We explore the South Korean streetwear scene and how it rose to have one of the strongest streetwear cultures in the whole of Asia.
If you ever plan to take a holiday in Asia for a South Korean streetwear hunt down, Seoul is probably the sweet spot for you. The capital of South Korea has been thriving in youth culture, music and entertainment over the past decade. K-pop, short for Korean pop as they say, has become so powerful that even people halfway across the world would have heard of the biggest boy groups such as Big Bang, EXO, Bangtan Boys and the likes.
K-pop is a very extensive musical realm that consists of various genres of musical styles, but we could safely say hip-hop is now dominating the market. Young people are particularly lured into making hip-hop music because it is trending. Plus, there’s always plenty of opportunities to get yourself out there, such as participating in rap contests, a fairly popular culture in South Korea.
Hip-hop and streetwear are welded together a lot as they tend to be complementary to each other. To some degree it could be considered de rigueur for rappers to represent that style. In the South Korea streetwear scene, prominent rappers are now sponsored by ambitious brands – clothes from Supreme to OFF-WHITE; footwear by Nike and adidas… You name it. Thanks to their significant influence in Asia, these brands quickly captured the hearts of young people. Another wave of street labels then see the market potential and just like that, Seoul has created a prosperous, welcoming environment for these businesses.
During the 90s and 2000s, Japan was once the mighty hub of streetwear in Asia with a global audience. Brands like BAPE by NIGO was born in 1993, Originalfake by KAWS and Medicom Toy first opened for business in 2006. The generous space Japan gave to the design industry bolstered the creatives to unleash their talent and develop their own ventures. Here are some Japanese heritage brands that, to this day, still have an international impact – Comme des Garcons, Kenzo, Evisu, Head Porter, Visvim and WTAPS.
Back then if you walk down the streets of Shinjuku in Tokyo, you would see people having their hands fully occupied with shopping bags that said ‘BAPE’ or ‘Supreme’ amidst the hustle of bustle of the capital. You still will today, but what makes Seoul even more optimal is the exposure that streetwear brands get. Despite the number of branded shops in Japan, unlike South Korea, streetwear remained an underground culture. Japanese pop stars and the likes of other celebs seldom represent street styles. Mainstream magazines were not a big fan of the fashion either. Although streetwear gained broader recognition, it failed to win the hearts of Japanese youth. Perhaps this is why in around ten years time, South Korea has gone from strength to strength and surpassed Japan to become one of the most powerful Asian countries in streetwear.
Certainly celebrity endorsement takes up a critical role in delivering the success of a youth-targeting fashion brand, because they are young people’s role models and whom the media will keep a close eye on. In the US, Kanye West might best suit the above description. He is one of the most pivotal players that has pushed streetwear in the US forward. Even what he wears to go out for a stroll can make it to the headline. While in South Korea, G-Dragon will be the equivalent. Of course the two artists are fundamentally different but undoubtedly both of them are the vital impetus behind the prospering Western and Eastern fashion scenes.
G-Dragon is best known as the leader of Korean boy band Big Bang. He is a singer, rapper, songwriter, producer, model and an entrepreneur. Because of his distinctive eye in fashion and his adventurous attitude in experimenting with multifarious styles (and rocked most of them), the multi-hyphenate player has gradually risen to the honourable status of a world-leading style icon. He has grown close with premium fashion veteran Karl Lagerfeld and has frequented the front row of Chanel’s fashion week shows.
Notorious for causing the skyrocketing prices of sneakers and street apparels, the fashion aficionado also defined trends for youth to follow and that drastically increased the demand of these products. Indeed G-Dragon’s input is exceptionally invaluable in terms of getting South Korea to the forefront of Asian street fashion.
While it seems that South Korea is importing foreign brands and culture into the local market to construct its streetwear kingdom, there is no short of domestic, promising talents that are capable of consuming the global world of fashion. G-Dragon, for example, founded his personal brand ‘PEACEMINUSONE’ with his long-time stylist in 2016. The enterprise specialises in making hoodies and sweatshirts with a simple and clean design, monochrome bucket hats, accessories like bulldog clips and more. Since its inception, the brand has been a real buzz. Now give the online store a browse then you will be aware that 90% of the stock is gone. This is how well-received it is. At the end of the year it was launched, the aforementioned label joined Dover Street Market London as a part of the instore line-up. Once again this garnered international attention to the new-found South Korean vogue.
But the superstar is not the only one. Lately the biannual festive Seoul Fashion Week has attracted veterans from all over the world, spanning from designers and models to fashion critics and journalists, to visit the South Korean capital. The reason behind is the charm of fresh talents – a critical perspective of the new age fashion that is yet to be thoroughly explored in the Western community.
Kathleen Kye was one of the Seoul natives that built up the heavy anticipation via her masterpieces. The bold colours, sleek cuttings and unorthodox choice of textures she incorporated in her latest collection has proven Seoul fashion was indeed one of a kind. Especially with the swift working pace, new ideas are pronounced every day. The industry is ever-changing, which will eventually translate into a broader spectrum of avant-garde styles.
There’s a famous saying by German model and TV host Heidi Klum: “In fashion, one day you’re in, and the next you’re out.” Today we see Seoul celebrating the diverse styles and booming fashion economy, but at the same time China is already catching up with its up-and-coming Shanghai Fashion Week. Adopting a similar approach with South Korea, China has been investing in a rapper survival TV programme. Chinese hip-hop movement Higher Brothers is progressively rising to stardom as well. Would the most populous country in the globe follow the steps of the precedent and kick Seoul out of the game? Or would it turn out to be something that no one has ever foreseen?