|You want Hijin's bag. You do. You also want her swag. You do. /All photos by Michael Hurt|
By Michael Hurt
The twice-yearly (late March and late October) industry event Seoul Fashion Week just ended last Saturday. While not too long ago it was a local event (the "Seoul Collection") without much influence or impact outside Korea, the event is now a de rigueur point of coverage in global fashion media, from Vogue and HighSnobiety to Hypebeast and The South China Morning Post.
All the coverage is generally effusive and flattering to a fault, and also serves to solidify Korea's recently earned image as the best-dressed and creatively coolest spot in Asia, if not the world. And almost all the sartorial enthusiasm is about "street fashion" ― not the runway.
So-called "street fashion" is a strange and wonderful thing that is almost as oxymoronic as it is deceptively simple and self-explanatory. "Street fashion" as it is talked about in the days since the concept of the "straight-up" was introduced in i-D magazine in 1984 as straight, unfiltered pictures of real people from "the street", has always contained the connotation of "real" or "everyday" clothing ― what actual people wear normally, day-to-day.
While that's always been a part of the appeal, the notion of street fashion evolved quite a bit when Aoki Shoichi introduced the youth fashion subcultures of the Harajuku/Shibuya areas of Tokyo as expressed in their "street fashion" to public consciousness throughout Tokyo and Japan, then eventually the world.
As the sheer weirdness and wildness of these "street fashion" looks both helped define while also benefitting from the growing image of "Cool Japan" in other fields, the wild looks of the putative "Harajuku girl" implicitly suggested that her look defined everyday reality in Japan, even as few Japanese people actually ever looked like that.
But that's the trick ― "street fashion" is supposed to be "real" in some sense, but it isn't. It's involves staging, especially as it has become a central part of the "fashion week" across the world, especially after photographer Scott Schuman popularized it in its ultimate mediated form ― the fashion blog ― in 2008 as The Sartorialist. And Seoul Fashion Week is the ultimate example of wonderful staging, especially after the construction of Ur-architect Zaha Hadid's master work the Dongdaemun Design Plaza.
|There's a lot more going on here than just bright colors and eclectic layering. This particular paepi ("fashion people") made his street fashion-style earrings and creatively mixed together a bunch of seemingly disparate cultural texts into his own statement of identity.|
He is a master channeler of the recent Korean societal narrative that you are what you consume, as is the entire generation of young people born in the 21st century or even in the 1990s, after Korea began its change from a development economy that eschewed consumption as a moral drag on what scholar Charles Kim calls "wholesome modernization." During the time of suppressing youth culture through stigmatizing Western cultural consumption, cutting men's hair by force and the measuring of women's miniskirts, conspicuous consumption and overly confident sartorial display were condemned as amoral and even a sign of sociopathy.
But today is a new era. In a culture that glorifies consumption as a nationalistic virtue, it is inevitable that street fashion paepi who are exemplars of these new modes of thinking ― the putative "creative economy" and the shipping overseas of Korean-produced popular culture as the export called hallyu (the "Korean wave") ― now regularly challenge older societal norms of dress and behavior, blur gender role boundaries, and generally delight in smashing as many social roles and rules that modernity has historically foisted upon them.
|Seong-gyeong is a florist who wanted to make a point about gender and tattoos and coming to Seoul Fashion Week to show off her new thigh tattoo as an act of normalizing this for women was her thing. INSTA: @pomegranate_99_|
This brings us back to the question of what is "real" or representative about so-called "street fashion" displayed on the stage of the DDP at Seoul Fashion Week. Is Seon-gyeong's desire to challenge societal norms normal or representative of most Korean people? Is this not a "fake" staging of a reality that never actually existed? Or is she not simply a non-representative outlier? Or, alternatively put, "No one I know in my office/school/apartment complex dresses like this. These kids are crazy!"
