Western shoppers always grapple with the need to be part of a trend but balance this alongside their own personal style. Step on a plane, travel for fourteen hours to a concrete jungle - where style is copied, not made - and you will find the ‘Seoul Stylistas’ a very different breed of shopper, who live by a trend and die by a trend. Sounds dramatic, but it’s oh-so true.
Outside the venue for Seoul Fashion Week I met one girl who had spent an entire afternoon walking repeatedly up and down on a quest to be papped by the street style photographers. I asked why South Koreans seem so keen to slavishly follow trends? “We want to fit in, we want to be part of a collective group. We follow the western trends and adopt them piece-by-piece. I feel out of place if I don’t.” Despite the constant use of “we” instead of “I,” these are not your usual fashion victims, however. They are well researched and could tell me more about what’s hot now than I possibly could. Even the impeccably dressed toddlers cohered into posing for waiting cameras by their guardians seem to be better versed in style.
Surveying the groups of young South Koreans who roam the streets of the country’s capital it’s like watching ‘garment gangs’ who all swear allegiance to a certain trends. The boys - some of the most beautiful teens you will ever encounter - largely adopt a Saint Laurent approach for suiting with skinny monochrome suits and almost identical coiffered black hair. Meanwhile the gals are high kicking around in 'Sports Lux' as if they are part of some après-sport team and Vetements is their captain. Individualism comes in your alignment with a certain group or a slight adjustment of the tribe-appropriate accessory.
Tiffany Hsu, the Buying Director for MyTheresa.com, agrees: “They’re like Japanese gangster groups or anime groups. Some even wear big goggles, big pants and pink hair too.” They are certainly not to be messed with.
This overwhelming need to ‘fit in’ with a certain perception of what is fashionable engulfs the entire city. Billboards of epic proportions promising they can transform the Asian population into Audrey Hepburn are everywhere. Yes, really… they have the heavily edited before and after shots to prove it. According to The New Yorker, the nation has the highest rate of plastic surgery per capita in the entire world.
It seems Koreans firmly put their money where their original noses used to be. Speaking to another Seoul resident she talked me through the country’s obsession with plastic surgery, "Even less wealthy people will save money so when their child graduates from high school they can take them to the plastic surgeons and let their child change what they want.” They aren’t hiding it either, they are proud to have undertaken surgery.
The current ‘Kraze’ in Korean plastic surgery is jaw shaving, the process of having one’s scull shaved in order to replicate more western bone structures. Walking through the heavily populated shopping malls - which stay open well into the night – you will see a number of people who have placed their white face masks over their chin, all to conceal their recovery from said surgery.
Away from the operation table there are more ways for Koreans to achieve their beauty goals, namely through their excessive beauty industry. K-beauty is a laborious holistic process undertaken religiously every morning and night, focusing around eleven steps. But Seoul girls love nothing more than a facemask and unlike western beauty obsessives make them part of their daily routines - not a once in a blue moon treat when they are feeling sorta fancy. But these are not your regular facemasks. Ever fancied putting snail ‘juice’ on your face? Or how about bee venom? Or even the saliva used by birds to build nests? Well, in Seoul that’s basically, well, ‘basic.’
But back to the fashion. During my trip to Seoul, I met Dami Kwon, who founded Seoul’s answer to Dover Street Market, Rare Market. The sister of G-Dragon, the most infamous K-Pop star in the land, over sees a multi brand designer store over two floors, but her power to dictate trends in the city far outweighs the square footage of her empire.
When asked which Korean designers she was looking to stock she claimed: “My customer is rich. Why would we stock Korean designers when they mostly copy Western designers. Our customers want the originals, so we just sell those.”
Skimming the rails reads as an A-Z of ‘it’ western designers: Jacquemus and Rosie Assoulin are personal favourites of the founder. Her customer, she claims, is “rich people of all ages,” and observing the few customers in the store buying designer clobber without flinching is testament to that. If I was buying a head-to-toe designer look in one sitting I probably would have to be carried out in an ambulance… my heart and my bank manager simply couldn’t take it.
Unlike me, some Seoul stylistas aren’t short on dollar. South Korea is the third largest Asia-Pacific e-commerce market with total spent by the nation expected to top $50 billion dollars a year by 2018. Moreover sales in luxury goods totalled $7.6 billion alone, which places it just behind the entire Middle East market at $8.7 billion.
Away from the confines of The Rare Market, the city centre is punctuated by large department stores. Again if you skim through the racks of clothes you find another list of hot designers of the moment and there are Vetements and Off-White by the bucket load… but this is Vetements dressed up in sheep’s clothing. It’s actually fake, advertised in broad daylight as if it was the original article - right down to the asymmetric stitching on the hem. Don’t get me wrong, we are in a shopping centre basement but it’s no shabbier than Selfridges.
The need to fit in is creating a counterfeit culture like no other and even the western fashion editors I was in Seoul with couldn’t resist. One skipped into a fashion show with four bags of the knock off clobber and exclaimed, “It’s literally exactly the same, why the hell not?”
Originality is largely a foreign concept in Seoul. Tiffany Hsu is on her first buying trip in Seoul and informed me how difficult it is to discover fresh design talent in, “exotic fashion weeks - which is what I call the none mainstream ones – they can have a problem with originality and that is what I am looking for. It doesn’t need to be obvious but something that we don’t have, or an aesthetic that maybe we haven’t seen before. Blindness was the stand out show for that here.” The brand’s gender fluid show that was a modern reexamination of Elizabethan dress, complete with lads in pearls, certainly caught international press attention during Seoul Fashion Week.
Shopping is indeed a way of life for the fashion-focused. Whilst youngsters in Britain are spinning around a pole in body con on Saturday nights with a shot in hand, in Seoul, “I will have dinner with friends and then go out shopping,” as the South Korean model, Irene Kim, tells me. When shopping replaces drinking, you know this is serious business.
You would be forgiven for thinking Seoul was one very large cult, even the K-Pop stars bow to photographers to thank them for showering them with attention during front row photo calls. But beyond the politeness and, the quest for perfection, why are South Korean’s so obsessed with fitting in?
One Seoul stylista summed up the mood perfectly: “We want to be rich and we want people to think we are rich. The West has always represented wealth to us.” And what about your own identity? “That’s less important than looking rich.”