Seoul Fashion Week — Magic Kingdom Dresses Reign Supreme

Seoul Fashion Week has come to a close, and it has taken no time at all for the media and blogosphere to lay down commentary and critique. As expected, there are as many opinions as there are writers. But, what surprised me was Michael Hurt’s October 29th Korean Herald article, in which he writes of being harassed and obstructed by Fashion Week organizers who plainly preferred “foreign press”, or more precisely, anyone who didn’t appear “Korean”. In a blog posting follow up at Korea Sparkles, he details the experience of being treated like a second class citizen, amidst and by his fellow Koreans:

it seems that the fashion folks got way too big for their britches before-the-fact, along with being so obsessed with the “overseas press” that they quite nearly gave the domestic press a slap in the face. If you’ve got an honored guest for dinner, sure — give him a bit more food, pour her an extra glass of wine; but don’t start sneering at me and taking my food off my plate.

It’s sad to hear that the domestic press was treated so poorly. I was part of the international VIP/reporter contingent that had more than enough food on his plate, too much food even — I do now feel quite guilty — and I happened to bring a Korean friend with me to one of the shows. Unfortunately, she was treated with disdain similar to that which Michael reported of his own experience. At the very same moment she was being harassed and blockaded from entry, I was whisked to the VIP section, as if my white skin was itself evidence of VIP status.

But, I would suggest that what happened at Fashion Week did not start with the shortcomings of producers or designers or even politicians. It was a much larger failure — the failure of national imagination, the imagination to see Korea, and more specifically Koreans, as offering not something better or worse but something multi-layered and different—something complex, requiring understanding more than judgment. But in Korea, it seems too often that to be a “different” Korean is to be no Korean at all.

The Korean narrative is one of black and white. The lines are simple and clear–certain things are Korean, certain people are Korean, certain habits and behaviors and norms are Korean, and others are not. The entire narrative sells the lie that Koreans are one people. But it’s a myth. Koreans are not ONE people. Despite the strongest of conformity-inducing social norms, Koreans are (closeted or openly) fluent in other tongues, born to foreign parents, perfectly happy with American beef, and, I dare say it, homosexuals, alcoholics and homeless. The idea that Koreans are ONE people is an outrageous fallacy, matched in its fantastic departure from reality only by the PRC’s claim to ONE China. The difference is that ONE China (including Taiwan and Tibet) serves the purposes of Beijing pretty well, while Korea is none too better off for its compulsory, uniform bliss.

There is a chaos and diversity to Korea that one feels nowhere more than in Seoul. But at Fashion Week’s SETEC, sterility won out over style. Gee Choon Hee’s Pearl Harbor fantasy land was saccharine, cutesy and trite—exactly the qualities international journalists didn’t come to see swaying down the runway before them. But it’s not just Gee Choon Hee whom I fault – it’s the totalizing narrative from which she drew, the narrative that says uniformly: Korean women are cute, Korean women are delicate, Korean women are waiting for their man to come home after performing their duty—the same narrative that chides physical imperfection as something “un-Korean”, something that really ought to be “repaired” through plastic surgery, the same narrative that fuels the cupcake girl look-a-likes who stroll around Appujeong as Barbie-dolls-made-real. Myung Rye drew from the very same narrative, producing Cinderella ball gowns that matched Hee’s “Pearl Harbor” with an ante of “Disney”. But Seoul is not the Magic Kingdom, and internationals didn’t need to cross the globe to see period dresses from a screen play shot at Versailles.

On the other hand, alternative venues, like Daily Projects, were a hit precisely because they captured a genuine sense of difference. They reflected a multi-vocal narrative that more truly reflects what it means to be Korean—heterogeneous, diverse, imperfect—like everyone else.

Next Generation designer, Hyusoon Joo, is a case in point. Her Paul&Alice line weaves an unlikely tapestry of color against otherwise fairly ordinary monochromatic basics. It’s an experiment, and it feels unfinished, as if perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad had she placed that splash of color somewhere else, perhaps moving it from the lapel of a jacket to a stripe down the sleeve. You really couldn’t fault her either way, for her pieces speak with a sense of freedom–freedom to color outside the lines, to try something and get away with it, to be different–not as a search for the “real” Paul&Alice but as an expression of the many Paul&Alice’s that are and will be.

Look, Korea, you’ve shown the world that you’re good enough, and we’re pretty much convinced. We want your phones, your televisions and your cars—and we’d eat up your clothes too, if only you wouldn’t sell us the whitewashed dream of a perfect life. Unlike the Korean home goods store, “My Life is Perfect”, my life is not perfect, and I’m pretty sure no one’s is. So, put the brakes on fantasy shows and give us some real fashion. We want to see your experiments, your triumphs and your scars.

I reckon you could even get some of us internationals to sit in the back, the way we do everywhere else.

2 responses to “Seoul Fashion Week — Magic Kingdom Dresses Reign Supreme

  1. This post perfectly expresses the gap between what Korea IS, and how Korea wants to be seen by others; a gap that is constantly causing trouble for Korean promotion and even Korean companies abroad (the little I know about Hyundai America’s upper management turmoil seems to stem from this same problem, for example).

  2. hear! hear! Well said by the original writer and by roboseyo.

    This was my favorite part:
    “The Korean narrative is one of black and white. The lines are simple and clear–certain things are Korean, certain people are Korean, certain habits and behaviors and norms are Korean, and others are not.”

    In line with that, sometimes when I meet a new Korean, I can sense him trying to fit me into a box in the beginning stages of our conversation. (Some Koreans are great pigeonholers.) The emphasis in his conversation is on differences rather than similarities: “Wow, you use chopsticks very well,” and “When are you going to go back to your country?,” and “Why are you learning Korean?” are signs that things aren’t going to go well.

    Re: Korean promotions. I am to the point where I just tune out the following words, which are “ubiquitous” (which means “cliched” and “unimaginative”):
    foreign / foreigner

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