Her clothes are worn like stars Lee Jung-jae of “Squid Game”. Choi Woo-shik of “Parasite” and members K-pop sensation BTS. But when South Korean fashion designer Woo Young-mi made her international debut in 2002, few believed high-end fashion could come out of a country known for its war-torn history.
Woo, or Madame Woo, as she is often called, is arguably one of the most successful Korean designers. He Solid Corp. is the chief executive of, a company that controls two successful labels: Solid Homme and Wooyoungmi. She became the first Korean member of the French Federation of Fashion in 2011, and her Wooyoungmi line is now a staple at luxury retailers such as Le Bon Marché, Selfridges and Ssense.
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Woo has lived in Paris for nearly 20 years, and has had front-row seats to South Korea’s rise as a cultural juggernaut. It’s a phenomenon that she has contributed to and benefited from throughout her career, she said.
Born in 1959, Wu grew up in 1959 Seoul During the period of rapid economic growth following the end of the Korean War. She said, ‘The national slogan was ‘hard work and living well’. “Caring for fashion was seen as a social evil, especially for men.”
But Wu had an unconventional upbringing that gave him a natural attraction to art. His mother, an art teacher, dressed him and his four siblings in unique, homemade clothes that set them apart at school. His father was an architect who occasionally worked with American soldiers, collecting rare items and investing in his appearance. Among his possessions, he recalled, were pieces of Bauhaus furniture, European fashion magazines and the long leather coat worn by Clint Eastwood.
“At that time, 95% Dressed in men’s clothes Same,” she said. “Dads used to wear suits and uniforms in their offices and factories, but my father spent 80% of his passion on looking good,” she says, explaining why she eventually pursued menswear design and was often inspired by art and architecture.
“Honestly, I was embarrassed by it all — the way our house was decorated, the clothes I had to wear — but looking back on it now, I think my father was a very creative, very good person,” she said.
Despite her background, she never thought of becoming a fashion designer because, she said, “there were no such words as ‘fashion designer’ in Korea back then.” He failed to pass the law school entrance exam, which he called “luck”.
Osaka and beyond
Wu said she had a “momentary illusion of talent” in her fashion courses at Sungkyunkwan University, but it wasn’t until she was invited to compete in 1983. Osaka She has started dreaming big in fashion collection.
Hyunji Nam, chief editor of Korean content at Sense, said that when it came to fashion, Japan and South Korea were on very different playing fields at the time. “By the late 1980s, Japanese fashion “He is known abroad because of his work with names like Yoji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake,” she said. “But South Korea had no national power to support fashion inside or outside the country, and most designers, no matter how talented they were, had few opportunities to show their work in or outside of Korea.”
The trip to Osaka was Woo’s first trip abroad, and she was in awe not only as a competitor but also as a Korean among a host of nations with more established fashion histories. She remembered the other countries that had come in the group – a coalition of people from Europe, Hong Kong, Singapore – and she was the only Korean. She lay awake the night before the competition, needles trembling in her hand as she completed her minimal take on a hanbok (traditional Korean dress). She was surprised when she received the award.
“In Korea, no one cared that there was a competition, and no one cared that a Korean managed to win, but it made me think big about fashion,” she said.
Woo bounced around a bit Korean fashion Before starting his first business in 1998, a small boutique in Seoul, organized with his younger sister, Jang-He. “She was the one who always told me I could do it, when I thought I couldn’t,” Wu said of his lifelong business partner, who died in 2015.
They called their ready-to-wear menswear label Solid Homme and described it as clothing for their ideal man. “I imagined him to be on the straight and narrow, a nice guy that a lot of girls would want to marry,” Wu said. The results were clean-cut, minimal looks that many described as metrosexual.
Wu said the label hit the market at the right time: just before the summer of 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Foreign tourists and Olympic participants were flooding into the capital, and Koreans were becoming more open-minded about what non-Koreans looked like and the diversity of styles, she said.
In particular, Solid Home caught the eye of two groups of trendsetters. The first was called Oranji-jok (Orange Tribe), a group of wealthy teenagers and 20-somethings, mostly from Seoul’s Gangnam district. They had traveled abroad and were interested in fashion along the western coast.
