South Korean menswear mother surfs K-wave
His clothes are worn by stars like Lee Jung-Jae from “Squid Games”, Choi Woo-Shik of “Parasite” and members of the K-pop sensation BTS. But when South Korean fashion designer Woo Young-mi made her international debut in 2002, few thought high-end fashion could come out of a country known for its war-torn history.
Woo, or Madame Woo as she is often called, is arguably one of Korea’s most famous designers. She is the CEO of Solid Corp., a company that controls two successful labels: Solid Homme and Wooyoungmi. She became Korea’s first member of the French Fashion Federation in 2011, and her Wooyoungmi line is now a staple at luxury retailers like Le Bon Marché, Selfridges and Ssense.
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Woo lived in Paris on and off for around 20 years and had a front row seat to South Korea’s emergence as a cultural juggernaut. It’s a phenomenon she has contributed to and benefited from throughout her career, she said.
Born in 1959, Woo grew up in Seoul during a period of rapid economic development following the end of the Korean War. “The national motto was ‘work hard and live well’,” she said. “Caring about fashion was considered a social evil, especially for men.”
But Woo had an unconventional upbringing that gave him a natural affinity for the arts. Her mother, an art teacher, dressed her and her four siblings in unique homemade clothes that made them stand out in school. Her father was an architect with only a casual job who socialized with American soldiers, collected rare items and invested in his appearance. Among her belongings, she recalls, were Bauhaus furniture, European fashion magazines and a long leather coat reminiscent of one Clint Eastwood might have worn.
“At that time, 95% of dressed men the same,” she said. “Fathers wore suits and uniforms in their offices and factories, but my dad spent 80% of his passion being handsome,” she said, citing him as the reason she eventually pursued design. of men’s clothing and is often inspired by art and architecture.
“Honestly, I was ashamed of it all – the way our house was decorated, the clothes I had to wear – but looking back now, I think my dad was a very creative and very cool person,” he said. she declared.
Despite her background, she never thought of being a fashion designer because, she says, “words like ‘fashion designer’ didn’t exist in Korea back then.” She failed a law school entrance exam, which she called “destiny.”
To Osaka and beyond
Woo said she had “momentary illusions of genius” throughout her fashion classes at Sungkyunkwan University, but it wasn’t until she was invited to compete at the 1983 Osaka Fashion collection that she started dreaming big.
Hyunji Nam, Korean content editor at Ssense, said that when it comes to fashion, Japan and South Korea were on very different playing fields back then. “At the end of the 1980s, Japanese fashion was already recognized overseas thanks to the work of names like Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake,” she said. “But South Korea didn’t have the national power to support fashion inside or outside the country, and most designers, no matter how talented, had little opportunity to show their work. in Korea or outside.”
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 more established fashion histories. She remembered other countries coming in groups—coalitions of people from Europe, Hong Kong, Singapore—and she, a single Korean. She lay awake the night before the competition, a quivering needle in her hands as she completed her minimalist version of hanbok (traditional Korean clothing). She was stunned when she received the award.
“In Korea, nobody cared that such a competition existed, and nobody cared that a Korean could win, but it inspired me to think big in fashion,” she said. .
Woo bounced around a few Korean fashion conglomerates before starting his first business in 1998, a small boutique in Seoul, with his younger sister, Jang-Hee. “She was the one who always told me I could do it, when I felt like I couldn’t,” Woo said of his lifelong business partner, who died in 2015.
They called the menswear brand Solid Homme and described it as clothing for their ideal man. “I imagined him straight and narrow, the kind of nice guy most girls would want to marry,” Woo said. The results were clean, minimalist looks that many at the time described as metrosexual.
Woo said the label hit the market at the right time: just before the summer of 1988. Olympic Games in Seoul. Foreign tourists and Olympics participants were flocking to the capital, and Koreans were becoming interested in the appearance of non-Koreans and becoming more open to a diversity of styles, she said.
In particular, Solid Homme caught the attention of two groups of trend setters. The first were called Orenji-jok (Orange Tribe), a group of wealthy teenagers in their twenties, often from the Gangnam district of Seoul. They had traveled abroad and were interested in fashion with a western twist.
