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The Mother of South Korean Men’s Wear Rides the K-Wave

Her clothes are worn by stars like Lee Jung-Jae of “Squid Video games,” Choi Woo-Shik of “Parasite” and members of the Okay-pop sensation BTS. However when the South Korean dressmaker Woo Younger-mi made her worldwide debut in 2002, few individuals believed high-end vogue may come out of a rustic recognized for its war-torn historical past.

Ms. Woo, or Madame Woo, as she’s typically referred to as, is arguably one of the vital profitable Korean designers. She is the chief govt of the Stable Company, an organization that controls two profitable labels: Stable Homme and Wooyoungmi. She turned the primary Korean member of the French Federation of Trend in 2011, and her Wooyoungmi line is now a staple at luxurious retailers like Le Bon Marché, Selfridges and Ssense.

Ms. Woo has lived on and off in Paris for about 20 years, and has had entrance row seats to South Korea’s emergence as a cultural juggernaut. It’s a phenomenon that she has contributed to and benefited from all through her profession, she stated.

Born in 1959, Ms. Woo grew up in Seoul throughout a time of speedy financial improvement that adopted the tip of the Korean Struggle. “The nationwide motto was ‘work exhausting and dwell effectively,’” she stated. “Caring about vogue was seen as a social evil, particularly for males.”

However Ms. Woo had an unconventional upbringing that gave her a pure affinity for the humanities. Her mom, an artwork instructor, dressed her and her 4 siblings in distinctive, home made garments that made them stand out at college. Her father was an architect with solely occasional work who socialized with American troopers, collected uncommon objects and invested in his look. Amongst his possessions, she recalled, had been items of Bauhaus furnishings, European vogue magazines and an extended, leather-based coat paying homage to one Clint Eastwood may need worn.

“At the moment, 95 p.c of males dressed the identical,” she stated. “Fathers wore fits and uniforms to their places of work and factories, however my dad spent 80 p.c of his ardour on trying good,” she stated, citing him as the explanation she ultimately pursued males’s put on design and is commonly impressed by artwork and structure.

“Truthfully, I felt ashamed by all of it — the best way our home was embellished, the garments I needed to put on — however trying again on it now, I feel my father was a really inventive, very cool individual,” she stated.

Regardless of her background, she by no means considered being a dressmaker as a result of, she stated, “phrases like ‘dressmaker’ didn’t exist in Korea then.” She did not go an examination for entry to regulation faculty, which she referred to as “destiny.”

Ms. Woo stated she had “momentary illusions of genius” all through her vogue programs at Sungkyunkwan College, but it surely wasn’t till she was invited to compete on the 1983 Osaka Trend Assortment that she began to dream huge.

Hyunji Nam, the lead editor of Korean content material at Ssense, stated that when it got here vogue, Japan and South Korea had been on very completely different taking part in fields on the time. “By the tip of the Nineteen Eighties, Japanese vogue was already changing into acknowledged overseas due to the work of names like Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake,” she stated. “However South Korea didn’t have the nationwide energy to assist vogue in or exterior of the nation, and most designers, no matter how proficient they had been, had few alternatives to indicate their work in or exterior of Korea.”

The journey to Osaka was Ms. Woo’s first overseas, and she or he was intimidated, not solely as a competitor but additionally as a Korean amongst a number of countries with extra established vogue histories. She remembered the opposite international locations coming in teams — coalitions of individuals from Europe, Hong Kong, Singapore — and she or he, a lone Korean. She stayed up the night time earlier than the competitors, a needle trembling in her fingers as she accomplished her minimalist tackle hanbok (conventional Korean gown). She was surprised when she was awarded the prize.

“In Korea, nobody cared that such a contest existed, and nobody cared {that a} Korean was capable of win, but it surely impressed me to assume huge about vogue,” she stated.

Ms. Woo bounced round a couple of Korean vogue conglomerates earlier than beginning her first enterprise in 1998, a small boutique in Seoul, along with her youthful sister, Jang-Hee. “She was the one who at all times informed me I may do it, once I felt like I couldn’t,” Ms. Woo stated about her lifelong enterprise associate, who died in 2015.

They referred to as the ready-to-wear males’s put on label Stable Homme and described it as garments for his or her ideally suited man. “I imagined him to be straight and slender, the kind of good man most women would need to marry,” Ms. Woo stated. The outcomes had been clean-cut, minimal appears to be like that many on the time described as metrosexual.

Ms. Woo stated the label hit the market on the proper time: simply forward of the 1988 Summer season Olympics in Seoul. Overseas vacationers and Olympics attendees had been flooding the capital, and Koreans had been changing into all for how non-Koreans appeared and changing into extra open-minded a couple of range of types, she stated.

