Over the years, Western consumers have taken a shine to Korean beauty, K-pop artists have dominated music charts worldwide, and now, fashion followers are looking to the East Asian country for style inspiration. Pre-pandemic in 2020, Korea was the seventh-largest luxury market with the US being first. This spending power has inspired heritage labels to lay roots in Korea—and has propelled Korean fashion brands into the mainstream style space.
But before we go any further, let's start at the beginning. In the 14th century, politician and scholar Mun Ikjeom brought cotton to Korea, which enabled the creation of the Hanbok—the original traditional Korean dress. Ever since, harmonious styles that are rich in culture and wield a modern edge have persevered. Confucianism remains woven into Korea’s DNA—the ideology lingers in social ideals and has, for a long time, influenced a reserved approach to fashion. The angst and refutation of past ideals from young people has bred a new wave of fashion designers looking to break societal and patriarchal values that have long been rooted in Korean culture.
Fast-forward to the past year, and retailers like Shopbop, Net-A-Porter, and Ssense have all spotlighted K-designers. Twice-a-year fashion gawkers tentatively await Seoul Fashion Week for its trendsetting collections. New York Fashion Week’s show Concept Korea spotlights rising K-designers, helping them market their pieces globally. It’s fair to say that the West is paying attention to the work of K-designers now more than ever, so it’s wise to get familiar with the best in the business. Shop the best in show ahead, and remember: Korean design cannot be put in a box.
You may be familiar with Minju Kim as the winner of Netflix's first season Next In Fashion in 2020. Since the show, Kim has released a slew of juicy collections and collaborations, all of which have been met with success. Kim was born in Seoul and studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. The story of her eponymous label began in 2015 after winning the H&M Design Awards. Following her Netflix success, she went on to create her second line Mbary in collaboration with trendsetting South Korean fashion boutique Åland at its US location in the American Dream Mall. Most recently, in March, Kim collaborated with popular Scandinavian brand & Other Stories to make her designer clothes more obtainable to fans who revere the designer's fairytale-inspired themes, creativity, and attention to craftsmanship.
Her collections come from abstract themes of inspiration, such as Edward Scissorhands for her FW21 collection, and experiencing the spring season amidst a pandemic for SS21. Kim’s sense of playfulness emblazoned with bold details spreads throughout most of the brand, bringing her youthful spirit to couture.
Hailing from Seoul, designer Hyein Seo’s creations represent the active refusal to accept aged-out patriarchal and conservative norms in Korean fashion. Seo provides a wardrobe for the women aiming to shatter glass ceilings, telling The Face that she designs for the “strong girls”, like the villains and heroines in action movies, but translates it into real life with pieces that are both functional and subtly strong.
Although Hyein Seo is modeled for women, the brand has earned a fanbase of men that love the designer's main character energy of her gender-fluid pieces (Kendrick Lamar is a fan). With a Master’s degree in fashion design from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, Seo’s style has always been on the edgier side with recent collections showcasing sultry straps and daring cutouts atop reimagined basics from workwear to athletic garb. Hyein Seo finds the balance between experimental and approachable in the form of high-end streetwear with a sexy fairy-meets-grunge allure.
Her bad-girl style is co-signed by none other than @badgalriri herself, Rihanna helped popularize Seo’s ‘Fear’ mink stole (from Seo’s F/W 2014 collection that also closed V Files Made Fashion Show and put the designer on the map), ‘School Kills’ T-shirt, and a handful of other notable pieces. Bella Hadid and South Korean singer Taeyeon are also avid fans, and the brand was recently worn by Hunter Schafer in an episode of HBO’s Euphoria. In 2014, Seo also won the Best Designer award in the British Fashion Council’s Emerging Talents category.
Seoul-born designer Rok Hwang worked as a ready-to-wear designer at Celine for several years (including under Phoebe Philo in 2017), and went on to design for Chloé and Louis Vuitton before founding his own label, Rokh. Hwang was raised in Austin, Texas, before attending prestigious Central Saint Martins in London in 2004, earning a Bachelor’s degree in menswear and a Master’s in womenswear.