The latter were the first ballad singers in Korean music, such as Lee Moon-sae, Lee Seung-Chul, and Yoon Sang, who mainly addressed female public. Solid Homme grew through word of mouth and celebrity exposure.
“Solid Homme and Wooyoungmi have been go-to brands for Korean male celebrities for as long as I can remember,” said Gianna Hwang, stylist for clients including Lee Jung-Jae, Eric Nam and Song Kang. “It’s not easy for a menswear company to achieve the kind of soft but beautiful look that these two brands have. Her clothes are slightly oversized as per the current trend but overall they have an amazing fit which is the most important thing if you are dress men.”
Today, with more and more Korean celebrities traveling overseas for fashion shoots, there is a growing conversation about adding hints of Korean style to outfits. “There are many valid Korean brands these days, but neither Solid Homme nor Wooyoungmi are only Korean brands,” Hwang said. Woo, she added, is “a great designer who is only Korean.”
French pastry class
Fourteen years after the success of Solid Homme, Woo said it was not enough that she was doing well in Korea. She wanted to create a luxury brand for a more sophisticated and sensitive adult who is not afraid to be vulnerable. And despite the concern of her friends and acquaintances, she wanted to do it in Paris, the fashion capital of the world.
“They told me I was crazy,” she said. “First they said I couldn’t do it because I’m Korean. Then they said it would be even more impossible because I was a woman.
Others suggested that if she wanted to appeal to Europeans, she should highlight the Korean character of her brand and create clothes that looked more visibly Asian. “They said it was like trying to sell croissants in Paris,” Woo said.
“If you want to succeed as a Korean, you have to sell tteok,” she said, referring to Korean rice cakes. “You have to create something that they don’t already have. But what could I do? I wanted to do some croissants.”
The French fashion scene has indeed proved unattractive for her. During Paris Fashion Week, Wooyoungmi’s show time slot was rescheduled several times – even after invitations were sent out – and the models she had hired were scouted by other designers, he said. she stated. The collection finally debuted on a Sunday at 10:30 a.m., the day after Fashion Week’s biggest parties, in front of less than 150 guests. If it hadn’t been for a positive review in Le Figaro, she says, she might have given up completely.
Woo has vowed to become a full member of the French Fashion Federation, believing a seat at the table was the only way to secure the brand’s future at Paris Fashion Week, but the path isn’t was not easy.
Until 2009, his team operated without an office in Paris, brought everything – scissors, needles, thread – from Korea and worked in hotel rooms. On several occasions, she was rejected by showrooms who would not take a chance with a Korean designer. One of the most humbling experiences, she said, was during a meeting with a showroom where the owners talked about her in French – “Korea? Do you know where is it? Are Koreans doing fashion now? — as if she didn’t understand.
“I held on until the end of the meeting and cried and cried after,” she said. “But I showed there, I did well there and left on my own accord, as I had promised myself.”
Korean men shine
Over the past decade, there has been a shift in the way people talk about Korean fashion, and menswear in particular.
South Korean luxury market has exploded and now ranks seventh in the world, according to Euromonitor, a market research company. Sales of men’s skincare products alone increased by 44% between 2011 and 2017. And, of course, as Korean men invest more time and money in fashion, the world sees it. more and more.
“It’s not like one thing happened after another,” Woo said. “It’s that all of these factors interacted with each other.” Then she added, “That was me too.”
Wooyoungmi now has 44 stores in Asia, Europe, North America and Australia. Woo has expanded into jewelry, accessories, and women’s apparel. Last year, she collaborated with Samsung on limited edition Wearable Wooyoungmi items. According to data from Korea’s Financial Supervisory Service, Solid Corp. earned 548 billion won ($46 million at the time) in 2020, up 20% from two years earlier.
“Wooyoungmi has elevated the perception of Korean fashion overseas by proving it can be done,” said Nam of Ssense. “A Korean designer could be a regular at Paris Fashion Week. A Korean brand could be sold in luxury department stores.
Woo, she added, “paved the way for the future designers come.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.