By Amanda Kaiser
with contributions from Crystal Tai
 on May 4, 2015

SEOUL — Call him Ambassador Karl.


While many a fashion designer has mined the rich cultural legacies of Asian giants like Japan and China, South Korea is relatively unchartered territory. Karl Lagerfeld is out to change that.


“I think people don’t know so much about it. They know everything about China and Japan, but I think they don’t know so much about [South] Korea. I thought it was a good idea,” the designer said during a fitting ahead of the Korean-inspired Chanel cruise show that he showed here Monday night at the uber futuristic Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a curvaceous spaceship-like structure designed by Zaha Hadid and South Korean-based Samoo Architects & Engineers.


It’s true that the more contemporary side of South Korean culture is having something of a moment — the country’s soap operas stream on televisions across Asia, from downtown Beijing to remote Vietnamese villages, while K-pop sounds dominate the continent’s airwaves. But Lagerfeld chose to “vaporize” aspects of South Korean traditionalism.


“It’s a cosmopolitan idea of the local fashion,” he said. The voluminous shapes and bold color combinations of hanboks, the South Korean equivalent of the kimono, inspired the designer. He delivered his own high-fashion versions of these full, high-waisted dresses in patchwork silk — including one in a smattering of pastel hues and another version in soft pink that closed the show. “This doesn’t exist in [any] other country in the eastern part of the world — only in Korea,” Lagerfeld said of the patchwork technique.


Delicate beading reminiscent of the embellishments on old Korean trunks adorned a sheer blouse with patent leather trim. Bold strips of color similar to those found on the sleeves of hanboks were a key design motif – they added a jolt to several dresses as well as a sequined dress and a flap bag. The styles in tweed, rendered in punchy weaves of bright hues, were also standouts. “It’s an updated Korean version of the Chanel jacket,” Lagerfeld noted.


In a nod to the historical hairdos featured in South Korean period dramas, there were bold headpieces made from thick braids of black hair, some in crown formations and others in buns similar to mouse ears. Chunky low heels with squared off toes and mary janes with built-in leather socks were the key footwear items; they, too, derive from traditional Korean garb.


The designer was hard-pressed to pinpoint specific cultural influences other than his own general knowledge. He said he has always been a fan of traditional Korean artwork, although he couldn’t name-drop any artists specifically. “I’m not very good on Korean names,” he said. “I don’t do folklore or direct interpretation. It’s an idea of what I think it could be – or should be.”


But the designer was quick to credit one of his key collaborators in bridging the cultural gap: Kim Young-Seong, a South Korean who oversees Chanel’s fabric research. “We have a connection other people don’t have. She was always afraid that the collection wouldn’t be good enough for Korea,” he said as the room erupted in laughter.


Young-Seong fired back playfully: “Too good for Korea!”


Despite going head to head with the Met Gala in New York on Monday, Chanel still managed to snag some A-listers for the front row including Kristen Stewart, Gisele Bündchen, Tilda Swinton, Isabelle Huppert, Gaspard Ulliel, Lo-Fang and Rinko Kikuchi. Tapping into the K-pop talent pool, the fashion house enlisted the likes of rapper G-Dragon, South Korean-American singer Krystal, and singer, songwriter and dancer Taeyang to attend the show along with actresses Shin-Hye Park and Ah-Sung Go.


Chanel staged the show on a modernist, minimalist set – a colorful expanse of polka dot-shaped stools and light fixtures that transformed the space into a giant Twister mat. Lagerfeld said he wanted to break with Asian traditionalism for this aspect of the show. The designer, who famously staged a Fendi runway show on The Great Wall of China in 2007, said the dotted facade of a building in downtown Seoul inspired him this time.


“I wanted something that was the modem part of Korea,” Lagerfeld explained during a preview, before taking a several-minute detour to update an inquisitive Korean journalist on the whereabouts of Choupette, Lagerfeld’s famed long-haired Siamese who had her own range of cosmetics under Shu Uemura and filmed a commercial for carmaker Opel.


