Miss Gee Collection's take on South Korea's Metoo movement

SEOUL — Seoul Fashion Week fall 2018 took place against a backdrop of cooler temperatures and heavy air pollution.

Outside, the street-style scene got off to a quiet start due to the cold snap at the beginning but as the week progressed the Zaha Hadid-designed Dongdaemun Design Plaza overflowed with droves of local fashion enthusiasts, K-pop fans, visiting tourists, local and international press and buyers.

Celebrities including South Korean-American actress Jamie Chung, South Korean-American model Irene Kim, and K-pop stars such as Hyeyeon from Bestie, girl group April, Seohyun from Girls’ Generation, and Key from boy band Shinee made appearances on the red carpet and at shows.

But beyond the usual glitz, glamour and K-pop-fueled pandemonium, serious discussions began to brew over during the week, as South Korea’s #MeToo movement hit the runways.

Miss Gee Collection, a brand long favored by veteran actresses and local socialites, opened its show with models in white T-shirts featuring large sequined slogans such as “#metoo,” “#speak” and “#withyou” — terms that have been trending across South Korean social media since the nation’s own #MeToo movement first broke out in January.

Miss Gee Collection’s take on South Korea’s #MeToo movement.  Courtesy

With the recent resignation of high-profile politician and former presidential candidate Ahn Hee-jung over allegations of sexual abuse; other prominent figures such as film director Kim Ki-duk and Nobel-hopeful poet Ko Un facing numerous accusations of rape and assault, and the series of protests that have taken place in recent weeks — socially conservative South Korea has entered a new era in which patriarchal traditions and social norms are being challenged, and gender equality is being demanded by younger generations.

The movement has been a long time coming, according to Kuho Jung, executive director of Seoul Fashion Week. “MeToo is affecting every part of [South] Korea at the moment, and I think it should be widespread. Fashion statements should be a part of it, too.”

Actress Jamie Chung said she was glad to see that such a movement has reached the fashion community in her parents’ home country. “It’s time we really support the victims….My parents came from a time [here] where you listened to your husband. To hear that this movement is out here is quite shocking, but in a good way,” she said.

Globally, more and more brands are becoming politically and socially engaged, said Lisa Aiken, retail fashion director at Net-a-porter, who was attending her second Seoul Fashion Week. “Vetements is supporting the World Food Organization, designers making statements whether it’s the ‘Time’s Up’ statement or the #MeToo movement, I think that more and more designers are using their voice and influence in a positive way…And actually they have the perfect vehicle to do so.”

With inter-Korean talks between the two adversaries approaching, North Korea was another topic on everyone’s minds. Much-lauded men’s wear designer Blindness, best known for its androgynousm meets avante-garde street-style looks, launched a Pablo Picasso-inspired collection that addressed issues of reunification through the use of floral pattern fabrics on billowing, outspoken puffer coats and tops and thigh-high boots. South Korea and North Korea are the world’s only remaining divided nations, the designers said in their show notes, hinting at the importance of reunification. 

Blindness’ Korean reunification-inspired collection.  Courtesy

Others echoed the sentiment. “In the North, they have good labor skills and have the potential to produce a lot [in terms of fashion manufacturing],” Jung said. “It’s better to unite together than to separate. It would help the economy. Reunification is the ideal goal for the two Koreas.”  

Elsewhere, street style-influenced collections took a backseat at Seoul Fashion Week’s Generation Next as tailoring came back in full force for yet another season. Designers like Le Yiel showcased gabardine trenchcoats and boxy shouldered blouses, while others such as Moho offered sombre gray blazers and long structured cotton coats resembling gothic armor.

Munsoo Kwon, a past winner of the Woolmark Asia Prize, presented a collection of his signature preppy men’s wear looks based on the concept of “the han-lyang,” a class of aristocratic heirs from the Chosun dynasty. “The modern han-lyang has a lot of money, he can pay for his friends, he knows all the best spots and he knows how to play,” Kwon said of his updated version of the bourgeoisie.

Other designers such as Chung Chung Lee, founder of women’s wear label Lie, were inspired by other social causes such as eco-friendly, nature-loving lifestyles. Lee, whose collection featured models in a series of faux fur boots and shearling-embellished see-through vinyl coats walking against the backdrop of snowy arctic scenery, said he was inspired by the idea of climate change.

My show is about what we have now and what we could stand to lose…I just wanted to remind people to be grateful for nature,” Lee said.

Despite the popularity of the political dynamism and colorful themes of the week’s shows, few mainland Chinese visitors could be seen at the event. Since last year, the number of Chinese tourists plunged at least 70 percent due to political tensions over South Korea’s deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-ballistic missile system — a military decision China strongly opposes.

Last month’s Pyeongchang Olympics saw only 20,000, or 10 percent, of the 200,000 anticipated Chinese tourists arrive, according to local tourism companies. China’s tourism and cultural import boycotts stand to have a heavy impact on the South Korean economy this year, but experts are hopeful that the situation will improve.

“Fifty percent of our buyers this season are from China,” Kuho Jung said. “I’ve seen Chinese buyers who used to concentrate on low-price wholesale buying move up to the high-end market. This kind of movement tells us that we have more potential to sell our high-end clothes to China.”