When it comes to fashion, South Korea is one of the Asian countries that lead in setting trends both regionally and on the international stage. This can partly be attributed to the ever-growing popularity of stylish K-pop celebrities like G-Dragon, BTS and Jennie as well as the rise in the number of homegrown luxury fashion brands.
The prestigious Seoul Fashion Week, which is held twice every year, witnesses a gamut of established as well as up and coming designers both from home and abroad showcasing their latest designs. Many of these are labels that are incredibly famous count acclaimed icons such as Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Bae Doona as their patrons.
Here’s a look at some prominent luxury Korean fashion brands you might not have heard of but need to follow, stat.
Main and featured images: WE11DONE; Kye; Lie Sang Bong
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Founded in 2011 by Hankook Kim, the statement eyewear brand is a hit not just in South Korea but in other Asian countries, Middle East, Europe and America as well. Among some of the biggest names who have sported Gentle Monster are Rihanna, Billie Eilish, Tilda Swinton, Beyoncé and Jun Ji-hyun (also known as Gianna Jun).
The company is known to work with various artists and designers and has launched products in collaboration with the likes of Alexander Wang, Kris Wu and Jennie of Blackpink. In 2019, it partnered with Chinese technology company Huawei to create smart glasses that come with different voice features and touch controls.
The brand is also known for turning its stores into a cultural space. For instance, in 2016, Gentle Monster turned its New York City flagship store into an underwater experience, titled Grand Blue, for a few months. It took inspiration from the French film Le Grand Bleu for the installation created in collaboration with aquarium designer Justin Muir and glass sculptor Ivan Lee Mora.
Two years after graduating with an MA in Fashion (Menswear) from London’s Central Saint Martins in 2011, Kathleen Hanhee Kye’s brand made its debut at the Seoul Fashion Week. It was followed with a showcase at the 2014 New York Fashion Week and ever since the Korean-American and her brand have been at the top of their game in the fashion industry.
Known for its vivid, fresh and unisex designs, KYE outfits have been worn by the likes of Kourtney Kardashian and Rihanna among other Western celebrities. In Korea, the brand has helped launch the careers of models such as Bae Yoon-young and Jung Hoyeon.
Kye, who was a finalist for the LVMH Prize in 2014, counts K-pop idols G-Dragon and CL as her friends, who are often spotted in her designs. She has also collaborated with Gentle Monster, Adidas and Japanese cosmetic brand Shu Uemura.
The KYE Spring/Summer 2020 collection called Untamable is all about vibrant colours, over-the-top but refined silhouettes and a mix of details and textures. It also signifies the designer’s idea of breaking free of the norms set by society.
K-pop star G-Dragon’s sister Dami Kwon joined forces with her friend Jessica Jung to launch this high-end fashion brand in 2016. The name WE11DONE, which is pronounced “well done”, was inspired by the 11 team members of Kwon and Jung’s concept shop Rare Market with which the label began as an in-house line. Today, the streetwear label is globally renowned and has marked its presence at prestigious events such as the Paris Fashion Week in 2020.
Top global retailers such as Net-a-Porter and Saks host collections by WE11DONE. Its recent 2021 Spring/Summer collection boasts dresses for both men and women. Among them are polos and knit dresses in splendid towel-inspired fabrics of sun-bleached colour.
Kim Min-ju founded the eponymous label in 2015, two years after she won the H&M Design Award as a student. A graduate of Samsung Art and Design Institute (SADI) and the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Kim designed outfits for K-pop band BTS’ outfits for songs DNA and I Need U during their Love Yourself world tour. Fans of the brand, members of the band Red Velvet wore MINIJUKIM for their One of These Nights music video.
She made history in 2020 by winning Netflix‘s first reality fashion show, Next in Fashion. Her 10-piece, Frida Kahlo-inspired collection won her the prize money of US$250,000 and a chance to release MINJUKIM at Net-a-Porter. Her Spring/Summer 2020 collection is titled La Casa Azul, named after Kahlo’s house.
