) Lee in 2003 and has since become one of the country's biggest success stories.
Lee is considered a celebrity back home but she is charming and down-to-earth in person. She was recently in Hong Kong to launch the brand's latest autumn-winter 2013 collection at an event dedicated to Korean designers at Harvey Nichols.
"There's something about Korean designers that seem new and fresh, especially when you compare them to well-known international brands," she says.
"It's true that Korean culture is becoming more popular but I think people are craving something different, especially in fashion. I am just happy that people love our designs."
"I was at a point where I thought I wanted to get out of the fashion industry forever. Then I started to work in the shoe industry for a Spanish brand and I learned how to make and design shoes.
"I was a shoe-aholic, but I didn't like what was available in the stores. I wanted to make shoes that I wanted to wear. I realised if I felt this way, then surely other people were too. Those are the people I targeted with Suecomma Bonnie," she says.
Lee decided to experiment with more feminine yet sexy styles that weren't available elsewhere - think glamorous sandals covered in glitter and metallic leather or colour-blocked pumps. All the products were made in Korea from high quality materials from Europe.
A year later she opened a boutique, Bonnie Next Door, in one of Seoul's most popular shopping districts, Cheongdam-dong. Offering ready-to-wear and bespoke services, it became a favourite with fashion editors and stylish citizens, thanks to Lee's designs and affordable prices.
"It was important that the shoes were made in Korea, and that they were contemporary in terms of price point.
"Yes, I could have launched a luxury brand, but why compete with the likes of Jimmy Choo? Our customers used to buy Jimmy Choo, but came to us for something different," she says.
Thanks to her business model, Suecomma Bonnie has expanded quickly over the past 10 years.
Today, customers can choose from several lines, including a special Swarovski collection for party wear, a line of classic pumps, the Trendy International collection, as well as a selection of boots and high-tops.
In 2008, she started distributing outside Korea, then a host of high-profile collaborations with Korean celebrities followed. Now she has 30 stockists in over 10 countries, in addition to 25 stores in Korea.
"In the beginning I made statement shoes, which is how I got a lot of attention ... Women are different everywhere. In Korea, they like simpler styles, but the Chinese love colour and embellishments. That's why we developed different lines," she says.
Another core part of her DNA is wearability and comfort, which is why she is constantly developing innovative materials and new fits. Her autumn-winter collection, for example, features a pair of high-heeled boots in a matte black fabric with latex inserted between the mid and main sole for extra padding. Edgy colour-block trainers in red, yellow and blue come with hidden platforms for additional comfort.
"Wearing high heels is a waste if they're not comfortable. I've just developed a pair of 14cm heels, but they are so comfortable thanks to hidden platforms," she says.
As the brand celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, Lee is making changes, with a complete rebranding from visual identity to design.
"Our main target initially was 20- to 40-years-olds, but now 40-year-olds are super young and trendy. So we are making the designs much younger, while also launching a diffusion line which is less expensive. There's also a handbag collection to match our shoes.
"At the end of the day, I don't want shoes to take over the entire outfit. I want to create shoes to complement someone's style rather than overtake it," she says.