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Seoul Seeking a Higher Designer Profile

Korea’s fashion industry has been striving to promote itself in international markets and present its clothes to a more global audience.

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SEOUL — The recent Seoul Collection Week showcased the Korean fashion industry, which has been striving to promote itself in international markets and present its clothes to a more global audience.

The event, featuring 48 Korean designers, was a group effort by three fashion associations; the national and Seoul city governments, and corporate sponsors such as Mercedes-Benz, LG Home Shopping and Lotte Department Store. It was the first time the designers had shown in a unified fashion-week presentation, and garnered $167,000 from the city to help promote it.

Despite the big public turnout — 70,000 tickets were sold for the shows — it failed to attract much of an international audience, which is a critical building block for many firms.

Kim Sung Chan, of the Korean Fashion Association, blames the lack of international buyers and press on various global crises.

“There was little international presence at the event because of situations inside of our country and outside — such as the nuclear problem with North Korea, SARS in Hong Kong and the war in Iraq,” he said.

But Kim remains optimistic because of promotion efforts. For instance, KFA is in contact with the Japan Fashion Association in hopes of attracting Japanese buyers to future shows.

One thing the fashion industry here has going for it is the backing of the government of South Korea and the Seoul city government.

The national government is spending about $2.4 million this year on the fashion industry, according to Jeff Kim of the Ministry of Commerce. And there are no plans to cut back on spending, either. Next year, the government plans to increase spending on the industry by 30 to 40 percent.

As part of its “World Designer Promotion Project,” the government will sponsor up to five designers so they can participate in overseas collections.

Seoul’s city government plans to increase its fashion expenditures by 20 to 30 percent next year, according to city official Kang Byung Woo.

“Seoul is the center of Korean fashion, so it is important that the city backs the industry,” said Kang.

Also important for the industry is that the designers find success in larger markets, such as the U.S., Europe and ever-growing China.

This story first appeared in the June 3, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

As the buying power of Chinese consumers grows, more Korean designers are looking to their western neighbor, said Commerce Ministry official Jeff Kim.

“We need to focus on China….It will be the primary market [for Korean designers] over the next 10 years,” he said.

As Kim Song Chan of the Korea Fashion Association pointed out, “We’re just starting out.” The true test will be whether, with all this backing, Korean designers can make a name for themselves on the international stage.

Some Korean designers already have strong links to foreign markets and, indeed, most do a greater percentage of their total volume in exporting. This is largely a result of the lingering Asian financial crisis that started in the late Nineties.

Among the firms with an international business is Troa, a ready-to-wear line designed by Troa Cho and her son, Han Song. Cho, a veteran in the fashion business for some 30 years, is no stranger to the New York fashion scene. For a decade stretching from the mid-Eighties to mid-Nineties, she had a shop on East 66th Street, and she had another smaller outpost in Trump Tower for a few years.

“After I set up my ready-to-wear line in Korea, I went to New York in the 1980s. I planned to stay for a few months, but that turned into 10 years.”

The Troa collection represents the first time that mother and son have worked together on a clothing line. Han Song designs a couture line as well, but plans to continue working on this line with his mother.

Han Song started out on a different track, studying political science at New York University. The switch to fashion happened by chance.

“One day I was in [my mother’s] room around all the fabric swatches and I made a sketch,” Han Song recalled. “My mother saw the sketch and made the item. It was a baseball jacket, with one side [a single] color and the other, multicolored.”

“He still designs that way,” added his mother.

Han Song says his years in New York had a big influence on his designs.

“I think the things I do have a New York feel to them,” he says.

The firm exports most of its product, with a combined total of about $5 million in goods going to the U.S., China, Hong Kong, Europe and Saudi Arabia. Another $1 million is sold in Korea.

“China is very important,” said Han Song. Last November, he was invited to take part in China Fashion Week and he says he hopes to increase his travel to China.

Exports became such a lucrative business for Ji Won Park that she stopped domestic distribution altogether. She reports that about 74 percent of her goods go to the U.S., almost 6 percent to France, about 5 percent to the U.K., and the balance to other countries. Her total business is about $1.2 million.

“Barneys always tells me they are sold out of my clothes,” said Park, who studied at Parsons School of Design in New York.

Harvey Nichols in London is also a client.

Park often features contrast in her designs, sometimes using something light, such as chiffon, in combination with jeans.

“I don’t care if my clothes don’t look beautiful on the hanger, they should be beautiful when a woman is wearing them,” she said.

She uses silk fabrics, mainly because they are readily available in Korea.

Park said she has felt the impact of economic problems in Korea and in the region. “Sales have been doubling in past seasons, but this year there won’t be so much of an increase.”

Lie Sang Bong, who has an $8 million business domestically, has a tiny overseas business, with about $162,000 exported last year. Western Europe, particularly France, takes about 35 percent of his exports, the Middle East takes 25 percent, the U.S. and Eastern Europe each have about 20 percent. He has participated in the Paris Prêt à Porter collections three times.

Tough times have taken a toll on designer Jin Teok. From 1993 to 1997, she showed collections twice a year in Paris and maintained an office and a showroom there. Her clothes were featured in 31 stores in the U.S. and Europe combined.

When the region’s financial crisis hit, she was forced to make cuts. But Jin is determined to regain lost ground in foreign markets.

This season, scenes of global political turmoil helped inspire her mix-and-match theme. “Looking at Iraqis and people in Afghanistan who only had the clothes on their backs — their clothes didn’t match. They didn’t have the ability to choose what they wore.”

Jin says she then realized: “In this world, there’s nothing that doesn’t match.”

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