Rokh’s journey began in 2016, but it wasn’t until Hwang won LVMH’s Special Prize Award in 2018 that he earned global recognition and debuted at Paris Fashion Week in February 2019. Rokh bridges the gap between staple and statement pieces with imaginative classics, such as a pile of belts atop a business suit. It’s the marriage of these parallels that gained Rokh its loyal following.
Created in Seoul, Reike Nen has been pumping out highly sought-after niche footwear and handbags since 2010. Designer Rei Yoon Hong Mi is beloved by an avid following for her combination of classic silhouettes and contemporary details. Mi’s designs juxtapose the usual with the unanticipated, using ultra simplistic designs that are far from basic.
Some of its precious styles include '90s-inspired thong sandals, kitten heels, and strappy silhouettes that stay as authentic to vintage styles as possible with just a glimmer of new-age modern touches to feel perennially perfect. It's founded on the motto of “Contemporary Refinement”, which is the idea of being elevated, versatile, and evergrowing. Reiki Nen’s slightly nostalgic and minimalist aesthetic immediately lured a swarm of fashion fans and went from a members-only shoe site to an international name. Most of the brand's footwear and accessories instantly instill sophistication and a laidback ease to a casual ensemble. Streamlined and pristine, you can’t go wrong with any of Reike Nen’s timeless pieces.
Above all, EENK is rooted in sustainable couture. Its designer Lee Hyemee aims to create collectible pieces of art rather than disposable garments, like those produced by fast fashion companies—and her work achieves this. Hyemee is revered for creating classic couture that dances with doses of modernism and whimsy. EENK’s feminine, yet polished vibe draws inspiration from varying eras and aesthetics with “ladylike staples” at its core, like tweed jackets and pleated maxi skirts.
One of South Korea’s most popular artists, G-Dragon, applauds Lee for her ability to “inspire confidence and timelessness” in young people through her clothing. The celebrated brand began “The Letter Project” in which every collection is alphabetically focused, its first collection was B, for Beanie, C, for Clutch, D for Darling, and so on. The brand will work its way to Z and end with A, for All and Archive—though there’s no say on what EENK will do after that. For reference, Spring/Summer 2022 is U for Utopia which is full of sweet pastels and idyllic nostalgia.
Tibaeg first launched as a T-shirt project in 2011, but its success comes as no surprise. In 2013, founder and creative director Eunae Cho debuted as a Generation Next designer at fall/winter Seoul Fashion Week, which jump-started her line. Cho’s mission was clear to her: to heighten and maximize her clients beauty through unique, lively clothing, injected with a sense of fun. Its name is inspired by a tea bag, referencing the sweet taste and aroma that herbs quickly and simply seep into hot water, creating something brand new with little effort. “I hope my clothes are the same. Each season, they introduce a new collection with a different theme, but they pursue the beauty of ‘Ti:baeg’ that is completed only when they are worn like tea bags,” Cho says in an interview with Popspoken.
The designer sketches her visions of nature and brings them to life with bold prints and couture fabrics, all the while intertwining subtle traditional Korean details into her designs. Ti:baeg works consciously towards sustainability and embraces the responsibility of what it means to be a brand in 2022, by producing only by demand and using ethically sourced textiles. Ti:baeg embodies harmonious creativity with fun, playful garments that are meant to make every day romantic, playful, and special.
Before we dive into the acclaimed Lie Collection, we must make note of Lie Sangbong. Lie Collection’s Chung Lee is the son of Lee Sang-Bong, the founder of the legendary label Lie Sangbong founded in 1985. Mr. Sang-Bong earned his esteemed spot in fashion history with celebrity admirers such as Beyoncé, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and more wearing his designs, and is historically one of Korea’s most prominent fashion figures.
