The mom of South Korean menswear rides the K-wave



Her clothes are worn by stars like Lee Jung-Jae of “Squid Online games,” Choi Woo-Shik of “Parasite” and users of the K-pop feeling BTS. But when the South Korean style designer Woo Youthful-mi made her global debut in 2002, several individuals considered large-finish fashion could appear out of a place identified for its war-torn history.

Woo, or Madame Woo, as she’s usually termed, is arguably just one of the most successful Korean designers. She is the chief executive of Sound Corp., a firm that controls two effective labels: Solid Homme and Wooyoungmi. She grew to become the initially Korean member of the French Federation of Trend in 2011, and her Wooyoungmi line is now a staple at luxurious merchants like Le Bon Marché, Selfridges and Ssense.

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Woo has lived on and off in Paris for about 20 decades, and has experienced entrance row seats to South Korea’s emergence as a cultural juggernaut. It’s a phenomenon that she has contributed to and benefited from during her career, she explained.

Born in 1959, Woo grew up in Seoul throughout a time of speedy economic growth that followed the end of the Korean War. “The national motto was ‘work hard and reside perfectly,’” she mentioned. “Caring about manner was viewed as a social evil, especially for gentlemen.”

But Woo experienced an unconventional upbringing that gave her a purely natural affinity for the arts. Her mom, an art teacher, dressed her and her 4 siblings in exceptional, selfmade dresses that made them stand out at school. Her father was an architect with only occasional function who socialized with American troopers, gathered rare goods and invested in his look. Between his possessions, she recalled, ended up items of Bauhaus household furniture, European style magazines and a prolonged, leather coat reminiscent of a single Clint Eastwood might have worn.

“At that time, 95% of guys dressed the very same,” she explained. “Fathers wore satisfies and uniforms to their workplaces and factories, but my father expended 80% of his passion on looking good,” she stated, citing him as the explanation she eventually pursued menswear design and is frequently inspired by artwork and architecture.

“Honestly, I felt ashamed by all of it — the way our dwelling was adorned, the apparel I experienced to wear — but hunting again on it now, I think my father was a extremely imaginative, incredibly great particular person,” she mentioned.

Even with her background, she hardly ever thought of remaining a vogue designer for the reason that, she stated, “words like ‘fashion designer’ did not exist in Korea then.” She unsuccessful to move an test for entry to legislation faculty, which she identified as “fate.”

To Osaka and Further than

Woo said she had “momentary illusions of genius” in the course of her trend programs at Sungkyunkwan College, but it wasn’t until finally she was invited to contend at the 1983 Osaka Manner Collection that she commenced to dream large.

Hyunji Nam, the direct editor of Korean written content at Ssense, claimed that when it arrived to vogue, Japan and South Korea were being on very diverse actively playing fields at the time. “By the end of the 1980s, Japanese vogue was previously getting recognized overseas for the reason that of the operate of names like Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake,” she reported. “But South Korea did not have the nationwide energy to support fashion in or exterior of the state, and most designers, regardless of how proficient they ended up, experienced handful of alternatives to present their perform in or outside of Korea.”

The trip to Osaka was Woo’s first overseas, and she was intimidated, not only as a competitor but also as a Korean among a host of nations with far more established vogue histories. She remembered the other international locations coming in teams — coalitions of individuals from Europe, Hong Kong, Singapore — and she, a lone Korean. She stayed up the night in advance of the opposition, a needle trembling in her hands as she accomplished her minimalist acquire on hanbok (conventional Korean costume). She was stunned when she was awarded the prize.

“In Korea, no 1 cared that these types of a opposition existed, and no a person cared that a Korean was capable to gain, but it inspired me to believe massive about vogue,” she explained.

Woo bounced all around a few Korean manner conglomerates just before beginning her to start with enterprise in 1998, a modest boutique in Seoul, with her more youthful sister, Jang-Hee. “She was the just one who normally advised me I could do it, when I felt like I could not,” Woo claimed about her lifelong business enterprise associate, who died in 2015.

They named the all set-to-have on menswear label Strong Homme and explained it as garments for their suitable guy. “I imagined him to be straight and slim, the type of very good dude most women would want to marry,” Woo mentioned. The benefits were being clean-lower, nominal appears to be that a lot of at the time described as metrosexual.

Woo stated the label hit the market at the suitable time: just in advance of the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. Overseas holidaymakers and Olympics attendees ended up flooding the money, and Koreans were becoming fascinated in how non-Koreans seemed and starting to be far more open up-minded about a range of kinds, she explained.

