Imagine a Seamless or a Deliveroo – food delivery services that I use heavily when in New York and London – collaborating with a fashion designer at say, the level of say, Rodarte or J.W. Anderson on a capsule collection. Sounds weird right? I was scrambling around with a Korean text recognition app on my phone, trying to decipher the press notes to the Baemin x Kye’s show during Seoul Fashion Week, because after Googling Baemin, I found bowls of rice and plates of fried chicken staring back at me from the website. I was confused but in Seoul’s cross-field, multi-discplinary world, where telecoms and electronics giants can own many of the most successful Korean fashion labels, and where designers and creatives make up their own rules of this relatively young fashion industry, a food delivery company collaborating with a fashion designer shouldn’t be a surprise.
It turns out the CEO of Baemin (shorthand for Baedal Minjok), Kim Bong-jin is a typography designer, who create a smartphone based food delivery service with a strong graphic identity. Naturally, Kim wasn’t going to be restricted by his own defined field. Inspired by the idea of Korean Hangul language being worn in say, Italy or France, Kim got together with Park Seo-Won – chief creative officer of Korea’s leading advertising agency Oricom – to create a fashion “happening” at SFW. In comes Kathleen Kye, whose work I have followed since her hands-on, witty BA Central Saint Martins collection back in 2011. Kye’s label has been flourishing in Korea, and beginning to stretch its legs beyond as she now regularly shows her collections in New York. This so-odd-it-works collaboration gave Kye an opportunity to show something new at Seoul Fashion Week.
The trio worked together to pick out typical Korean road signs and recognisable slogans and apply them to a collection that was weirdly a highlight of SFW. There’s nothing original about slapping some text about on to some tees and dresses but as Korean pop culture continues to make its presence known internationally, it’s interesting that the physical appearance of its language is still a bit of a mystery to the uninitiated. Japanese, and perhaps even Chinese might make its way (albeit in garbled form) into an occasional collection or on to the high street. Korean Hangul however is a rarity.
On Kye’s sportswear-tinged silhouettes, the characters become graphic prints and bands of patterns that to the untrained eye might look like an unusual geometric designs. Even if you didn’t understand the lingo, there’s an appeal to the collection that made it stand out. Park said he couldn’t quite believe how much people were into it. Now they have to figure how to sell it. It certainly won’t be the last time Baemin dabbles with fashion. The words are being sung by K-Pop stars but they’re now also being broadcasted on clothing too. Let the hallyu roll on…
Kye’s own S/S 16 collection already made its debut at New York Fashion Week, which I didn’t get to see, so I’m catching up on it now. She flung a few contradictions our way with a very cheery and upbeat spin on the word “Hate”. It’s certainly a positive outlook on a universally social media environment, where trolls and haters lurk around every corner. There was almost a deliberate dose of in-yer-face colour combinations and hyper-shine metallic textures as if to bait the fashion police that let their opinions be known online. All of this won’t matter of course when Kye’s regular roster of K-pop stars and starlets get hold of the collection. Kye, like many of Korea’s most successful fashion labels, rely on local celeb seeding to boost sales and get the hype machine going.
The surfaces of Kye’s eyeball grabbing work deserve a second look. It’s easy to replicate and rehash aesthetics in Korea. Just look at their adoption of American pop and hip hop and putting their own spin on the genres. There’s a reason though why Kye’s work resonates, whether it’s her collaboration with a food delivery company or her own collections. It’s a specific point of view on Korean pop culture, which manifests itself in an exhibition, “The Space Collection” that is currently on at the D-Project space, part of Daelim Museum, in artefacts like an instant Korean ramen bowl encrusted with Swarovski or a photograph of a gang of Korean street-savvy style stars. Kye may be flying the next again, to show in New York, but there’s no way that she has forgotten where her roots lie.