In the past decade, Korea witnessed a boom, both economically and culturally, thanks to the “Hallyu wave,” which consists of everything from the estimated $13 billion K-beauty market, the appeal of K-pop idols and global attention to the nation’s film industry. Fashion’s role in this, though, has been a slower burn.
While you’ll most likely recognize a few brands from popular dramas, your favorite Korean celebrities or Seoul Fashion Week street style, many of Korea’s top designers are looking to cement themselves in the global market. On the cusp of international recognition, they’re pushing to advance K-fashion beyond the guise of the pop-culture craze.
According to Kaimin — the designer behind the brand of the same name, which has been worn by the likes of Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and Björk — the growing popularity of the Korean music industry has been integral not just to bringing attention to the country’s fashion scene, but also to inspiring creatives on the ground.
“Musicians and other trendsetters have been dictating what’s fashionable and driving change from the top down and, while that may seem like a recipe for convergence, I think it has actually spread self-confidence and this broad expression of individuality that you see among the younger generation today, which is fabulous,” says Kaimin.
But other designers are looking to go beyond that pop-culture mold. “Until now, Korea has been sticking to the ‘existing fashion powerhouse,’ but I think it would be better to approach it in the way that Korean designers exceed even more,” The Studio K’s Hye-Jin Hong tells Fashionista. “Looking at successful cases such as ‘Squid Games’ and BTS, I think brands should strive to [overcome this method] and cement our identities into the world.”
Ahead, meet seven rising brands that are doing just that.
Hea-Won Park had an affinity for clothes from a young age, which grew into an admiration for design, colors and textures that eventually lead her to found Blossom in 2016.
“I made [Blossom] for myself, but I also wanted to show it to others,” she says. “There are real main characters who sharpen and polish their own weapons — I wanted to be their supporter.”
The Seoul-based womenswear label makes ready-to-wear staples that are irresistible, sleek and even daring: oversized blazers and matching voluminous trousers, smart knitwear, boxy T-shirts, and flow-y silk blouses.
“I tend to pay a lot of attention to the quality [of our clothes] so that people can wear them for a long time,” Park says. “The fabric and color are carefully determined, and the quality is always discussed with the companies we work with, that have been in the industry for a long time. The design also is prioritized to be timeless rather than following a certain trend.”
Blossom’s been touched by the Hallyu Wave: It’s been featured on popular Korean shows like “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” and worn by celebs like singer Krystal Jung. Park argues that a healthy consumption of Korean culture — one filled with positive energy — will be vital to the industry’s success.
“Blossom gets a lot of compliments from those markets, and sometimes those shops buy our products,” she says. “The number of orders from individual customers has also increased a lot, too. I’m always thankful for that love.”
Through its pieces that can be worn by anyone at any time, Park ultimately wants to bond with the customer through Blossom.
“In a way, my clothes are my alter ego, and the people who wear them become friends with me,” she says.
Before becoming the CEO and director of Clove, Ju-Hyun Juen worked on the promotional team of a fashion brand for eight years. She’d think about changing jobs, but it wasn’t until she started learning how to play golf and tennis that the idea for her clothing brand came to be.
While searching for the right uniform — before people even coined the words golfcore and tenniscore — Juen had a difficult time finding pieces that fit her needs, budget and style.
“There were only expensive and ultra-fancy brands at the time,” she says. “The collections often had colorful details that I personally believed weren’t as versatile to wear in my daily life… I started with some core items according to my needs.”
That exercise birthed the recipe for what became Clove’s signature sporty look: chunky cable knits, cozy fleece pullovers, loose-fitted bottoms, embroidered fitted caps. It’s meant to fit into your wardrobe, whether you’re athletic or not.
“The reason why I chose our Instagram name as a ‘Clove Club’ and not just the brand name is that I wanted to create an online space where people can just enjoy this sort of lifestyle through our clothes,” she says.
Juen is confident that Korean fashion brands will continue to become more recognized in the future. But for now, she’s happy where things are headed.
“[The industry] is changing a lot to the point that when I meet people on work trips abroad, they know how to say ‘hello’ in Korean because they like K-Pop singers,” she syas. “I think [the Hallyu wave] helps to promote Korean brands in other countries, and I’m proud to see many of them doing well overseas. It makes me want to keep up with them.”
Hye-Mee Lee loves word play: Eenk, the name of her brand, plays on the word “ink” in English, and was inspired by watching her father work in the printing press.
In the age of fast fashion and endless trend cycles, Eenk aims to bring refreshing pieces that customers can always have in their personal archives — anything from fuzzy colorful knits to vintage-inspired phone accessories. Lee’s love of language trickles into her designs, too: Eenk recently launched “The Letter Project,” which is series of styles around keywords designated for each letter of the alphabet, from A to Z. The brand has unveiled pieces for letters like B (for Beanie), C (for Clutch/Cap) and D (for Darling) – and so on. Once it hits Z, it’ll circle back to the very start to present a total collection titled A for All, A for Archive.
