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French dancewear designer blends ethical fashion with rhythmic gymnastics in Korea

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French designer Sandra Meynier Kang, owner of SMK dancewear company, poses with a ball used in rhythmic gymnastics in front of her company's wares displayed during a pop-up event at Nonoshop in central Seoul's Itaewon area, Feb. 20. Courtesy of Bereket Alemayehu

French designer Sandra Meynier Kang, owner of SMK dancewear company, poses with a ball used in rhythmic gymnastics in front of her company's wares displayed during a pop-up event at Nonoshop in central Seoul's Itaewon area, Feb. 20. Courtesy of Bereket Alemayehu

By Bereket Alemayehu

Sandra Meynier Kang, a French designer who owns SMK dancewear company based in Seoul, has followed a unique path in both the fashion world and rhythmic gymnastics. Her journey, which began over a decade ago, intertwines her passions for rhythmic gymnastics, design and ethical fashion based on eco-friendly and upcycled textiles and accessories.

She graduated in 2008 from Atelier Chardon Savard, a French fashion design school based in Paris, and in 2010 she moved to Seoul as a fashion commercial agent to work for a few designer brands before creating her dancewear brand.

Her first taste of success came unexpectedly during the summer of 2010 when she came to Korea for the first time on vacation.

At the time, she had a design and marketing job for a fashion brand company in France.

"There was an idea to expand the brand in the Asia market," she told The Korea Times. "I told my boss that I was going to Korea that summer for vacation and then asked him to give me some jackets to sell."

She took three of the brand's leather jackets with her on her vacation.

"The first thing I did when I landed in Korea was have a meeting," she said. "I went directly from the airport to a brand store in Gangnam to show the jackets."

To her astonishment, the collection was quickly signed, marking a promising start to her Korean journey.

"What was amazing is that they signed the collection," she said. "My first order was actually for one of the biggest and most luxury fashion stores in Korea. During that summer vacation of three weeks, I signed up three stores in Korea."

She came back again later that year and ended up working as a marketer for a brand company in Korea. But despite her initial triumphs, she started to feel a longing to reconnect with her creative roots and work with her own two hands.

"During that time, I was bored," she said. "I wanted to go back to making fashion because I was working in marketing, you know, selling the brand in Europe and America. But marketing wasn't my major interest. I was missing sewing and textiles and creating cloth wares."

That changed when she visited the textile market in eastern Seoul's Dongdaemun Market area.

"After visiting that huge market, I bought textiles and a small sewing machine, then I started making some clothes," she said.

Inspired by the bustling Dongdaemun Market and fueled by her passion for design and textiles, she embarked on a personal journey to design and create her own brand. Recognizing the need for a paradigm shift in her approach to fashion, she founded her label design in 2012 with the help of a Korean designer friend. Since then, her brand has been able to reach overseas markets in countries like Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, China and recently, Australia.

"And then I realized that I needed to change my brand. I need to change the values I cherish. And if I make a brand, I need to value it more than its design and marketing. And then I would follow the values more than the design or the trends," she said. "So this is how SMK dancewear was born in 2017. I decided the brand would be vegan and use eco-friendly textiles. In the beginning, I thought that if I created clothes, it would only be by caring for people involved in the process, by reducing and monitoring our impact on the environment."

SMK became a testament to Sandra's commitment to ethical fashion. Embracing veganism and eco-friendly practices, the brand prioritized sustainability in every facet of its operations. It also served as an outlet to funnel her interest in rhythmic gymnastics, as she is a certified rhythmic gymnastics instructor who teaches at a studio every Monday.

A wrap top and legwarmers set by SMK / Courtesy of SMK

A wrap top and legwarmers set by SMK / Courtesy of SMK

As her brand evolved, Sandra found herself drawn to the world of dancewear, particularly ballet. Recognizing a shortage of homegrown ballet brands in Korea, she seized the opportunity to set foot in this underexplored dance fashion terrain. Crafting her designs with elegance and functionality, she transformed SMK into an iconic dancewear brand, attracting both Korean and international customers.

She deals with direct orders from around the world on her website and also works with two shops in China.

Her brand is known for its ethical, sustainable production, but that doesn't come cheap.

"When you produce ethically, it costs a lot on production and material," she said. I'm not working on a huge scale. So, my quantities are relatively small, and small productions are the most expensive ones."

Sandra's fashion journey underscores the symbiotic relationship between her French heritage and her life in Korea as a member of a multicultural family.

Her proximity to Seoul's vibrant fashion ecosystem, coupled with its well-established production infrastructure, has empowered Sandra to realize her creative vision with unparalleled agility.

Cotton sweatshirt and jogging pants / Courtesy of SMK

Cotton sweatshirt and jogging pants / Courtesy of SMK

"In Korea, we have Dongdaemun Market with so many textiles, and you can find some eco-friendly options," she said. "In the last three years, it's amazing that we can find more and more things in Dongdaemun Market which are certified as eco-friendly, where you can get the certification number and everything about the product. It's quite convenient."

She contrasted this fashion ecosystem to back home in Europe, where the fashion industry isn't quite as domestic.

"Usually in Europe, as I know, you don't make brand productions in France. It's very rare when a brand is made in France. You may need to go to Portugal or Italy, so you have a lot of back and forth of your products," she explained.

"In Korea, we can find everything in Seoul. As an example, my atelier is a 10-minute walk from my office and 10 minutes from Dongdaemun. I'm in the circle. So it's convenient, it's fast. I think it's a good place for producing fashion clothes. And it's all in Seoul. Since it's all in the same place, I would say it's quite good for our less-carbon footprint."

Sandra recalls that in 2016 she received support from a Korean government agency that promotes Korea-based designers overseas. The agency covered her booth fees twice for fashion shows in Paris and Shanghai. That particular gesture gave her a morale boost. She also mentioned that she has worked on several collaborations with Korean designers, fashion brands and outlets over the years.

Sandra encourages young aspiring designers to explore their creative talents, textiles and production without fear of failure, as she struggled on many occasions along the way.

Currently, she also serves as the president of the Cercle des Entrepreneurs Francophones en Corée, with French-speaking members hailing from all over the world.

When asked about her plans for the future, she said she wants the brand to develop more in the Korean market. "I wish I could keep doing some events, such as pop-up stores here in Korea and maybe some other places abroad," she said. "Meeting more people from dancewear backgrounds or not. That's what I hope for SMK. Eventually, I will try to keep growing on my international buyers, too. It has been a lot of work, but I'm trying to do that. And one of my big dreams is to be able to have, in the future, a brand office and showroom in France and Korea."

Currently, SMK is showcasing a selection of eco-casual wear and upcycling fashion at NONO Shop, a vegan and zero-waste grocery store and café in Itaewon, until March 10.

Visit or follow @smk_dancewear on Instagram for more information.

Bereket Alemayehu is an Ethiopian photo artist, social activist and writer based in Seoul. He's also co-founder of Hanokers, a refugee-led social initiative, and freelance contributor for Pressenza Press Agency.


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