How a creative army of micro producers drive Korean street style and influence fashion’s direction
Koreans call it bo-se – no-brand, original clothing churned out on the cheap by small producers who respond to the latest trends by making edgy looks that sell out quickly
One of the main problems with understanding Korean fashion – or pretty much any field of Korean popular culture – is the unique historical factors that underlie the things people outside Korea find so interesting.
There have been attempts to explain this, such as last year’s documentary Counterfeit Culture: A Look Inside Korea’s Fake Fashion World, made by fashion website Highsnobiety, but it shed barely any light on the history of Korean fashion and textiles. Yet this background is key to understanding the country’s industrial development.
Such thinking has led to Korea’s “counterfeit culture” being considered a hindrance to the progress of its street fashion culture and the fashion industry, instead of it being acknowledged as the driver of Korean fashion culture, trend sensitivity, and the many looks coming out of Seoul and Seoul Fashion Week, which ended on Saturday.
Without an understanding of the bo-se (pronounced “bo say”), which means no-brand, clothing industry in South Korea, it is impossible to understand Korean street fashion.
The term bo-se originally referred to the import of raw fabrics into the bonded areas of Korean textile operations that turned out manufactured goods such as Gap tops and Nike trainers.
The “bo” (a Sino-Korean term for “protected” or “bonded”) and “se” (for “tax” or “tariff”) came to refer to the items that “fell off the back of a truck” or were illicitly copied from client orders. These items then ended up on the black market for a fraction of the original price.
Before long, the term came to mean any low-quality clothing. In the internet age it has a different meaning: highly customisable clothing ordered online, and made possible by an enterprising micro-brand producer/sewing shop that can handle small orders.
In outlet malls such as those in the Dongdaemun shopping district of Seoul, shop owners hawk smartly designed, trendy items selected from hundreds of tiny design-and-production shops. These are “brands” only in the sense they want to develop and maintain a reputation among the shop owners who curate their store collections for consumers.
The shop owners tend to want the edgiest, trendiest, and highest quality clothing they can get. Items can sell for anywhere from US$3 for a T-shirt to US$30 for sweatshirts that double as mini-dresses, or the complete K-pop idol looks that go for around US$75-US$100.
One bo-se example is an orange top/minidress probably made in the depths of Dongdaemun. It’s hard to pin down the designers of such items, who churn out creative looks on a dime based on their reading of trends.
In the process, some truly creative products get made. Often they use recognisable brand symbols and turn them into pieces of pop art, such as a Coca-Cola shirt dress.
It’s not a fake because there’s no original – even if it does use the Coca-Cola logo and so breaches copyright law. However, tracking down the micro-brand that supplied this item to half the stores in Seoul, including the one in Hongdae where it was bought, would require ridiculous resources.
The micro-brand producers have tiny operations that cannot handle large orders on the scale of a fast-fashion giant such as H&M. So the supply of a typical design is limited and its production run short, allowing producers to switch to making new items in response to the whims of consumers. This means a design is only available for a fraction of a fashion season, and the likelihood of finding again that Coca-Cola shirt dress you saw a few weeks ago is low.
A bright, shiny branded store such as Aland is a much more upscale version of the small booths of the Dongdaemun curator-shop operators that collect, present, and sell the wares of the myriad micro-brands.
This system of micro producers making small batches of a design that is only in stores for a matter of weeks gives the clothes a uniqueness and encourages producers to be creative because the industry is so competitive. Anything that looks good and will sell has a chance to shine, however briefly.
So while it is true that the bo-se market includes copyrighted symbols that are illegally reproduced, as well as counterfeit fashion, they are just one facet of a vibrant system that drives Korean street fashion – and influences the fashion industry as a whole – through the extreme variety of designs its producers turn out.
Anyone who does not understand this does not understand how the Korean fashion culture works.