When South Korea swore in its first female president, Park Geun-hye, last month, the proceedings included a speech calling for North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions, a 21-gun salute, and a performance of Gangnam Style by Psy, the country’s rap sensation whose YouTube video for the song was not only the first to reach more than one billion views but also a hyper-efficient conduit for introducing Korean style (or, at least, the styles of the Gangnam shopping district) to the rest of the world.
South of the Han in Seoul – the country’s capital and a sprawling concrete megalopolis – Gangnam was known in the 1980s for its art galleries and alternative scene. In the 1990s small stores moved in, which have been followed by major designers (the biggest six are Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Prada, Ferragamo, Fendi, and Christian Dior), lured by the growing appetite in South Korea for luxury goods.
“Korean fashion culture is developing very fast. Lots of Koreans are trying to express their own personality and sensibility with their clothes,” said designer Lie Sang Bong, whose inspiration is often taken from Korean cultural motifs adapted to create East-meets-West looks worn by Lady Gaga and Lindsay Lohan, among others.
When asked how Psy’s success has changed the fashion landscape in Korea, Lie San Bong says, “A couple of months ago [the actor and Les Miserables star] Hugh Jackman was trying on a jacket that I gave him and asked, ‘Is this Gangnam style?’ Gangnam Style was a great advertisement of Gangnam in Korea.”
Now a shopper’s paradise, Gangnam is packed with swarms of young people dressed in expensive designer gear on the hipster drag of Garosugil. While global fashion brands have a major presence, local designers are increasingly proving a draw – both at home and abroad.