Particularly, Stable Homme caught the attention of two teams of trendsetters. The primary had been referred to as Orenji-jok (Orange tribe), a gaggle of rich youngsters and 20-somethings, typically from the Gangnam district in Seoul. That they had traveled overseas and had been all for vogue with a Western edge.

The second had been Korean music’s first ballad singers, like Lee Moon-sae, Lee Seung-Chul and Yoon Sang, who catered to largely feminine audiences. Stable Homme grew through phrase of mouth and celeb publicity.

“Stable Homme and Wooyoungmi have been go-to manufacturers for male Korean celebrities for so long as I can keep in mind,” stated Gianna Hwang, a stylist for shoppers like Lee Jung-Jae, Eric Nam and Tune Kang. “It’s not simple for a males’s put on firm to attain this type of gentle however lovely look that each these manufacturers possess. Her garments are barely oversize, as per the pattern these days, however total, they’ve a tremendous match, which is an important factor for those who’re dressing males.”

Immediately, with extra Korean celebrities touring abroad for vogue shoots, there’s a rising dialog about including hints of Korean type to outfits. “There are a number of worthwhile Korean manufacturers these days, however neither Stable Homme or Wooyoungmi are simply Korean manufacturers,” Ms. Hwang stated. Ms. Woo, she added, is “a fantastic designer who solely occurs to be Korean.”

Fourteen years into Stable Homme’s success, Ms. Woo stated it wasn’t sufficient that she was doing effectively in Korea. She needed to create a luxurious model for a extra refined and delicate grownup, unafraid to be susceptible. And regardless of mates and acquaintances expressing concern, she needed to do it in Paris, the style capital of the world.

“They informed me I used to be loopy,” she stated. “First, they stated I couldn’t do it as a result of I’m Korean. Then they stated it’d be all of the extra unimaginable as a result of I used to be a girl.”

Others instructed that if she needed to enchantment to Europeans, she ought to play up her label’s Korean-ness and make garments that appeared extra visibly Asian. “They stated it was like making an attempt to promote croissants in Paris,” Ms. Woo stated.

“If you wish to make it as a Korean, it’s a must to promote tteok,” she stated, referring to Korean rice desserts. “It’s a must to make one thing they don’t have already got. However what may I do? I needed to make croissants.”

The French vogue scene did certainly turn into uninviting to her. At Paris Trend Week, Wooyoungmi’s present time slot was rescheduled a number of instances — even after invites had been despatched — and fashions she had employed had been scouted by different designers, she stated. The gathering lastly debuted on a Sunday at 10:30 a.m., the morning after the largest Trend Week events, to fewer than 150 visitors. Had been it not for one constructive evaluate in Le Figaro, she stated, she may need given up altogether.

Ms. Woo vowed to change into a full member of the French Federation of Trend, believing a seat on the desk was the one technique to safe the label’s future at Paris Trend Week, however the path there wasn’t simple.

Till 2009, her staff operated with out an workplace in Paris, introduced every part — scissors, needles, thread — from Korea and labored out of resort rooms. On a number of events, she was rejected by showrooms that wouldn’t take an opportunity on a Korean designer. Some of the humiliating experiences, she stated, was at a gathering with a showroom by which the house owners spoke over her in French — “Korea? Have you learnt the place that’s? Are Koreans doing vogue now?” — as if she couldn’t perceive.

“I held it collectively till the assembly was over and cried and cried afterward,” she stated. “However I confirmed there, did effectively there and left alone accord identical to I promised myself I’d.”

Within the final decade there was a shift in how Korean vogue, and males’s vogue specifically, is talked about.

The South Korean luxurious market boomed and now ranks the seventh largest on the planet, based on Euromonitor, a market analysis agency. Gross sales of males’s skin-care merchandise alone elevated 44 p.c between 2011 and 2017. And, in fact, as Korean males make investments extra money and time on vogue, the world is seeing extra of them.

“It’s not like one factor occurred after one other,” Ms. Woo stated. “It’s that each one these components interacted with each other.” Then she added, “It was additionally me.”

Wooyoungmi now has 44 shops throughout Asia, Europe, North America and Australia. Ms. Woo has expanded into jewellery, equipment and ladies’s put on. Final 12 months, she collaborated with Samsung on restricted editions of Wearable Wooyoungmi objects. In line with information by Korea’s Monetary Supervisory Service, the Stable Company earned 548 billion gained ($46 million on the time) in 2020, up 20 p.c from two years earlier.

“Wooyoungmi elevated the notion of Korean vogue abroad by proving it might be performed,” Ms. Nam, of Ssense, stated. “A Korean designer might be a daily at Paris Trend Week. A Korean model might be bought at luxurious malls.”

Ms. Woo, she added, “paved the best way for future designers to return.”

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