Second were the first ballad singers of Korean music, such as Lee Moon-sae, Lee Seung-chul and Yoon Sang, who often woman the audience. Solid Homme grew through word of mouth and celebrity exposure.
“Solid Home and Wooyoungmi have been brands for male Korean celebrities for as long as I can remember,” said Jiana Hwang, stylist to clients such as Lee Jung-jae, Eric Nam and Song Kang. “It’s not easy for a menswear company to achieve this kind of soft yet elegant look from both these brands. Her clothes are a bit big, as is the trend these days, but overall, they have a wonderful fit, which is the most important thing if you are. Men who wear clothes.“
Today, with many Korean celebrities traveling overseas for fashion shoots, there is growing talk about adding hints of Korean style to outfits. “There are many worthwhile Korean brands these days, but neither Solid Homme nor Wuyongmi are the only Korean brands,” Hwang said. Woo, he added, “is a great designer who can only be Korean.”
Lessons in French Baking
Fourteen years after the success of Solid Home, Woo said it wasn’t enough that she was doing well in Korea. She wanted to create a luxury brand for a more sophisticated and sensitive adult, not afraid to be vulnerable. And despite friends and acquaintances expressing concern, she wanted to do it Paris, the fashion capital of the world.
“They told me I was crazy,” she said. “At first, they said I couldn’t do it because I’m Korean. Then they said it would all be impossible because I’m a woman.
Others suggested that if she wanted to appeal to Europeans, she should play up the Korean-ness of her label and create more Asian-looking clothes. “They said it was like trying to sell croissants in Paris,” Wu said.
“If you want to make it Korean, you have to sell tteok,” she said, referring to Korean rice cakes. “You have to make something that doesn’t already exist. But what could I do? I wanted to make it croissants.”
The French fashion scene really turned into an invitation for her. At Paris Fashion Week, Wooyoungmi’s show time slot was rescheduled several times — even after invitations were sent out — and the models she hired were scouted by other designers, she said. The collection finally debuted at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, after the biggest fashion week parties, to fewer than 150 guests. If it hadn’t been for a positive review in Le Figaro, she said, she might have given up altogether.
Believing that a seat at the table at Paris Fashion Week was the only thing that would secure the label’s future, Wu pledged to become a full member of the French Federation of Fashion, but the road there was not easy.
Until 2009, his team operated without an office in Paris, brought everything from Korea – scissors, needles, thread – and worked from a hotel room. On several occasions, she was turned down by showrooms that didn’t take a chance on a Korean designer. One of the most humiliating experiences, she said, was at a meeting with a showroom where the owners spoke about her in French – “Korea? Do you know where that is? Are Koreans doing fashion now?” – As if he couldn’t understand.
“I held it together until the meeting was over cried and cried Later,” she said. “But I showed up there, did well there and left on my own accord as I promised myself I would.”
Korean men glow up
The last decade has seen a shift in the way Korean fashion is talked about, and men’s fashion in particular.
South Korean The luxury market boomed and is now the seventh largest in the world, according to market research firm Euromonitor. Between 2011 and 2017 sales of men’s skin care products alone grew by 44%. And, of course, as Korean men invest more time and money into fashion, the world is seeing more of them.
“It’s not like it’s one thing after another,” Wu said. “It’s that all these factors have interacted with each other.” Then she added, “It was me too.”
Wooyoungmi now has 44 stores in Asia, Europe, North America and Australia. Woo has expanded into jewelry, accessories and women’s clothing. Last year, he collaborated with Samsung on limited editions of wearable Wooyoungmi items. According to data from Korea’s Financial Supervisory Service, Solid Corporation earned 548 billion won ($46 million at the time) in 2020, up 20% from two years ago.
“Wuyongmi raised the perception of Korean fashion abroad by proving that it can be done,” said Nam of Sens. “A Korean designer can be a regular at Paris Fashion Week. Korean brands can be sold in luxury department stores.”
Wu, he added, “paved the way for the future Designers to come.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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