From writer to retailer, a Hong Kong fashionista’s obsession with Korean style
Gothic, street fashion, hip-hop or more classic lines – Korea’s designers have global appeal, says Kim, and she is promoting their uniqueness through her pop-up K-Style Lab in Hong Kong
Hong Kong-based EJ Kim is a former fashion journalist and luxury communications executive. The author of two books, she is also the creative director and co-founder of K-Style Lab, a boutique featuring established and new generation Korean designers.
Why did you join the fashion industry?
I’m Korean but lived in Vietnam and moved to Switzerland for high school. When I was around 12, I started reading Elle magazine and since that day my dream was to become an editor. I was chubby and insecure, but fashion helped me overcome this. Fashion was a way to be another me, to express my true self.
I’ve always loved French culture, so I went to university in Paris and then studied fashion at ESMOD. I stayed four years, but returned to Korea when I heard Elle was launching. I worked in the media for 13 years before moving to Chanel.
How did the Korean fashion scene change during your career? Before the 1988 Olympics, Korea was a closed country. We had no foreign brands and only “national” brands. These were more inspired by the West, although the quality was good. Everything changed when international magazines came to Seoul. PR agencies opened and consumers started to learn about how to wear fashion.
Then came a demand for foreign mega brands, which meant that many national brands suffered. Department stores were more focused on fulfilling the demand for international brands, leaving behind local names. When hallyu [the Korean pop culture wave] came about, there was a revived interest in Korean fashion designers, but mainly from the young generation. Seoul Fashion Week also helped the rise of independent names.
Why do you think the world has become obsessed with Korean fashion?
First of all there is so much out there – when you go to Seoul Fashion Week there are so many different types of looks, from Gothic, street fashion and hip-hop to the more classic and feminine. Our designers are very conscious of making items that are unique and that will really appeal to a global audience.
The internet has changed everything – they cannot copy any more, and originality is everything. Inspiration and storytelling is important. They also put a lot of detail in their fashion. Their fabric choice is great – even if they use polyester, they use an expensive quality. They really spend a lot of time researching fabric and creating unique details.
Why did you open K-Style Lab?
The world is more familiar with Korean mass fashion, but there is so much more out there. Yes, you can go to the markets and get clothes from wholesalers but there’s no concept or story behind those pieces. We want to bring a new perspective on Korean fashion to Hong Kong and showcase designers with ideas, concepts and beautifully made clothes. We believe fashion is more meaningful when you understand who the designers are, and know their stories. Like Milan or Paris, our industry has been growing since the 1990s but there’s so much that hasn’t been exposed globally until now.
What are your thoughts on the new generation of fashion talent? The younger generation gets out there – they are fearless. The older generation didn’t speak English and didn’t have the opportunities the new generation have. They go to trade fairs, meet buyers and get exposure. They have also utilised the internet. Rather than build their own boutiques, they post their samples on Instagram, get orders, then produce the clothes. There are so many unknown designers who can build a successful business thanks to social networks. It’s amazing.
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Who are your favourite Korean designers?
We carry a mix of old and younger generation designers. Nohke is known for her classic shirting styles which are deconstructed and updated with asymmetric details. PartspARTs designer Imseonoc is in her 50s but produces futuristic designs in neoprene using zero waste techniques. Heich Blade is known for the androgynous look, while J Apostrophe is pretty but avant-garde and out of the box at the same time. To me, Jin Teok is still the greatest designer in Korean fashion and is known for her white shirts and couture streetwear.