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Like many during the pandemic, Lee was scared and at times felt that fashion was useless in the face of disaster. She wanted to create something hopeful through Eenk — and so, “S for Somewhere” was born.
“Since we couldn’t travel during that time, I remember I wanted to create looks that people would want to wear to go out or travel in,” Lee says. “We touched on the theme that satisfies that fantasy.” It was the brand’s best-selling collection yet.
Seoul’s fashion industry — and the Asian clothing market in general — is growing rapidly, and Lee’s not afraid of that expansion. If not anything, she wants more of it.
“I really hope that K-fashion brands will become more popular in the global market because I don’t see much of them right now in the ‘world stage,'” she says. “I’m looking forward to this growth and the time for it to happen is right now, in this moment.”
Grounding its roots in Seoul, Expired Girl is a ready-to-wear brand inspired by memories from when designer Seohyun Lee was a teenager during the early 2000s.
“I wanted to mix the pop culture I’ve experienced during my school years and my interest in a variety of subcultures, and create a new mood,” Lee tells Fashionista. “The 2000s play a key role when planning for each season.”
Those nostalgic references translate to the silhouettes: Knit boleros, halter tops and pleated mini skirts are staples in the EP catalog. You’ll find a few punk-inspired tees in the mix, too. Its latest collection, “School Girl Goes Punk,” drew from the era’s rock culture, specifically, and utilized leftover fabric from the previous season to create pieces Lee thought a teenager obsessed with punk would wear.
Korea’s music landscape plays a huge role in the trend forecast, says Lee. “We wanted to give off a different mood from the existing K-fashion or the variety of styles of K-pop stars. Because Korean fashion trends are more conservative than in the west, some could think our clothes are more revealing than the existing trends,” she explains. “But with celebrities like Blackpink’s Jennie, Red Velvet’s Joy, and IU wearing our clothes, we were able to see the start of the Y2K fashion trends here in Korea.”
By Kaimin‘s own telling, the story of her namesake brand is a bit funny.
The Korean-Japanese designer created her very first capsule as an experiment, as part of a multi-sensory art project called Zero Zero Vol. 02, which she worked on alongside Nicola Formichetti, Miles Aldridge and Daniel Arsham’s Snarkitecture. Then, Beyoncé ended up wearing some of the pieces in her music video for “Grown Woman.” That gave her the confidence to create a full collection.
“Since then, I’ve been fortunate to work closely with many of my idols,” she says, listing off a few: Björk for her tour and an Art Basel Miami performance, Lady Gaga for various concerts and music videos, Nicki Minaj, Blackpink.
Kaimin’s design is rooted in a few core principles: innovation and technology; diversity and inclusivity; unrestricted creative community and cross-functional collaborations that reach far beyond fashion. Currently, she’s interested in the intersection of reality, VR/AR, digital art, 3-D printing and more.
“Fashion is directly influenced by the culture it originates in, and I love that every place on our planet has its own unique style,” she says. “I don’t really think about changing the Korean or any other fashion landscape.” What’s more important, she argues, is to simply share her creations with the world: “There’s plenty of room for all of us, and I love joining forces with local trendsetters to create something new and fun together!”
After working at Paris’ Studio Berçot and honing his skills at Balenciaga, Kim In-Te Kimhekim birthed his namesake brand, which is based in Seoul, in 2014.
Kimhekim draws inspiration from traditional Korean costumes (think Hanbok-style shapes), as well as Renaissance art motifs. While you can find wardrobe staples like turtlenecks, dress-shirts and trench coats, the brand is also rooted in sculpture and volume: oversized collars, larger-than-life ribbon bows, fluffy gowns — everyday items elevated through craftsmanship and surprising materials (like fake hair for Fall 2022 and upcycled denim for Spring 2023).
Over the years, Kim’s designs have been worn by the likes of Blackpink’s Rosé, Ho-Yeon Jung, Gigi Hadid and other renowned celebs. More recently, it’s landed on the new class of rising starlets — specifically NewJeans.
“I love their energy and their potential,” he says, noting that after the girl group wore Kimhekim pieces in a photo shoot, “we got a lot of attention from their fans. I’m looking forward to seeing how K-Pop continues to affect the fashion industry.”
The Studio K
Hye-Jin Hong didn’t always plan on starting a fashion brand. In fact, when she was young, her dream was to be a scientist.
“Even while attending art school, I always thought that science and design are basically similar,” the RISD alum says. “It’s all about making concrete ideas — verifying, modifying, learning, feeling and producing results in the process. I wanted to create a fashion brand that also thinks like a scientist.”
Ever since her first collection for The Studio K in 2009, she’s worked towards achieving a modern sensibility that marries design and technology by always looking towards the future (AR try-ons, holographic catwalks, parametric fabrication) and while remaining rooted in classic silhouettes, like sleek blazers, puffers and knits.
“From the beginning of the brand, various K-Pop stars like Girls’ Generation, CNBLUE, AOA and others have worn our designs for stage costumes and in music videos,” she says. “It would be good to think about ways to create synergy between Korean designers and K-pop stars.”
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