|Announcers Seo Hyunhee (@_seosarang_) and Soomin Ahn (@soomingoo) model modern takes on the Korean traditional hanbok aesthetic.|
|Announcer Soomin Ahn (Insta @soomingoo) offers a fresh take on Tradition, as a new spin on the hanbok, mixing western and Korean sartorial texts of a (traditionally, men's/western) jacket and (Traditional/flower) patterns, as well as a contrast of recent markers of "street fashion" through the fishnets and the Korean ggotshin worn by upper class women during the Joseon era.|
Well, maybe they are, a little bit. But they're also fiercely creative ― within a matrix of imperatives and programming directives in which that should actually be unlikely, as a consumer who should just blindly buy, buy, and buy more; they're not supposed to be remixing their articles of consumption into newly created cultural texts. They're not supposed to be producers even as they are consumers.
|He's actually brought the 8-bit world (back?) into reality.|
|His concept: SHARK.|
But they are. They're producing fashion looks that are as competitively cool as those of much older, mature and developed fashion markets and cultures around the world. They push the boundaries of convention, from gender and sexuality, along with other social roles and even common sense. And that vivacity has turned the DDP during SFW into a veritable pageant of their purported vanities.
Every third week of March and October the DDP fills with thousands of people who come not only to see the paepi but the fashion energy with which they've filled Zaha Hadid's highly unusual, darn near aliensocial space. They're the new social aliens who have managed to fill up the spaceship sitting parked in the middle of Dongdaemun.
|The entire official event of Seoul Fashion Week has become mere window dressing and a backdrop for the unofficial main attraction of street fashion. The DDP's unique space of "parametricism" (allowing the social use of the space to truly transform according to the group occupying/utilizing it) has allowed the building to become the runway itself.|
|Zaha Hadid's DDP during SFW enables a kind of automatic inclusivity that allows everyone to join in the fashion festivities. Her "parametricist" design is a ramp that allows everyone access and the free transformation of its social use allows everyone to be Fila fresh.|
In conclusion, the youth have managed to turn consumption into creation even as they have built themselves from a domestic fashion fandom into an actual engine of cultural production within the nationalistic hallyu project to which the global fashion world is paying close and undivided attention.
They have also brought "street fashion" to the level of the haute couture runway that predicts where dominant clothing and cultural trends are going in a way that high-fashion runways used to.
Not only has a small group of young, street fashion paepi managed to turn their consumptive pursuits into a source of socially productive activities within the local economy, they've managed to flip a global mode of mediated social (sartorial) interaction into something in which Koreans/Korea can successfully participate; it has become a field in which Koreans/Korea has come to actively dominate. And anytime Koreans/Korea becomes globally recognized as the best at something in the international arena, is that not instantly recognized as a social good unto itself, and more simply put, as success?
And on a deeper, more analytical level, how interesting is it to watch a youth(ed) fashion culture smash modern Korean categories of identity related to age, institutional identities, gender and class to be remixed beyond recognition, markers of real and original social identities to be remixed past their meanings, to turn modern notions of participation in a national economy dependent on consumption using wages from work as a separate societal activity into participation by seeing consumption as productive work unto itself? That is, in short, pretty amazing.
|This first-year fashion design major made this outfit (including the CHARMS branded bag) to attend the CHARMS runway show that day. It is an example of amazing creativity as she consumes and reproduces dominant trends in her look, some of which are "fake," but who cares?|
|Yaejin learned to make her own looks as a high school senior, which is also when she designed her own traditional hanbok and modeled it in a fashion show ― before college!|
HEAD ASSISTANT: Nitzah Vazquez
ASSISTANTS: Suna Choi, Wu Di, Yu Bin Sul, Iyanu Ogunjobi
Dr. Michael Hurt (@kuraeji on Instagram) is a photographer and professor living in Seoul. He received his doctorate from UC Berkeley's Department of Ethnic Studies and started Korea's first street fashion blog in 2006. He researches youth, subcultures and street fashion at the SSK research group as a research professor at the University of Seoul and also writes on Visual Sociology and Cultural Studies at his blog and book development site Deconstructing Korea.