Kim’s dresses have been described as carrying an overarching element of joyfulness while combining bold silhouettes with feminine touches like ruffles. There are designs inspired by traditional Asian styles such as the Mandarin collar.
The name of the luxury brand comes from the German word “wunderkammer”, which means a cabinet of curious things. Founded in 2010 by designer Hye Young Shin, Wnderkammer has a huge collection of dresses underlined by their timeless appeal.
The designs are modern, minimalistic, simple and immediately wearable — akin to the brand’s description of its collection as “understated charisma”. She draws inspiration from performers such as ballet dancers. The womenswear brand is known for using natural and eco-friendly fabrics slike lyocell, silk and cotton for its products.
Its latest collection has its footing in Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany, and is inspired by the works of architects and industrial designers Le Corbusier, Florence Knoll and Joe Colombo. The designs are based on the themes of sustainability, reasonability and beauty.
Among celebrities, acclaimed actresses Doona and Park Jung-ah have been spotted in Wnderkammer creations.
Designer Goen Jong founded the fashion label in 2012 after her return from France, where she spent seven years and obtained a degree in fashion design from Paris’ prestigious Studio Berçot. A specialist in lingerie design, she is an expert in merging architectural silhouette with refined romanticism and finding a balance between delicate and structural patterns.
Soon after its launch, clothes by GOEN.J were in retail stores such as Harvey Nichols Hong Kong. In 2014, pieces by the label found space in all branches of Barneys New York and Milan’s Riccardo Grassi Showroom giving it a footing in the US and Europe. It has since been hosted by retailers such as Net-a-Porter, Selfridges, Bergdorf Goodman and Moda Operandi. In 2017, Jong won the 12th Samsung Fashion & Design Fund, which recognised her ability to reinterpret familiar garments into modern, feminine designs.
Actress Michelle Pfeiffer wore a GOEN.J outfit for her The Edit cover story in 2017. South Korean actress Han Ye-Ri was also spotted GOEN.J 16SS white pleated wrap dress in 2016.
For around three decades, Lie Sang Bong has been like a galaxy in the Korean fashion universe. He has dressed the likes of Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Juliette Binoche, Priscilla Wong and Olympic gold medallist Yuna Kim among others.
He founded his eponymous brand in 1985, which is today an internationally renowned luxury fashion label. Lie has primarily drawn inspiration from Korea’s rich artistic and literary history with a special focus on calligraphy, known as Seoye, and the Korean script, known as Hangul. He says that he feels very proud of his Hangul fashion and it is the brand’s “trademark”. Themes based on architectural designs such as Cubism and Bauhaus are also prominent in Lie’s designs. Many pieces in his collections undergo advanced technological processing such as laser-cutting and digital printing besides traditional techniques such as embroidery.
Lie designed the LG Electronics’ limited edition Cyon Shine mobile phone in 2007, one of the first such collaborations between a fashion designer and a mobile phone company. He also designed the uniforms for the A1 Grand Prix Korean national team in 2008. He holds a special place in influential Korean culture which is evident from the fact that he has also served as the president of Council of Fashion Designers of Korea (CFDK) and the cultural ambassador of Seoul.
His brand debuted at New York Fashion Week in 2014 with Fall/Winter collection, which came after it spent 12 years displaying its high-end clothing in Paris. His Spring/Summer 2018 collection is an eclectic mix of pink, blue, black and white with dots, prints and leather as highlights. The collection also pays homage to early 20th century Chinese Qi Baishi with dresses like the black-and-white long jacket and organza long blouse, inspired by his art.
Lie’s legacy is being carried forward by his children, Chung Chung Lee and Nana Lee, who founded the affordable fashion wear label LIE in 2011 as a breakaway line.
