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Capital

weddingWhen 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.

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First collection

weddingConsider the Simone Handbag Museum, which opened last year on Garosugil in Bagstage, a multi-story building designed to resemble a bag and to showcase local artisans and designs from its own brand 0914, alongside its museum collection. Or consider Seoul Fashion Week, which ended on March 30, having featured an array of established and upcoming designers such as Shin Jang Kyoung, Kimseoryong, and Munsoo Kwon.

The latter launched his first collection in New York in 2012 after working for a number of big brands, including Helmut Lang.

Though Kwon is based in Gangnam, he also has a New York showroom, indicative of the way Korean designers are beginning to branch out in the US market. Indeed, at this year’s New York Fashion Week, Concept Korea, a showcase for Korean designers launched in 2010 to promote Korean fashion designers and help them break into the US, proved one of the most colourful highlights of the week, attracting guests such as the British pop singer Neon Hitch, who modelled one of Lie Sang Bong’s glamorous fluffy white jackets.

On display was work from six leading designers, including Lie Sang Bong, Son Jung Wan and Choi Bo Ko and Kye by Kathleen Kye, a Central St Martins graduate whose work can be found in Harvey Nichols in London and in Gangnam in the Daily Projects shop.

“Korean consumers like to follow fashion trends,” Kye says. “My hope is that Koreans can express their personality with a more free-minded and witty style, like in the UK and Japan.”

“K-pop became famous, and now the attention is moving to K-fashion,” says Lie Sang Bong. “K-fashion is important because it can communicate Korean emotions and feelings throughout the world.”

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Shop

weddingYet for the retailers themselves, fast fashion can be more of a mixed bag. The business model boasts incredible unit-level economics — stores cost little to open, and the inventory turns over incredibly fast, with new merchandise brought in weekly or even daily. Yet, with its focus on low prices, the model also encourages consumers to be more loyal to price than brand or shop, leading to a race to the bottom in which retailers must constantly lower prices — and see their margins reduced.

There’s also the question of where these cheap goods come from and under what conditions, and by whom, they’re manufactured. In the U.S., where consumers buy on average 64 new items of clothing each year, the fast fashion industry has come under scrutiny and been the subject of books such as Elizabeth Cline’s 2012 exposé, “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion,” which chronicles the possible environmental and social damage fast fashion can cause.

May the cheapest skirt win.

For existing Australian retailers, there is a more immediate kind of damage to keep an eye on. H&M will compete directly with privately owned retailers such as Ice and Cotton On, and also with the likes of Country Road (ASX: CTY), as H&M offers similar office-appropriate outfits at far lower prices.

H&M stores also poses a threat to Premier Investments (ASX: PMV) which has lately seen success with its fast-fashion concepts Dotti and Portmans. That’s to say nothing of older, legacy retailers such as David Jones (ASX: DJS) and Myer (ASX: MYR).

If history repeats itself, and H&M performs as well as it has in other markets, these retailers are right to be shaking in their platform studded booties.

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