As in other global fashion cities such as New York, London, Paris or Milan, there are several talented young designers in Seoul, and some have great potential to become world-class designers.

For various reasons, however, they have not yet been discovered, and consequently have not yet made a name for themselves on the global fashion scene.

Since taking the helm in 2015, Jung Ku-ho, executive director of the Hera Seoul Fashion Week (SFW), has focused on finding “diamonds in the rough” in the local fashion industry, cutting and polishing them to shine globally.

The fashion week's “10 Soul” designers project, aiming to discover 10 young creative designers, has been initiated under his leadership.

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“Once designers in the category are chosen, we market them globally and help them build networks with international buyers and fashion editors,” Jung said ahead of the 2019 SS Hera Seoul Fashion Week. The semi-annual, week-long shows are held from today till October 20.

Menswear brand Blindness and gender-neutral ready-to-wear label Pushbutton are two of the “Soul” fashion labels SFW chose last year.

Blindness, led by designer duo Shin Kyu-yong and Park Ji-sun, was a semi-finalist of the LVMH Award.

A foreign journalist who attended their show last year at Seoul Fashion Week discovered the designer duo and recommended them for the LVMH Award and they made the cut as semi-finalists, according to Jung.

With SFW’s support, Blindness and Pushbutton made their international runway debuts at London Fashion Week earlier this year.

“Publicity for Korean designers is one of the key missions we are trying hard to fulfil to help them earn international recognition,” Jung said. “We’re trying to let international fashion experts know we have several innovative designers who are as competitive as designers in the world’s fashion capitals, so they can consider partnering with them.”

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Jung said SFW is a platform young designers can take advantage of to make their fashion labels go global, revealing satisfaction with the progress the fashion week has made over the past three and a half years since he took over the leadership and became SFW’s first designer-turned-executive director.

According to him, Korean fashion has become more visible on the global scene than ever before and word of SFW has begun to spread among some global fashion experts. He quoted one of the unnamed foreign experts as saying SFW is a must-see show in Asia.

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“In the past, when I met fashion experts overseas, very few knew about Korean designers. But now they know almost all Korean designers, which surprised me.”

Struggles

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The path SFW has taken over the past three decades since it kicked off in 1987 has not been smooth. In the past, some called the SFW “a local festival” as it had attracted few international buyers.

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In 2004, facing financial trouble, the organisers pondered seriously about scrapping the event. However, it managed to pull through.

Back in the 1990s and the early 2000s, Seoul was far from being seen as a fashion city, partly because South Korea, which has achieved miraculous economic growth since the Korean war, was better known to the world as a technology powerhouse than for its cultural charms.

The tech city image didn’t help Korean designers.

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For decades since the modern apparel business appeared in the 1950s, Korean designers have striven to expand their business outside the country. To make this happen, some have explored the “Big Four” fashion weeks to showcase their works. The Big Four are New York, London, Paris and Milan.

In many cases, however, their global fashion outreach didn’t bear fruit.

Korean designers realised financing their dream is simply too expensive. Depending on show spaces, venues for New York Fashion Week, for example, reportedly range from US$16,000 to US$60,000. There are extra expenses, such as hiring models, PR, production, styling, hair and make-up, which designers have to shoulder.

Jung, a chef-turned-designer who’s had several overseas runway shows, launched his fashion label KUHO in the late 1990s and later sold it to Samsung Group’s textile company Cheil Industries. So he is all too familiar with financial setbacks Korean designers are wrestling with.

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Riding K-pop boom

But now time is on their side.

It’s easier for talented Korean designers to be discovered by international buyers as K-pop and the digital era have created a whole new business environment for Korean designers, according to Jung.

“In the digital era, I think designers no longer need to look to the Big Four fashion shows for their global expansion. I personally believe showcasing their works at Hera Seoul Fashion Week is enough [because its influence in the global fashion industry is growing],” he said. “Thanks to the internet, we know what’s happening on the other side of the globe even though we’re not there. Likewise, we can see global designers’ shows here. We provide livestreaming services during Hera Seoul Fashion Week and people living on the other side of the globe can watch all runway shows in real time.”

He said Korean fashion is benefiting from K-pop.

“People outside the country are talking a lot about Korean musicians in recent years,” he says.

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“They are curious about Korean celebrities’ fashion styles and the skincare products they use. Some experts ask me if they can partner with certain Korean singers when we discuss collaboration shows. The success of Korean music has sparked global interest in Korean content, including fashion.”

He aims to build SFW into a robust platform for Korean designers.

In terms of its global profile compared particularly to the Big four, Jung said SFW has a long way to go.

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“Our nearest goal is to find 10 globally competitive designers and help them find business opportunities overseas,” he said. “We need to have at least 10 great designers. I feel SFW is on the right track and will take off soon.”

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This article was originally written by Kang Hyun-kyung for  The Korea Times .