Over the last decade, the successful presence of Korean culture across the U.S. entertainment and beauty space has been undeniable. Take the billion dollar industry of K-beauty or the millions of fans who follow K-pop groups Blackpink and BTS for instance. Meanwhile, the impact of K-dramas and shows (Squid Game rose to feverish heights in 2021), as well as Oscar-winning movies like Parasite and Minari have encouraged Hollywood to produce similar pictures in hopes for another major win. (Pachinko on Apple TV+ fulfills this tall order.) On the style front, emerging South Korean fashion brands are increasingly targeting the U.S. and European markets in the hopes that they, too, can ride this cultural wave and capture more universal consumers.
“The popularity of K-culture is expected to serve as an opportunity to continue boosting the Korean designer fashion industry,” says Hyeun Lee, director of the Korea Creative Content Agency (KOCCA). “I think overseas retailers [in the U.S., Europe, and China for example] mainly look for Korean brands to satisfy local consumers, such as brands worn by K-stars and brands with cultural elements.” To this Hansem Jang, director of Seoul-based footwear label COMME SE-A, adds: “Being a global brand can be crucial to your brand’s success. We think that if our label is recognized overseas first, then their recognition in Korea will rise.”
Lee knows firsthand what it takes for South Korean brands to break into a foreign market. Her agency KOCCA is responsible for bringing Concept Korea to New York Fashion Week, after all. The project started in 2010 and assists emerging Korean designers with showcasing their collections to a broader international audience. “Concept Korea NY, which has introduced a total of 34 Korean emerging designers [at NYFW since 2010], serves as an important window for presenting K-fashion to [attendees],” Lee tells TZR. “[At Paris Fashion Week this year], 10 Korean designers [for the Fall/Winter 2022 season] were introduced through a pop-up showroom called The Selects. We also have plans to expand the model of Concept Korea to other fashion markets.”
It goes without saying that Seoul Fashion Week, which has been an event since 1987, has a major role to play, too, in highlighting designer talent within the nation of 51.78 million residents. (According to one CNN story, the Seoul government hopes SFW will become the “‘fifth significant fashion week in the world’ after the ‘Big Four’ of New York, London, Milan and Paris.”) In a cross over move between entertainment and fashion — which often happens in Hollywood too — notable Squid Game actor Lee Jung-jae was tapped as the global ambassador for Seoul Fashion Week’s Fall/Winter 2022 season, further solidifying the fact that Korean entertainment has strongly influenced the style sector.
Outside of the traditional show schedules, social media (especially Instagram accounts like Up Next) has made it even easier for up-and-coming designers to connect with new fans from all around the world. “In the early days, there was a great opportunity to showcase our brand in the United States through the iconic store Opening Ceremony,” says Myungjun Shin and Hyunwoo Kim, the directors of Seoul-based womenswear label KIJUN. “But since then, SSENSE, SIMONETT, etc. have naturally shown interest in us. Nowadays, we can show and promote our contents to the world through social media, too.” (KIJUN currently has a growing fanbase of 72.7k Instagram followers.)
“Designers now have platforms in which they can showcase their work and express themselves without reservation,” adds Ashlynn Park, a South Korean designer who is based in NYC (and is a contender for this year’s coveted LVMH prize). “I think more and more people are interested in learning about diverse cultures and their philosophies in hopes of creating a more colorful world in which differences are embraced and encouraged.”
To Park’s point, buyers at retailers in the U.S., for example, are on the lookout to introduce Korean fashion brands to their customers. “One of the first brands we featured at the 2020 opening of our brick and mortar t.a. store was pushBUTTON,” says Telsha Anderson-Boone, owner & buyer at t.a. boutique, one of FARFETCH’s brand partners in NYC. “I first discovered the brand in a showroom back in Paris and instantly fell in love with their fabrication and vibrant color palette — something I’ve always looked for in the brands featured in t.a. [I plan to] bring on more Korean brands for Fall/Winter 2022.”
Though womenswear label pushBUTTON isn’t a “new” brand per se (it launched in 2003), having it be introduced to an East Coast consumer can make it appear fresh and exciting. “Fashion has been Eurocentric for so long that whenever there’s attention given to another part of the world [in this case, South Korea], it always [feels] new and different,” says Christina Tung, founder of public relations agency House Of. “But really, the truth is, there’s creative talent all over the world.”
To highlight the emerging brands and designers coming out of South Korea, TZR has compiled a list of labels you should know — and shop from — ahead. After all, you’ll need something to keep you busy while waiting for the Season 2 releases of Pachinko and Squid Game.
We at TZR only include products that have been independently selected by our editors. We may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.
KIJUN’s founders, designer Hyunwoo Kim and co-founder Myungjun Shin, base their label’s womenswear collections around the mood of Seoul in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The eclectic pieces range from party-ready sheer lace tops to a Dalmatian spotted dress (a much more interesting take on dots) to punk-inspired T-shirts with chain links and crocheted graphic appliqués. The lineup is wearable and indicative of the founders’ creative wits. And although the brand is based in Seoul, you won’t need to travel far to pick up any KIJUN pieces you fall in love with — simply shop directly from its website or on SSENSE.
Is your handbag collection filled with minimalist styles from the likes of BY FAR, Jacquemus, and Coperni? If that’s a yes, you’ll love accessories label Osoi, which launched in 2017. (If you said no, read on anyways.) Osoi offers sleek, structured bags that take form as a crescent shape or as a shrunken duffle bag. Named after the Japanese word for “unhurried,” Osoi lives up to its nomenclature as the brand works with local tanneries and ateliers in Korea to produce its understated selection of bags and shoes. Vice President Kamala Harris’ stepdaughter Ella Emhoff follows the label on Instagram — a sure sign that Osoi is, thus far, a budding It-girl gem.
