The artist Chul-hwa Kwon was in the middle of eating Korean-style pork one night when all of a sudden, his friend Yoo Ah-in, who is a successful actor, called him up and told him to hurry over. Ah-in isn’t one for such fanfare, so Kwon complied. When he got there, Ah-in told him his plan: They would quit their jobs and form a creative collective with their friends — like a K-Pop group, but for art and fashion.
Well, maybe not exactly like K-Pop stars. But Kwon felt Ah-in was onto something: “Why don’t we find a new, more enjoyable, better-paying job that allows us to use our talents in a more meaningful way?” he suggested, bringing Ah-in down to earth. This they could agree on.
“How do we create profit though,” Kwon asked. To which in Ah-in replied: “I’m not sure.”
With this seemingly simple goal and zero business experience, Kwon and Ah-in founded Studio Concrete in 2014 with the mission of “building a healthy support system for the future generations of creatives.” They asked their friends and peers to join them, including the photographer Kim Jaehoon, the artist Casper Kang, artist/designer Kwon Bada, and the director Haeyoung Cha — all of whom are in their mid-thirties and also quit their full-time jobs.
“The art industry in Seoul is very conservative,” said Ah-in last week in Seoul with the other Studio Concrete members, who were all dressed in their new orange jumpsuits. “The walls are so thick,” he continued. “Even though it seems that the ‘art’ is very free and liberal.” It’s for this reason that young people like themselves are looking for other ways to exist as creative beings in the Korean capital.
“It’s come to that point in our time, as the youth of today, when we have to assume our own roles in the form of art and creativity,” said Ah-in. “We’re trying to meet both our own desires as well as that of society.”
The Studio Concrete space is located in a remodeled old townhouse with a gallery and café on the first floor and a workshop on the second. Here, they host art exhibitions and display capsule collections by emerging Korean designers, many of whom are their friends and peers. To pay the bills, they also do creative consulting work for popular Korean brands like Lucky Chouette and Tom Paper.
Most recently, during Seoul Fashion Week the collective launched an in-house clothing brand called Aerospace — a name that reflects their desire to “escape the inertia of the taste and aesthetics of established brands.” The collection includes colorful sweat suits with the phrase “Handle with Care” written on them, which is a reference to baggage tags in airports and more specifically global travel. To celebrate, they threw a party in their headquarters during fashion week and filled it to the brim.
Despite there being six different personalities collaborating under Studio Concrete, they operate as one mind. “We’re really all on the same page,” said Kwon. They even describe themselves as being like Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. Or someone with 12 arms and legs.
“We don’t go by due-dates either,” said Cha. “If there’s something that would look better, then we choose to start all over again last minute instead of sticking to deadlines.” And they believe it’s this flexibility that has allowed them to stand out from other more established galleries.
Even though they have some negative feelings towards the art world in Seoul, the Studio Concrete members also have a lot of pride in their city, and hope that their work not only pushes boundaries, but also invigorates the Korean culture that’s existed for centuries.
“Living in Korea for so long, I feel as though Seoul is losing its identity a bit,” said Kang. “Even the buildings being built — instead of looking at architecture in the longterm, people are being very short-sighted. In about 10 years, they’ll all be out of style. Also, Korea got its fame from K-Pop, which isn’t even Korean; it’s more an interpretation of American pop music. And this makes me sad to see. So, I want to stay here and show that there’s more to Korea. Especially in terms of art, a lot of artist eventually leave.”
This “identity crisis” was apparent at Seoul Fashion Week as well, which took place last week. Instead of honing the stamps of their own brands, many young designers are racing to keep up with the trends that they see on European and American runways in order to appeal to a global consumer. The members of Studio Concrete are not out to criticize what they see happening in their own backyard though, rather as a group of young creatives, too, they sympathize and hope to offer an alternative path.
“We try to understand what ‘new’ really means,” said Ah-in. “It involves constant deconstruction of oneself, getting dissed, being complained about, and at the end of a project, instead of saying, ‘We are perfect,’ we say: ‘We are unstable, but we attempt new things and we experiment.’ And I think that’s the most beautiful thing about Studio Concrete.”