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Seoul designers tackle war and peace on runways

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Written by Dianne Pineda, CNNSeoul, South Korea

Since Monday morning, young Seoulites have been arriving at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza with the sort of bright hairstyles and eclectic outfits one comes to expect at Seoul Fashion Week.

But within the building’s futuristic, curved facade, the event’s Spring-Summer 2019 program has proved far more restrained. A sense of tranquility and youthful optimism pervaded the week’s shows, which touched on the political, the social and the environmental, while demonstrating a growing maturity in the country’s fashion industry.

Here are four takeaways from the event.

A new political climate

Previous editions of Seoul Fashion Week have been defined by experimental collections that opt for the shock factor. Boldness always trumped subtlety. South Korea was seen as the thriving land of catchy K-pop tunes and histrionic K-dramas, and its fashion reflected this.

But amid a rare period rapprochement between North and South Korea, this season’s collections took a comparatively somber tone, with some designers appearing to indirectly reference the conflict, or put forth their desire for peace.

Designer Woo Youngmi showed a postwar-inspired collection with utilitarian styles and statement crossover bags with the word

Designer Woo Youngmi showed a postwar-inspired collection with utilitarian styles and statement crossover bags with the word “Peace.” Credit: INAPAD

Embodying the shift was Woo Young Mi, whose menswear label “Solid Homme,” celebrated its 30th anniversary. The show’s first half presented the designer’s Fall-Winter 2018 collection, but things got more interesting in the second half, which presented dramatic interpretations of postwar life. Woo matched oversized suits with bomber jackets, checked blazers, layers of utility vests and flashes of red, orange and royal blue.

Woo’s more obvious military references included a collection of reimagined green army coats and matching combat uniforms in beige and cream. Accessories included a crossover bag emblazoned with the word “Peace,” and canteens draped around models’ necks. The designer’s narrative was one of survival, hope and a new world. And while the Vietnam conflict served as her primary influence, the broader anti-war sentiment resonated with audiences in Seoul.

Similar themes were explored by R. Shemiste, which gave its thought-provoking show the name “War is over, get real world.”

A bold runway statement by R. Shemiste reading

A bold runway statement by R. Shemiste reading “War is over, get real world” Credit: Izzy Schreiber

“War must be started by someone’s greed,” said Won Ji-yeun, one half of the duo behind the Gangnam-based brand, in an e-mail.

“In the process, most people would be severely wounded or killed in the body and mind. I wanted to highlight various aspects … brought up by war.”

The garments on display thrived on contrasting textures, prints and colors. The use of rips and mesh were intended to convey conflict. With lace appliques, plaid patchwork and mixed textiles abound, the show’s message was reinforced by statement tops and vinyl luggage covers bearing phrases like “Extra peace, real liberty.”

Nature in abundance

For all the bold statements about peace, some designers chose to embody the notion without directly referencing politics. Emerging label Ti:baeg opened its show with an enigmatic yet moving scene, in which a woman appeared, dressed in white, against a backdrop of crashing waves. After a moment’s silence, the screen turned green with falling leaves, and she danced gracefully across the runway before being led away by a young boy, signaling the start of the show.

Ti:baeg at Seoul Fashion Week's Spring-Summer 2019 edition

Ti:baeg at Seoul Fashion Week’s Spring-Summer 2019 edition Credit: Izzy Schreiber

This mood was reflected in Ti:baeg’s nature-inspired collection, which saw stark pieces infused with the type of delicacy and subtlety that the brand is now known for. At the finale, models took to the runway with bags of plants, setting a hopeful, positive tone about environmental conservation.

Seoul label A.Bell also looked to nature, with water the pervasive theme of its Spring-Summer 2019 line. White and beige ruffled dresses seemed to flow around models’ bodies with each graceful step; black and navy garments alluded to the evocative power of raindrops, which, according to designer Choi Byung Doo, was the collection’s main inspiration. The show was simply and aptly titled, “Peace.”

A look from A.Bell's show,

A look from A.Bell’s show, “Peace.” Credit: Izzy Schreiber

Blurring gender boundaries

Conversations around sexuality and gender are still treated with caution in South Korea. But the tides are swiftly shifting, and, this season, designers addressed identity and gender roles alongside wider themes of individual liberation.

This was often done through a genderless aesthetic, epitomized by Dozoh’s industrial, cyborg-inspired dress code of strappy jumpsuits and unusually cut jackets. Combining athleisure and unisex pieces, the collection alluded to factory assembly lines where uniformity is expected.

Dozoh at Seoul Fashion Week's Spring-Summer 2019 edition.

Dozoh at Seoul Fashion Week’s Spring-Summer 2019 edition. Credit: Izzy Schreiber

Elsewhere, designer Jo Dong Wook blurred gender distinctions by sending out long-haired male models in pleated skirts and dresses. The designer, who focuses on menswear but has a cult female following, explained: “I wanted to focus on androgynous appeal or asexuality to address the styles of different people.”

An outfit by Münn at Seoul Fashion Week's Spring-Summer 2019 edition.

An outfit by Münn at Seoul Fashion Week’s Spring-Summer 2019 edition. Credit: Izzy Schreiber

Another brand joining the conversation was Münn, which debuted a post-apocalyptic menswear collection centered around the theme of “de-familiarization.” Male models walked with face masks, placing emphasis solely on their floral and shimmering outfits.

Again, men wore skirts and short shorts in a mix of sporty looks and business tailoring. In other shows, female models wore closely cropped or shaved hairstyles with natural, barely-visible makeup look that reflected designers’ new-found awareness of gender neutrality.

The youth movement

Street style at Seoul Fashion Week's Spring-Summer 2019 edition

Street style at Seoul Fashion Week’s Spring-Summer 2019 edition Credit: Natalie Rapisarda

These themes of change and the future were driven by young designers and industry figures, at what is a remarkably youthful fashion week. And outside the venue, creativity and self-expression spilled out onto the streets, with casual sportswear, suit dressing and denim — though amplified in maximalist styles — the looks of choice for the label-savvy millennials in attendance.

The street style stars just keep getting younger, with kids as young as three or four joining in the festivities. Seoul Fashion Week, just like its confident youth, is ready to show the possibilities that lie ahead.

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