Should your personal style fall into the ‘90s/2000s category, you’ll be drawn to Boyoung and Jiyoung Kim’s brand TheOpen Product. The two sisters launched their label in 2018 and the selections are packed with baggy pants, graphic tees, crop tops, and track pants. And with every piece under the $200 mark, you’re sure to find an item that fits within your shopping budget. Hailed as South Korea’s “hottest new label,” by several publications, the emerging brand has already inked notable partnerships with the likes of adidas Originals; meanwhile the pieces have been spotted on celebrities like Kendall Jenner and Blackpink’s Lisa.
So you’re back in the office with “nothing to wear.” Turn your attention to LEHHO, a Korean womenswear brand founded by Shinhye Suk in 2017, to provide those necessary pieces for a wardrobe refresh. Suk offers modern and clean cut tailored bottoms, blazers, dresses, pleated skirts, and silky shirts. Every piece transitions seamlessly from your 9-to-5 gig to weekend visits to the farmers’ market. The polished, elegant aesthetic is no doubt a reflection of Suk’s time at Derek Lam Collection, where she was its ready-wear-designer for six years until 2016.
Take a break from the maximalist jewelry trend and embrace South Korean designer Noori Kim’s elevated interpretations of everyday classics, from tennis bracelets to 14k gold-plated brass earrings. Kim’s jewelry label Numbering, founded in 2017, is one of the largest contemporary jewelry brands to come out of South Korea (the pieces are currently sold on SSENSE). The baubles are everyday pieces you’ll want to wear and pack with you on vacation as they’ll easily pair with any outfit you bring.
For shoe fanatics who want to discover the next It brand before it becomes too popular, direct your attention to Korean footwear label COMME SE-A. Aside from a quick blurb on the website, the brand, led by Creative Director Hansem Jang, embodies an enigmatic presence online with only 4.6k Instagram followers so far. However, its shoe selections, which range from cute little strappy sandals to buttery leather slip-on mules, have the potential to become a fashion-girl favorite in no time.
Designer Minju Kim launched her Seoul-based namesake brand in 2015 after winning the H&M Awards — and she was previously a semi-finalist in the LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers. However, Kim reached international fame (and netted a deal with retailer Net-a-Porter to carry several pieces from her label) after she won the design competition on Netflix’s Next in Fashion in 2020. Kim’s design aesthetic volleys between youthful playfulness and avant-garde creations that explore shape and volume. Her creative eye most recently caught the attention of those at & Other Stories, who partnered with Kim to release a joyful capsule collection together.
You’ve probably heard of designers creating clothing from unexpected materials like fishnets, but what about airbags? Intrigued? Then familiarize yourself with Korean label KANGHYUK, helmed by designers Kanghyuk Choi and Sanglak Shon. The two both graduated from the Royal College of Art (RCA) and utilize airbags as one of the primary materials in their ready-to-wear collections. In an interview with Hypebeast, Choi, who launched the brand in 2017, revealed that he gravitated towards this material because he thought the design of the airbag’s barcode, logo, holes, and stitches were visually interesting. “And more than anything else, the repetition in the details were most appealing,” he said in the piece. “All airbags, be it Hyundai’s or Ford’s, have the same design.” he said. Since then, celebrities like A$AP Rocky have worn their designs and the duo even nabbed a nomination in 2019 for the LVMH Prize.
Ready-to-wear label Andersson Bell is a reinterpretation of Scandinavian vibes from Korea’s POV, namely through Creative Director DoHun Kim’s eye. According to the brand’s bio, Andersson is a typical Swedish last name while the word Bell is a nod to the traditional Korea temple bell. Though the label was founded in Seoul in 2014, it only gained prominence and international success after BTS member Jungkook wore its sneakers to the 2019 Billboard Music Awards.
Shortly afterwards, according to Korea Joongang Daily, a South Korean newspaper, Andersson Bell inked a commerce deal with retailer Net-a-Porter and was also invited to a pop-up exhibition in Liberty London, a luxury department store. This was reportedly the first for the Korean fashion industry. Now you can shop the Scandi meets K-fashion label on every retailer imaginable such as SSENSE, Farfetch, Shopbop, and W Concept.
If the words minimalism, naturalness, and serenity resonate with your taste in clothes and accessories, then you will like Korean fashion label Nothing Written. Young-Ju Lee launched the brand in 2017, filling it with understated and versatile pieces. Expect to find key essentials such as cropped trousers, camisoles, cotton dresses, and bomber jackets in an earthy color palette of creams, olives, and gray. Accessories like flats and shoulder bags, too, echo the soft color palette. The ease in being able to combine any of Nothing Written’s items into your own wardrobe is simply splendid.
Pronounced as “well done,” We11done is a luxury fashion, Seoul-based brand that focuses on athleisure and streetwear-inspired pieces. Oversized sweatshirts feature the brand’s name in pink and green watermelon hues, serving as an easy way to tap into the logomania trend, while its balloon hem skirts feature curb chain detailing. For those who shy away from skirts, perhaps its selection of cargo pants and distressed jeans will spark your interest. Be prepared to hear more about We11done — founded by Dami Kwon and Jessica Jung in 2015 — as it recently secured the financial backing from Sequoia Capital China and has already successfully showed at Paris Fashion Week during the Fall/Winter 2020 season. It has a growing celebrity fanbase that includes the likes of Billie Eilish, Justin Bieber, and Kylie Jenner.