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Fashion Week draws designers, but not buyers

The nation’s biggest fashion festival, 2012 Fall/Winter Seoul Fashion Week, wrapped up Saturday, with participation of far more established and rising designers than ever before. A total of 75 shows were staged during the six-day fashion week, compared to 27 shows of the same season a year ago.

Fashion Week’s success, at least in terms of scale, came despite some major changes in how it is run and controversy that called its very existence into question just weeks before the scheduled start date.

This year, the event was rendered leaderless after the Seoul Fashion Center, which had been in charge of running the Seoul Fashion Week from 2005 to 2011, was shuttered on Jan. 3 by the Seoul Metropolitan Government after three of its executives were charged with embezzlement, sexual harassment and corruption late last year.

Without an organizer, many thought that the week could be canceled. The Seoul Metropolitan Government, however, chose a private company in late February as an organizer for the fashion week through an open tender. Within a month, the Seoul Fashion Week was organized.

On top of the shutdown, the Seoul Metropolitan Government shifted its priorities following the election of liberal Mayor Park Won-soon, cutting funds allocated for fashion projects.

Unlike former Mayor Oh Se-hoon, who aimed to develop the city of Seoul into a glitzy “hub” of fashion and design, Park has prioritized welfare programs in his city budget.

These changes though, wore a silver lining in that a new association of designers stepped in to lead where the government did not. Previously, there were only a few small groups uniting designers, but in February, Lie Sang-bong brought together a number of his fellow designers together to form the Korea Fashion Designer Association, the largest of its kind to date.

Together, its members exerted much more influence over Fashion Week than they had in the past, pushing to give designers more control over the work they present. Previously, even veteran names in the fashion industry had to meet strict standards set by the Seoul Metropolitan Government if they wanted to be part of Seoul Collection, the main show of the Seoul Fashion Week. All that changed starting this year.

Of the four subcategories, which include Seoul Collection; Fashion Take-Off, a section for designers with brands older than five years; Generation Next, which features budding designers; and Presentation Show for accessories brands, the Seoul Metropolitan Government was just involved in choosing designers for Generation Next. In other categories, the Korea Fashion Designer Association chose participants.

The increased flexibility meant that more designers, whether veterans or newcomers, could participate in Seoul Fashion Week, leading to the sharp spike in the number of shows this year.

“A total of 30 new designers participated in Seoul Fashion Week this year,” said Yun Young-ran, a representative of the event.

But while the new organizers could use their domestic influence to draw in more participants, they could not match the international reach of previous fashion weeks, leading some to be critical of the event for failing to achieve its original goal: Raising awareness about Korean designers and their products overseas.

“If you ask me for the definition of the Seoul Fashion Week, it is a global business event. It’s an event designed to promote Korean designers and their clothes,” said Choi Hyun-jeong, team head at the fashion division of the Seoul Metropolitan Government. “[Seoul Fashion Week] should function as a platform where Korean designers are able to sell their clothes to overseas buyers.”

But Fashion Week couldn’t bring in enough foreign and influential buyers this time. Many with knowledge of the industry said that there were about half the number of buyers compared to last year.

“We couldn’t meet that many buyers this year, which was the biggest disappointment for us,” said an industry insider who wanted to remain anonymous. “In fact, many designers invited buyers by themselves, not relying on fashion week.”

The Korea Fashion Association pointed out the unique and important opportunity presented by Fashion Week to designers, who often struggle to find buyers through more traditional means .

“Korean clothing brands have limited sales channels, making them highly dependent on department stores,” said Ju Sang-ho, a managing director at the Korea Fashion Association. “Few small and medium-size companies want to take the risk of renting expensive real estate in the middle of downtown.”

And still, despite the back-and-forth over sales opportunities, Fashion Week was still a pleasure for those who like seeing fashion on runways, which were full of new and witty ideas for fall and winter clothes. Not even an unseasonably chill and strong wind could stop fashionistas from enjoying the event by venturing to try thin spring fabrics, such as chiffon and jersey.

Lee Suk-tae of womenswear label Kaal E.Suktae, who earned the highest number of sales contracts during Fall/Winter Fashion Week a year ago, has spotlighted femininity by embodying speed and light with a busy mixture of bold colors such as red, deep blue and orange.

And a collection of Steve Jung and Yoni Pai, the couple behind womenswear label Steve J & Yoni P didn’t lose its trademark zaniness. Inspired by aliens and space, an ordinary sweatshirt was accented with a rocket patch and glossy frills.

A collection by Park Seung-gun, a beloved go-to for many Korean celebrities, was based on the theme “Promise Forever Young.” His womenswear label pushBUTTON presented diverse clothes from a sweatshirt which had a bullet bra to a long dress with bold patterns accented with gold colors.

And a look into the crowd admiring the pieces – an array of industry insiders and ordinary people who love fashion – was a tell-tale sign that the event had become a spectacle open to all, even if most had just come to watch.

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