The Mom of South Korean Males’s Put on Rides the Okay-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 clothier Woo Younger-mi made her worldwide debut in 2002, few folks believed high-end trend may come out of a rustic recognized for its war-torn historical past.

Ms. Woo, or Madame Woo, as she’s typically known as, is arguably one of the profitable Korean designers. She is the chief govt of the Strong Company, an organization that controls two profitable labels: Strong Homme and Wooyoungmi. She grew to become 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 is a phenomenon that she has contributed to and benefited from all through her profession, she mentioned.

Born in 1959, Ms. Woo grew up in Seoul throughout a time of speedy financial improvement that adopted the tip of the Korean Battle. “The nationwide motto was ‘work arduous and reside nicely,’” she mentioned. “Caring about trend 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, selfmade 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 trend 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 mentioned. “Fathers wore fits and uniforms to their workplaces and factories, however my dad spent 80 p.c of his ardour on trying good,” she mentioned, citing him as the explanation she finally pursued males’s put on design and is usually impressed by artwork and structure.

“Truthfully, I felt ashamed by all of it — the way in which our home was adorned, 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 mentioned.

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

Ms. Woo mentioned she had “momentary illusions of genius” all through her trend 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, mentioned that when it got here trend, Japan and South Korea had been on very totally different taking part in fields on the time. “By the tip of the Nineteen Eighties, Japanese trend was already changing into acknowledged overseas due to the work of names like Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake,” she mentioned. “However South Korea did not have the nationwide energy to assist trend in or outdoors of the nation, and most designers, no matter how gifted they had been, had few alternatives to indicate their work in or outdoors of Korea.”

The journey to Osaka was Ms. Woo’s first overseas, and he or she was intimidated, not solely as a competitor but in addition as a Korean amongst a number of countries with extra established trend histories. She remembered the opposite nations coming in teams — coalitions of individuals from Europe, Hong Kong, Singapore — and he or she, a lone Korean. She stayed up the evening earlier than the competitors, a needle shaking in her fingers as she accomplished her minimalist tackle hanbok (conventional Korean costume). 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 in a position to win, but it surely impressed me to suppose huge about trend,” she mentioned.

Ms. Woo bounced round a number of Korean trend conglomerates earlier than beginning her first enterprise in 1998, a small boutique in Seoul, together with her youthful sister, Jang-Hee. “She was the one who all the time informed me I may do it, once I felt like I could not,” Ms. Woo mentioned about her lifelong enterprise companion, who died in 2015.

They known as the ready-to-wear males’s put on label Strong Homme and described it as garments for his or her supreme man. “I imagined him to be straight and slim, the form of good man most ladies would wish to marry,” Ms. Woo mentioned. The outcomes had been clean-cut, minimal seems to be that many on the time described as metrosexual.

Ms. Woo mentioned the label hit the market on the proper time: simply forward of the 1988 Summer time Olympics in Seoul. Overseas vacationers and Olympics Koreans had been flooding the capital, and had been changing into eager about Koreans appeared and changing into extra open-minded a few range of kinds, she mentioned.

Specifically, Strong Homme caught the attention of two teams of trendsetters. The primary had been known 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 eager about trend 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 principally feminine audiences. Strong Homme grew by way of phrase of mouth and superstar publicity.

“Strong Homme and Wooyoungmi have been go-to manufacturers for male Korean celebrities for so long as I can keep in mind,” mentioned Gianna Hwang, a stylist for purchasers like Lee Jung-Jae, Eric Nam and Track Kang. “It is not straightforward for a males’s put on firm to attain this sort of tender however lovely look that each these manufacturers possess. Her garments are barely outsized, as per the development these days, however general, they’ve a tremendous match, which is a very powerful factor should you’re dressing males.”

Immediately, with extra Korean celebrities touring abroad for trend 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 Strong Homme or Wooyoungmi are simply Korean manufacturers,” Ms. Hwang mentioned. Ms. Woo, she added, is “an important designer who solely occurs to be Korean.”

Fourteen years into Strong Homme’s success, Ms. Woo mentioned it wasn’t sufficient that she was doing nicely in Korea. She needed to create a luxurious model for a extra refined and delicate grownup, unafraid to be weak. And regardless of associates 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 mentioned. “First, they mentioned I could not do it as a result of I am Korean. Then they mentioned it would be all of the extra unattainable as a result of I used to be a girl.”

Others steered that if she needed to attraction to Europeans, she ought to play up her label’s Korean-ness and make garments that appeared extra visibly Asian. “They mentioned it was like attempting to promote croissants in Paris,” Ms. Woo mentioned.

“If you wish to make it as a Korean, you need to promote tteok,” she mentioned, referring to Korean rice desserts. “You need to make one thing they do not have already got. However what may I do? I needed to make croissants.”

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

Ms. Woo vowed to turn out to be a full member of the French Federation of Trend, believing a seat on the desk was the one strategy to safe the label’s future at Paris Trend Week, however the path there wasn’t straightforward.

Till 2009, her crew 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 would not take an opportunity on a Korean designer. One of the crucial humiliating experiences, she mentioned, was at a gathering with a showroom through which the homeowners spoke over her in French — “Korea? Have you learnt the place that’s? Are Koreans doing trend now?” — as if she couldn’t perceive.

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

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

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

“It is not like one factor occurred after one other,” Ms. Woo mentioned. “It is that each one these elements 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 girls’s put on. Final 12 months, she collaborated with Samsung on restricted editions of Wearable Wooyoungmi objects. In line with knowledge by Korea’s Monetary Supervisory Service, the Strong Company earned 548 billion received ($46 million on the time) in 2020, up 20 p.c from two years earlier.

“Wooyoungmi elevated the notion of Korean trend abroad by proving it could possibly be achieved,” Ms. Nam, of Sense, mentioned. “A Korean designer could possibly be an everyday at Paris Trend Week. A Korean model could possibly be bought at luxurious shops.”

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

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