In unique, Strong Homme caught the eye of two groups of trendsetters. The very first were called Orenji-jok (Orange tribe), a group of rich teens and 20-somethings, usually from the Gangnam district in Seoul. They had traveled abroad and had been interested in vogue with a Western edge.

The 2nd have been Korean music’s initially ballad singers, like Lee Moon-sae, Lee Seung-Chul and Yoon Sang, who catered to generally woman audiences. Reliable Homme grew by using phrase of mouth and movie star publicity.

“Solid Homme and Wooyoungmi have been go-to models for male Korean famous people for as long as I can recall,” explained Gianna Hwang, a stylist for consumers like Lee Jung-Jae, Eric Nam and Track Kang. “It’s not uncomplicated for a menswear company to accomplish this type of gentle but beautiful search that each these manufacturers have. Her clothes are a little bit oversize, as for each the trend at present, but in general, they have an astounding suit, which is the most essential thing if you’re dressing men.

These days, with far more Korean stars touring overseas for vogue shoots, there is a escalating dialogue about introducing hints of Korean design and style to outfits. “There are a great deal of worthwhile Korean manufacturers currently, but neither Sound Homme or Wooyoungmi are just Korean makes,” Hwang claimed. Woo, she extra, is “a terrific designer who only transpires to be Korean.”

Lessons in French Baking

Fourteen yrs into Solid Homme’s achievement, Woo explained it was not ample that she was doing perfectly in Korea. She preferred to make a luxury model for a far more sophisticated and sensitive grownup, unafraid to be vulnerable. And regardless of good friends and acquaintances expressing concern, she preferred to do it in Paris, the vogue funds of the world.

“They advised me I was crazy,” she stated. “First, they stated I couldn’t do it since I’m Korean. Then they said it’d be all the a lot more difficult mainly because I was a woman.”

Other folks recommended that if she wanted to appeal to Europeans, she should perform up her label’s Korean-ness and make dresses that appeared additional visibly Asian. “They claimed it was like attempting to provide croissants in Paris,” Woo mentioned.

“If you want to make it as a Korean, you have to sell tteok,” she said, referring to Korean rice cakes. “You have to make a thing they really don’t previously have. But what could I do? I wanted to make croissants.”

The French trend scene did indeed turn out to be uninviting to her. At Paris Fashion Week, Wooyoungmi’s show time slot was rescheduled many times — even following invites had been sent — and models she experienced employed have been scouted by other designers, she reported. The selection lastly debuted on a Sunday at 10:30 a.m., the morning following the major Style Week functions, to much less than 150 friends. Have been it not for just one optimistic overview in Le Figaro, she explained, she could possibly have presented up completely.

Woo vowed to develop into a complete member of the French Federation of Manner, believing a seat at the table was the only way to secure the label’s future at Paris Manner 7 days, but the path there wasn’t simple.

Right up until 2009, her team operated without having an business office in Paris, introduced all the things — scissors, needles, thread — from Korea and labored out of lodge rooms. On a number of events, she was rejected by showrooms that wouldn’t acquire a probability on a Korean designer. A single of the most humiliating experiences, she said, was at a meeting with a showroom in which the entrepreneurs spoke in excess of her in French — “Korea? Do you know where that is? Are Koreans accomplishing vogue now?” — as if she could not fully grasp.

“I held it together until eventually the meeting was more than and cried and cried afterward,” she reported. “But I showed there, did nicely there and remaining on my have accord just like I promised myself I would.”

Korean Males Glow Up

In the last ten years there has been a shift in how Korean manner, and men’s fashion in unique, is talked about.

The South Korean luxurious market place boomed and now ranks the seventh biggest in the world, according to Euromonitor, a marketplace exploration company. Profits of men’s skin-care items by yourself increased 44% between 2011 and 2017. And, of training course, as Korean men devote a lot more time and cash on trend, the planet is looking at far more of them.

“It’s not like a single point occurred following another,” Woo said. “It’s that all these aspects interacted with one particular another.” Then she extra, “It was also me.”

Wooyoungmi now has 44 retailers across Asia, Europe, North America and Australia. Woo has expanded into jewellery, accessories and womenswear. Previous yr, she collaborated with Samsung on minimal editions of Wearable Wooyoungmi things. According to facts by Korea’s Economical Supervisory Provider, the Solid Corp. acquired 548 billion won ($46 million at the time) in 2020, up 20% from two a long time previously.

“Wooyoungmi elevated the notion of Korean trend overseas by proving it could be done,” Nam, of Ssense, reported. “A Korean designer could be a frequent at Paris Manner 7 days. A Korean manufacturer could be offered at luxurious department merchants.”

Woo, she extra, “paved the way for potential designers to arrive.”

This report at first appeared in The New York Periods.

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