“It’s too dangerous,” he said, explaining the decision not to bring his feline to the South Korean capital. “I get images all of the time. I can even speak to her if she appears on the screen with her maid.”


Overall, the show’s audience responded positively to Lagerfeld’s reinterpretation of their culture.


“The styling was really Korean. They mixed a lot of elements of traditional Korean style with Chanel’s own identity…[and] I was so proud to see this as a Korean,” G-Dragon said.


Yoona Im, a K-pop star with the group Girls’ Generation, was one of many to comment on the distinctive hairpieces. “The hairstyles were very Korean – they incorporated the use of the traditional Korean wig….It was so impressive, I could see a balance between Eastern and Western cultures in the collection.”


Jiyoon Cheung, a 48-year-old Korean socialite, also voiced positive feedback. “We love the Korean style they featured in the show, it was very refreshing and new.”


Still, not everyone sounded as enthusiastic. Ji Hyun Lee, a 34-year-old university lecturer on fashion, said she enjoyed seeing Lagerfeld’s take on her culture but said she didn’t think she would buy any of it, despite the fact she purchases about one Chanel item a month. “I don’t [see myself wearing the collection] because I’m Korean. I don’t like traditional,” she said.


Meanwhile, Chanel’s roster of international celebs has been busy playing tourist in the city.


Stewart, on her second trip to South Korea, spoke highly of the place, partaking its famously fiery food and notoriously brutal spa treatments. “We walked through a park. We ate a lot of Korean barbecue. I made myself really sick, which is awesome. I ate too many chilis. We went to a Korean spa and I’ve never been cleaner in my entire life or less relaxed,” said the actress, who is gearing up for two new movies, with Ang Lee and Woody Allen. “I don’t have any more skin.”


Bündchen seemed just as upbeat. “I love the food and I love all the greenery,” she told her fans as they filmed her on their smartphones. “I like how you guys take care of your environment. That’s important to me.”


The model, who recently revealed her retirement from the runway, said she enjoyed taking in her first fashion show from the vantage point of the front row. “For the first time in my life, I’m watching a show. It’s a different perspective, you know. It’s definitely different,” she said.


Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s president of global fashion, said a combination of different factors drew the French brand to South Korea, a market it is looking to cultivate in coming years. He said it’s an energetic place, citing the country’s creativity in fields like electronics and entertainment. Although he declined to give numbers, Pavlovsky said Chanel’s sales in South Korea are currently growing at a double-digit pace – an inevitable slowdown from the “high-double-digit rate” the brand saw over the past five years as the size of the market grows.


“It’s an amazing country, different from the rest of Asia, different from what we see in the United States or Europe,” the executive said during an interview at a Shilla hotel suite overlooking a landscape of rolling green hills. “That is something quite specific and it was time for us to be here.”


Chanel has 15 boutiques in South Korea, including six duty-free stores that do a big business with Chinese tourists. Pavlovsky said Chanel is gearing up for a major opening in Seoul in 2017, a Peter Marino-designed flagship. Pavlovsky said the store will be “exactly the same kind of operation” as Tokyo’s Ginza store, a 10-story landmark in Tokyo housing an Alain Ducasse restaurant.


Noting a core consumer base for accessories in South Korea – Pavlovsky said Chanel’s 11.12 flap bag is a popular wedding gift here – the French house is enlarging store spaces to incorporate more apparel and encourage consumers to visit stores more often.


“Now we want to convert them to the ready-to-wear,” he said.


Chanel is not the only luxury brand turning its attention to South Korea, whose luxury market was worth $10.6 billion last year, according to estimates from Euromonitor. In June, Dior will open the doors on a major store housing an art gallery and a Dior/Pierre Herme Café. Christian de Portzamparc designed the exteriors while Marino is handling the interiors.


Hee-Jin Park, an apparel sector analyst with Shinhan Investment Corporation, said the Korean luxury goods market of today is not growing as “explosively” as in the past but demand should be steady in the longer term.


“The retail and luxury field has grown steadily because of people’s preferences to use/wear luxury items. This trend will continue, so that I would say that consumption will not experience a great increase but it will be steadily consistent in the long-term,” Park said.

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