Like his father, Lee was born and raised in Seoul and was inspired to follow in his designer dad's footsteps, beginning his apprenticeship at age six. Lee received international acclaim for his first menswear collection, “A. Hallucination”, from a slew of press, like Vogue and GQ, and a number of awards including winner of the Vauxhall Fashion Scout’s Ones To Watch award in 2010 and 2011 and more first-place titles from Selfridges in Fashion’s Finest Awards in 2011. After this, Lee founded LIE with his sister Nana, and the culmination of the two fashion-raised minds was immediately recognized as something special for their sculptural silhouettes and intricate tailoring. Now, LIE is distributed globally with brick-and-mortar stores throughout Asia and one in New York City. The label pays homage to their father's work with a slightly lower price point to reach a wider audience. LIE Collection is for the powerful, independent woman that enjoys a clean, but still creative, way to dress.
Dubbed as Seoul’s coolest denim line, husband and wife designer duo Steve J. and Yoni P. have been on a steady upward climb since founding their label in 2006. The jeans and RTW brand is highly regarded for its 90’s-inspired style with modern influences, like ripped jeans, logo t-shirts, and hand-made knitwear.
From the start, its reconstructed denim collected celebrity fans, like K-POP stars that helped usher in SJYP’s unending reign. Originally based in London, but now located in one of the trendiest and buzzed-about neighborhoods in Seoul, Garosu-Gil, the younger generations are swept off their feet by the vintage, reworked feel. Appealing to a huge audience has allowed the brand to reach interesting milestones such as cosmetic collaborations with MAC and BodyShop. If you’re a fan of R13 or Re/Done, you’ll love this denim for both a big night out or a casual day just as well.
After earning a degree in lingerie design at Studio Berçot in Paris, Goen Jang began her luxury couture line in 2012. Her intimates background gave way to her collection, and can be seen in the gentle details and an overall mesmerizing romanticism. Goen.J was an instant hit, getting picked up by Opening Ceremony, Harvey Nichols Hong Kong, and Barneys New York in 2014.
Her quick success is a testament to Jang’s exuberant creativity and craftsmanship, considering the brand gained immediate notoriety without any effort in marketing from the designer. Goen.J is designed for multifaceted women and the duality of life, illustrated with strong structures made of soft fabrics. Unrestrictive, ultra feminine, and personality-driven can all be used to describe the brand with unorthodox rendering to classic silhouettes.
Before Designer and Creative Director Hyun-Min Han launched MÜNN in 2013 his objective was to break away from the status quo in both design and design process to create something irreplaceable, and legions of MÜNN fans would attest to this. Since its founding, Han has accumulated a plethora of prestigious titles and awards, and secured his title as K-designer royalty.
The designer is committed to being the change that the fashion industry needs to help improve the planet. Each collection is made-to-order so as to prevent as much excess product as possible and prioritize quality control. This unique sewing method has also accounted for many of MÜNN’s most influential designs, since mass production would not be capable of creating such techniques. The brand uses Join Life-certified fabrics that consist of at least fifty percent ecologically-grown fabric, bans real animal products such as fur, leather, and suede, and hired a special team of eco-conscious experts to oversee that the company’s entirety is operating with the best practices possible.
Ethical efforts aside, Han’s fans revere his mostly genderless clothing for its marriage of opposing themes, like the bold fragility represented by leather harnessed blazers or dramatic shoulder padding in workwear jackets. Han’s versatile expertise shines through MÜNN’s clever construction of androgynous shirting, suiting, and trousers. Both strength and fragility are at the center of this womenswear line and its wearers adore stepping into the meeting point.
Its very name translates to “well-made” and “good design”, which is the vision that DeMaker stands upon. Consisting of revamped classics as well as unique interpretations of current trends, DeMaker has something for every kind of bag-lover, so it took little to no time for the buzzy brand to make its way overseas. Now it’s a favorite of many fashion girls in the US, and is one of Korea’s best handbag lines at an accessible price point.
DeMaker’s retro shapes with a contemporary edge have earned a ton of fans with most of its trademark styles continuously being its best-selling. You’ve likely seen its signature Harper bag and thought, who makes that? Now you know the bowling bag body and elongated baguette-inspired shoulder straps are a DeMaker original and a defining reason the brand has held its relevance. Other shapes like the bean bag and lunch bag are equally covetable for a new-age vintage feel. Grab a signature style or something fresh (like the new Vase bag)—either way, you’ll carry it forever.