Just across the street from Zaha Hadid’s futuristic Dongdaemun building in Seoul — where Seoul Fashion Week Spring 2017 took place last week — one can walk into any number of the surrounding malls, markets, and shops to find fake furry Gucci slides, knockoff Vetements hoodies, and imitation Off-White striped shirts. These are not your average Canal Street tchotchkes, however. Even international editors, who’ve been flocking in higher numbers to the South Korean capital each season since the founding of this fashion week in 2011, find it difficult to distinguish the difference between authentic luxury items and these meticulously-crafted fakes.
And in Seoul, not only does knockoff culture pervade the streets and back rooms of malls — references to hot brands like Gucci, Valentino, Prada, Balenciaga, Jacquemus, Off-White, Hood by Air, and Vetements made their way onto the runways as well.
Ruffled off-the-shoulder tops, XL hoodies and button-downs, corsets, patched denim and all the season's biggest trends were immediately reinterpreted and reproduced at a stunning speed. Vetements also opened the week with an exclusive pop-up collection called "Official Fake," which was a tongue-and-cheek counter to the rampant reproduction of their items in South Korea.
Of course, there are also many outstanding original designers coming out of Seoul as well. Blindness by Kyu-Yong Shin was a unanimous favorite among buyers, as was Pushbutton, which is a K-Pop go-to; D'Gnak, which gives traditional South Korean garb a modern update; Münn, who worked so hard on his collection that he passed out the day before the show; and 99%is by Bajowoo, who could be called the "Kanye West of Seoul Fashion Week."
The menswear designers, in particular, had the strongest showings, as they don't feel as much pressure to be commercially mainstream and can afford to be more experimental. There were also an overwhelming number of shows influenced by grunge and urban style, with a plethora of all-black and sweats on the runway and on street style stars as well.
As for the rest, it’s easy for the fashion world to turn up its nose at the designers who blatantly copy, plagiarize or simply derive their designs from better known names. But the creativity, sincerity, and excitement that South Korean designers displayed this season begged the question: Is overt influence a such bad thing? Perhaps not. It's also becoming increasingly clear that as the global fashion market expands and more and more designers start to look like one another, individuality is the most valuable currency.
“I never use the word ‘knockoff’,” said Jung Kuho, the executive creative director of Seoul Fashion Week and the man responsible for bringing South Korean designers to the masses. “It’s always a ‘reference.’’ A former designer himself, Kuho spends the rest of the year traveling to other fashion weeks, and is very aware of the references being made back in his home country. But he would also argue that established and revered designers in London, Paris, New York, and Milan copy each other as well. “Now, every brand is referencing Gucci,” he said as a recent example.
“If a collection is strong, the designers have to be influenced by it," said Kuho. "People who make influence are great designers. People who interpret that influence can also be great." In other words, reinterpretation takes skill so that it's more pastiche than replica.
From my seat in the front row, seeing so many familiar looks walk down the runway was jarring, but then the pros of fashion influence began to sink in. Never in my life have I felt more of an itch to go shopping. When you see a $1,000 Vetements hoodie walk down the runway, you think: 'That will look nice on a model. Or a street style star. Or a celebrity.' But when you see the knockoff of a Vetements hoodie walk down the runway, you immediately go on your phone and look up where the designer's nearest store is.
That being said, there are also obvious cons to copying. It minimizes both the monetary and emotional value of luxury merchandise, but one could argue big brands don't really need to worry about this. On a logistical level, however, if brands are copying trends each season, they lack consistency and a recognizable stamp. Why would customers keep coming back? And most importantly: As fashion weeks become more prominent around the world, if brands believe that the key to success is to copy one another, soon we'll live in an Orwellian world where everything looks like same, more so than it already does.
In Seoul, not only are fashion knockoffs everywhere, but plastic surgery is a national obsession, with a huge portion of the population undergoing eye and nose lifts to make them look more European. Similarly, K-Pop is inspired by American pop and even many of the buildings look like they could exist anywhere in the world. This is all because Seoul is still in its infancy as an independent, globalized city. Korea was occupied by Japan for 35 years and during the Korean War, it's estimated that 191,000 buildings, 55,000 houses, and 1,000 factories were either razed or toppled in Seoul, making much of the city either recently constructed or a reproduction of what once was. For this reason, the desire to be new, young, and hip runs much deeper than fashion week — South Korea itself is in the midst of a makeover from head to toe. Soon though, the rest of the world might start copying South Korea.
If you have any doubt about the burgeoning nature of Seoul Fashion Week, look no further than the impeccably-dressed toddlers at all the shows. "Now, young people are trying to explore their character and identity," said Kuho of the youth culture trend on the runways this season. (There were even a number of garments that had the phrase embroidered on them.) He went on to explain how the designers in Seoul are some of the youngest in the world — around ten to twenty years younger, in fact.
As a mentor to these young designers, Kuho encourages them to compete with a global market and be inspired by what other designers are doing, but also reminds them that to truly succeed, they need to present their own unique vision. "Identity comes first," he said. "The collection will be good if the designer has an identity. You have to stand out; and then the rest will follow."
In the end, for fashion week to succeed we need designers from cities like Seoul, Tokyo, Moscow, Kiev, and Tbilisi to become global players as well. But it's unfair to expect them to expect them to be different by representing where they come from. In other words, we don't ask Parisian designers to make clothes that look "French," so we shouldn't ask South Korean designers to reinterpret traditional dress. We also shouldn't chastise them for taking inspiration from Europe and the West, since they're only proliferating the ideas we ourselves promote. Instead, we should be looking at brands like Blindness, 99%is-, Pushbutton, and Münn and giving them the attention they need to bring South Korean fashion — whatever that may look like — to the masses.
At the Seoul Fashion Week closing event on Saturday evening, editors from around the world gathered to listen to a South Korean rock band slay on traditional instruments like the gayageum. Following the performance, awards were given to the top ten designers, all of whom accepted their awards with a humility and hunger that you won't find anywhere else in the world.
"I will take this as the encouragement to be better next season," said Pushbutton's designer Seung Gun Park. And with that, Kuho asked everyone to raise their glasses to the future.