Korean fashion coming of age, led by Pushbutton’s Park Seung-gun and Gayeon Lee

Much like K-pop, K-drama and Korean cuisine, South Korean fashion is carving a name for itself around the world. We meet two of its biggest names, one well established, the other an emerging star who’s already dressed Lady Gaga

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 May, 2016, 7:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 May, 2016, 7:01am

In the past year Seoul’s vibrant street style and hip designers have been creating a buzz in the West thanks to high-profile initiatives such as Seoul Fashion Week and more recently, Swarovski’s exhibition which featured works commissioned from a group of

South Korean designers.

It’s easy to see why South Korean fashion is so alluring to the rest of the world. Although the industry is relatively young compared to other markets, its designers are known for embracing trends quickly and creating affordable contemporary lines with highi-quality design. While these youth-driven brands tend to be inspired by the city’s musical and other subcultures, a new category has also emerged offering higher-end collections that emphasise craftsmanship and timelessness.

“Koreans have a taste for stylish things – it’s innate in our culture. People say that we tend to just the most fashionable things but we can also spot what is going to work, absorb it and then create it for our customer,” says Park Seung-gun, founder and creative director of Pushbutton.

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Founded in 2003, Pushbutton is considered one of Seoul’s more established fashion brands. Unlike many of his contemporaries today, Park didn’t formally study fashion and entered the industry by way of music. At 19, he enrolled in a fashion design course at Shibae Fashion School but dropped out when was discovered at a local karaoke joint. Overnight he became a successful K-Pop star, but the fashion world came calling again while he was preparing for his second album.

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“It was the mid-1990s and at that time fashion and music didn’t mix. I decided to leave music completely and began working with stylists and several Korean brands like Gag and Suecommabonnie. Even though I wanted to study fashion in Japan, I never made it. Instead my experience as a visual and creative director, and my work within the music world shaped me as a designer,” he says.

When Park launched Pushbutton in 2003, it was an immediate hit with Korean celebrities thanks to its fun and youthful aesthetic that fit in perfectly with the K-pop world. It was only natural that Park’s background in music influenced his work, from the brand’s name (taken from a line in Madonna’s song Hollywood) to its unexpected designs.

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“We create clothing for people who like clothes and who are young-at-heart. They want to have fun with their style. When I first started in Seoul, my clothes weren’t that well received because they were more street fashion than designer. But fast forward to today and it’s become mainstream.

“At Pushbutton we try to be ambiguous. We are not a restaurant, where you go back because you know what you’re going to get. It doesn’t work that way in fashion,” says Park.

In order to keep things fresh Park creates a new fictional female character each season around whom the collection is based. For spring/summer 2016 collection for example he asked his designers to envisage a mother of two who loves trends, is well groomed and looks half her age. The result is a collection that features fun styles such as a houndstooth printed terrycloth dress is bright yellow and jumpsuits printed with monochrome grids.

Tailoring is oversized, with must-haves such as drawstring trousers and voluminous shirt dresses with sheer panels in soft pastel shades.

“If I had to categorise the brand I would say we are offering new luxury. Diana Vreeland didn’t like anything boring and went for uniqueness, and I’m hoping our brand embraces that. Our homework now is to emphasise our quality and introduce new styles to ultimately create another wave for Korean’s fashion culture that also speaks to the high-end,” says Park.

While Pushbutton continues to build on its youth-driven DNA, up and coming designer Gayeon Lee hopes to appeal to a new generation with her understated simplicity and refinement. Based in Seoul, Lee studied textile art and fashion design at the Hongik University where she explored various disciplines from weaving to fibre art. After graduating she went to London to complete her fashion master’s degree at Central Saint Martins under the famed Louise Wilson.

“It was hard to survive because there were so many talented designers that already had so much experience. I from the other hand came from Korea with no international exposure. Louise pushed me to the edge and taught me not fall back on my culture. She wanted me to explore other places that I hadn’t been,” she says.

Wilson’s advice worked and by the time Lee showed her graduate collection in 2013, she had Lady Gaga’s stylist on the phone, requesting to borrow the looks for Gaga’s upcoming tour to promote her new album. Although the Gaga endorsement brought her plenty of exposure, Lee wanted to learn more about the industry and took up a design role at Marc Jacobs in New York while designing her own collections on the side. Two seasons later she quit and officially launched Gayeon Lee in 2014.

From the outset Gayeon Lee was quite different from other Korean fashion brands, heralding a new generation’s take on style.

“My woman is not always following the trend and loving street style. She is not restricted to one particular trend or style, but also embraces the art scene,” she says.

Lee’s philosophy is evident in her spring/summer 2016 collection which continues to explore her signatures from distinctive pattern cutting and textures to artisanal elements. 1950s inspired silhouettes and separates feature asymmetric gathers, curving hemlines, ribbon detailing and rows of metallic buttons to make a statement. It’s very much about nostalgic glamour thanks to structured volumes while modern materials and textures bring the collection into the 21st century.

While Lee shows her collections twice a year in Europe, she made the decision to base her atelier in Seoul, which she says is inspiring her more as a designer. Having been away from the country for several years, she is discovering the city’s rich art scene for the first time which plays into her design inspiration.

“During my studies, I was focusing more on proportions, shapes, textures and design elements. Now I am often inspired by artists – I like to explore their work and combine those elements in my design,” she says.

And as she starts work on her fourth collection, Lee says her next step is deciding how to build her brand both in Korea and internationally.

“I am still an emerging designer, so people want to see something different from me. I am known for my sculptural, interesting cuts and artistic sense but I also need to think about sales. I’m at the stage where I need to find the right balance. It seems like luxury is a very difficult market, and many new designers [in Korea] do contemporary,” she says. “I want to find a different way of doing contemporary. My line needs to be accessible but also distinctive and unique.