While she was studying at the prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Hyein Seo’s bachelor collection appeared at the New York Fashion Week for the VFiles Made Fashion show. Following her graduation, Seo founded her eponymous label in 2014.
Seo is one of the most famous South Korean designers internationally because of the counterculture themes in her designs and the way they appeal to the youth who are transitioning from teen to adulthood.
The very year she launched her brand, Rihanna wore a black-and-white fur stole from her Fear collection to the Comme des Garçons Fall/Winter 2014 runway show at the Paris Fashion Week. The singer then immediately followed it up with a Hyein Seo jacket from the same collection when she performed at the 2014 MTV Movie Awards.
Seo draws inspiration from what she calls “bad girls” in popular culture. One of her collections, Lady Vengeance Fall/Winter 2016, is named after the Park Chan-wook film Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, and includes jackets and long coats with the words “rage”, “provoke”, “sinner” and “punishment” — themes of the film — printed on them. Then there is the Final Boss Fall/Winter 2017 collection which used motifs based on the Cheongsam (or qipao) dress of video game character Chun Li from Street Fighter series and Wong Kar Wai’s film 2046.
The uniqueness of her designs, such as the garter belt bag which can hold cigarettes or the vinyl biker pants and cut-out spandex tops, have earned her a “tough girl” image. The label itself is unisex, featuring items like oversized hoodies, baggy pants, crop tops and miniskirts, and has the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Bella Hadid and G-Dragon among its patrons.
Her most recent collections are White Noise Spring/Summer 2019 and Save Yourself Fall/Winter 2019, aimed at the savviness of the contemporary youth of Seoul. The Fall/Winter 2020 collection boasts technical designs in a monochrome palette comprising hooded pilot bomber jackets, lengthened parkas, cropped windbreakers and more.
Designer Sunyuul Yie started the footwear label in 2010 under the name Ma Vie En Rose before changing it to Yuul Yie. The handmade shoe brand is known for its distinctive heels and shoe designs that appear like sculptures.
In fact, heels are what make Yuul Yie standout from the rest. Inspired by cubes, stones, corals as well as the Arabic alphabet, the heels are made in various geometric shapes and patterns. Take for instance the Trophy 70mm leather sandals whose mid-high block heel looks like a sphere placed atop a cuboid. Or the Lemon ‘Doreen slingback’ shoes which has a pearl as a stiletto point. The most famous of the brand’s styles is its patented Y-shaped trapezoid chunky heel.
Its collections include everything from mules to pumps, each of which has complex detailing. While the leather comes from Italy, the shoes are made in Seoul. Several luxury retailers such as Harvey Nichols, Nordstrom and Luisaviaroma in the UK, Italy, France and the US sell Yuul Yie shoes.
Yie, who studied women’s fashion at Esmod Seoul, also launched a second label, YY by Yuul Yie, in 2015. While Yuul Yie continues catering to the high-end luxury footwear market, YY makes more affordable products. Yie has also expanded into jewellery and bags.
Eujung Jang, who goes by her initials E.J., established the luxury handbag brand in 2013 and the same year introduced its first collection in Paris. Before launching the brand, E.J., who graduated in music, also learned the business of architecture at her family’s interior design firm. This training worked as the foundation of her designs and creating handbags with structural shapes and striking colours.
The name of the brand comes from 18th-century Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s phrase “Le volonté de tous” which means “the will of all”. The bags are available in metallic, pastels, and bright primary colours inspired by the works of contemporary artists such as Cecily Brown.
Korean tradition and aspects of its culture have also been an influence on The Volon. The bag called ‘Cindy Flower’ is based on the Hanbok dress. On the other hand, the ‘Gabi’ from its Spring/Summer 2020 Resort collection is inspired by the Korean traditional shell-shaped lucky bag.
The Volon finds a place with luxury retailers such as Net-a-Porter and Farfetch. It has also received shout-outs from influencers such as Miroslava Duma, Leandra Medine and Gilda Ambrosio to name a few.