South Korea has quietly become Hollywood’s biggest competitor, churning out wildly popular music, TV dramas, and beauty and fashion trends with global appeal. This week, ELLE celebrates the K-World we’re all living in.
You could say South Korea has had an influence on global pop culture, but that would be a massive understatement. In fact, the country’s pop culture ascendency has been so historic there’s even a unique term that describes its impact on so many areas of how we live today: Hallyu—also known as the Korean Wave. If you’ve taken note of the rise in Korean beauty, film, television, and music, you’ve already experienced the effect of Hallyu, which further cements the East Asian country’s position as a world power. Names like Bong Joon Ho and BTS are at the forefront of the entertainment industry, while brands like Soko Glam lead the beauty world. And with these examples as references, it feels as though Korean culture is leaving a molten gold path of modern culture and viral popularity in its wake. While more and more of the world turns its eyes towards the country, there’s another area on which it’s putting its Midas touch: fashion.
As Korea continues to be a leading source for the Next Big Thing and contributes to the larger conversation around globalization, it only makes sense that its league of designers would be among the industry’s ones to watch for a look at what’s to come. Whether it’s the next round of trends or sartorial commentary on cultural changes, the Korean fashion scene—which has seen a surge in government funding and programs like Concept Korea in recent years—is, without a doubt, not one to ignore.
To keep you on top of your fashion game, Laura Jung, an influencer, model and entrepreneur who splits her time between Seoul and New York, and Celine Kim, a YouTube creator in South Korea, share their must-know brands from Korea.
If you watched Netflix’s Next in Fashion, you might recognize the bold and playful aesthetic of Minju Kim’s namesake label. According to Jung, the designer’s pieces are “forward-thinking, yet remain so powerfully feminine.” Kim, who won the design competition and has dressed stars like the members of BTS, often uses bright colors and prints, which she creates herself. “She doesn’t follow trends in the industry, but rather looks at the ever-changing landscape of our world, both on a micro and macro level, to influence her collections,” Jung tells me in an email. “She’s a designer who users her imagination to create designs that feel like you’re living in the fairytale world she strives to create collection after collection.”
“IISE mixes street fashion and Korean culture,” Kim says in a message. As a result, its designs feel inexplicably cool and modern with a timeless, utilitarian quality about them. “They use local fabrics and design techniques and bring a mix of qualities inspired by Korean culture into their products.” The creator also loves how IISE—which has everything from sweats and tees to accessories—blurs the line between genders, which is very different from traditional Korean culture.
For those who like a tough and sexy streetwear edge in their wardrobe, Hyein Seo is a must. “In a way, her designs are the antithesis to the ideals so highly valued in Korean society, where external validation and opinions are important and conservatism still runs deep,” Jung shares. The influencer explains how Korean ideals are rooted in Confucianism, which leads many to dress more conservatively. However, she also mentions that there’s a growing women’s empowerment movement in the country, and women are determined to break patriarchal norms to be more expressive with how they dress. Hyein Seo, with her undeniably sexy and highly conceptualized pieces, plays a large part of that. “Hyein Seo’s interpretation of the female body and dress as a form of liberation is shifting the way society views different expressions of the self. Conservatism can no longer be the standard and we can absolutely shift cultural norms through the way we collectively dress and present our bodies.”
At first glance, Andersson Bell both reads and looks like a cool, minimalist Scandinavian brand, according to Jung. “[It’s] actually a Seoul-based label that has perfected urban, street-inspired everyday style,” she says. “Think Scandinavian minimalism and Korean straightforwardness.” The genderless brand incorporates elements of both cultures to create pieces that are timeless and eccentric with its unconventional silhouettes. The influencer also mentions that the line is globally available at top retailers, allowing consumers everywhere to test the casual streetwear look for themselves. “It’s amazing that [a brand] so distinctly Korean is now being recognized in all corners of the world.”
With designer Rei Yoon Hong Mi at the helm of Reike Nen, the handbag and footwear brand offers styles that toe the line between contemporary and classic. “Their designs are very unique, but also simple,” Kim says. “[Reike Nen’s designs] go well with various looks without being boring! I also love their color choices.” Whether it’s an updated take on a classic wardrobe staple—such as a shoulder bag or strappy sandal—there’s something inexplicably unique about Reike Nen’s pieces, which each also hold an air of delicate sophistication.
Designer Hyemee Lee has a deep love for vintage fashion, and it shows in her clothing label EENK. Each of her collections is deeply rooted in the classics with a modern, unexpected twist. The brand’s designs take on influences from a variety of past eras, resulting in a wide range of styles. “She’s a designer that’s just currently making the kind of clothes young people want to wear right now—clothes that inspire confidence and timelessness, that are crafted really, really well,” Jung shares. The brand is also incredibly versatile, according to the influencer. “You can go in any direction with EENK pieces,” she says. “People no longer want to subscribe to a singular mode of dressing but rather embrace the different trends that span so many different decades. EENK perfectly embodies that.” And as one of the top designers in Korea right now, Jung says it’s only a matter of time her clothes make their way west.