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Seoul Fashion Week Spring 2012: The Women's Collections

SEOUL--Designer fashion today is about selling luxury products to different groups of consumers. That means fashionable clothes and all the accompanying ancillary products--like handbags, beauty, shoes, perfumes et al--which often end up eclipsing the sale of actual garments. But last week at the end of the four days of women’s shows at Seoul Fashion Week, accessories played little or no role in how these designers sell the clothes they presented on the runway. No one even showed any handbags. Even the biggest designer, Lie Sang Bong, who has been working since 1985, does not have a perfume to market. That’s hard to imagine in today’s fashion industry. With little fanfare or outrageous staging, the designer shows in Seoul felt much more commercially oriented than in other capitals, understandably so because the clothes are the base of their businesses. For the designers who showed here, the business of fashion is the business of selling clothes. While specific designers cater to their own customers, the shows are organized around how long a business has been in existence--to show a collection, a company has to have been in business at least 5 to 10 years. Designers who are just starting out showed at the Next Generation forum at the Samsung D’Light center, or at a smaller space, Take Off, at the main SETEC convention center. Click through to see some of the looks from this unique fashion week and learn about some of the Korean designers. (We'll show you looks along the way, but a more comprehensive photo gallery can be found on the last slide.)

Long Nguyen is the co-founder/style director of

Ladies with Means: A block of designers, who obviously design for a wealthier and more conservative woman, showed a treasure trove of rich, beautiful looks. Gee Chun Hee’s Miss Gee collection featured a blue flared-sleeve cropped jacket with puff skirt, and a silver metallic evening gown. Son Jung Wan showed a feminine collection with a standout white silk three-tiered dress and a chiffon tank with silk satin long skirt. An Yoon Jung’s high society collection was rendered in luxurious materials like double layered silk. Yang Sung Sook’s white and yellow sheath dress and yellow jacquard leaf print tunic with silk pants and draped open skirt were easy and luxe.

Fashion Is Fun: Younger and more fashion-forward customers have lots of options, too, like IMSeonoc’s tan cotton sheaths. Enzuvan’s loose sportswear elements and Jardin de Chouette’s black dress with a cropped cape jacket would also suit. A multi-colored computer print coat-dress by Kim Jae Huyn was thoroughly modern, as was JiChoi’s red bold print vest and jodhpur pants. Kaal E Suktae showed a black and tan print chiffon dress with pleated pockets and Kwak Hyin Joo’s colorful printed dresses and hot pants have a young appeal. Steve J and Joni P’s summer cotton print floral dresses and olive green silk parachute coat over a lace dress were a perfect mix of soft and hard.

Lie Sang Bong: While many of the shows concentrated on saleable clothes rather than exploring ideas and experimentation, the collections of Lie Sang Bong, Doii and Jaehwan Lee were the exceptions and exceptional. Mr. Lie Sang Bong is in a category by himself in Seoul. Having commenced his business in 1985, he surely is a designer in a category of his own here in terms of the technical, the craftsmanship and the constant attempt to innovate and improve upon his own designs. In each collection, he stretches the idea of architecture and building clothes around a women’s body--this time using the principle of elements of traditional Korean architectur. The prevalent use of colors and textures on mimicked the carved and painted wooden buildings like those at Kyungbok or Changduk Palaces. The wavy pattern on the buildings were molded into print patterns on a strapless tan sheath dress with a woven corset or the series of colorful patterns on a short dress with a matching jacket. The floor length purple and acqua print knit dress was perhaps the more simple expression of tradition and modernity.

It would be great to see Mr. Lie venture more into couture, perhaps even present a small off-calendar show in

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Lee Doii: Lee Doii’s work reminded me of how Anna Sui has approached her garments over the past two decades. Rather than pursuing seasonal trends, Ms. Doii pursues her own vision. In just three years since she started her brand in 2008 in Paris, Ms. Doii has established a signature ultra-feminine look. This season she based her collection on a trip she had taken to the Middle East. The influence was evident ivory silk and lace jacket and skirt accented with metallic embroidered patterns and chunky metal belts. A red lace and jacquard dress with falling shoulder chiffon, accented with a gold necklace and jeweled hair, made the model look like a princess from A Thousand and One Nights. It’s wonderful to see her always doing something different with her show.

Lee Jaehwan: Lee Jaehwan’s clothes are always a work in progress, but they sure demonstrate a designer’s mind at work, figuring out the juxtaposition of materials and cuts. He studied at Esmod in Paris, then worked freelance at various French fashion houses before starting his own line in 2008. Since then he has molded the short dress with silk organza and the two-piece suit into his signature looks. Working around the theme of women in flight, he utilized light materials like silk and combined them with artificial materials like plastic. (Like the long sleeved light yellow sheer organza dress with light purple plastic embroidery.) The results weren't always perfect: The proportion of the grey cropped open jacket with a corset that flared over stretch legging pants looked odd at best, but many of the looks hit the right note.

Some final thoughts about Korean fashion: While wandering through the streets of the major shopping areas like Choengdam-dong where stores like 10 Corso Como, Daily Projects, Mue and the European brands are located, or Shinsa-dong where Blush, Addicted, GeekShop, and MSK Shop cater to a young customer--I noticed that on the whole (independent of age) Korean women are far more conservative in their dressing habits and style than the men. Navy and black dominated--rarely did I see any women wearing colors. Pants worn with jackets or cardigans dominated over skirts and dresses, save for the schoolgirls' uniforms.

Similarly, most of the actresses that came to the shows were not dressed in particularly fashionable clothes. The actress Gong Ho Jin, who is considered a fashionable actress, wore a grey wool coat, a long black tunic and black pants to the pushbutton show. Even the funky platinum blond Joni P, the female half of Steve P & Joni P, wore black pants and coats on the two occasions I saw her visiting her colleagues’ shows.

This explains a lot about the clothes that designers showed during fashion week in Seoul. Surely the designers here respond to the consumption pattern, especially those more focused on the domestic market. That Lie Sang Bong, Doii and Jaehwan Lee proved an exception to pure commerce is due to the fact that they vie for an international audience. Competing in the international arena requires that their approach to fashion mirror their contemporaries in Paris (where Mr. Lie has shown his collection for the past decade, where Mr. Lee was educated and trained, and where Ms. Doii worked with the Parisian fashion houses after her graduation from Central Saint Martins). I spoke to Jaehwan in French and to Doii in English. I can’t say that about many of the designers that I visited.

Click through to see multiple looks from all the designers mentioned.