Her clothes are worn by stars like Lee Jung-Jae of “Squid Video games,” Choi Woo-Shik of “Parasite” and members of the Ok-pop sensation BTS. However when the South Korean fashion designer Woo Younger-mi made her worldwide debut in 2002, few individuals believed high-end fashion may come out of a rustic recognized for its war-torn historical past.

Ms. Woo, or Madame Woo, as she’s usually referred to as, is arguably one of the profitable Korean designers. She is the chief government of the Stable Company, an organization that controls two profitable labels: Stable Homme and Wooyoungmi. She turned the primary Korean member of the French Federation of Fashion in 2011, and her Wooyoungmi line is now a staple at luxurious retailers like Le Bon Marché, Selfridges and Ssense.

Ms. Woo has lived on and off in Paris for about 20 years, and has had entrance row seats to South Korea’s emergence as a cultural juggernaut. It’s a phenomenon that she has contributed to and benefited from all through her profession, she mentioned.

Born in 1959, Ms. Woo grew up in Seoul throughout a time of speedy financial growth that adopted the tip of the Korean Warfare. “The nationwide motto was ‘work arduous and stay properly,’” she mentioned. “Caring about fashion was seen as a social evil, particularly for males.”

However Ms. Woo had an unconventional upbringing that gave her a pure affinity for the humanities. Her mom, an artwork trainer, dressed her and her 4 siblings in distinctive, selfmade garments that made them stand out at college. Her father was an architect with solely occasional work who socialized with American troopers, collected uncommon objects and invested in his look. Amongst his possessions, she recalled, had been items of Bauhaus furnishings, European fashion magazines and an extended, leather-based coat harking back to one Clint Eastwood might need worn.

“At the moment, 95 p.c of males dressed the identical,” she mentioned. “Fathers wore fits and uniforms to their workplaces and factories, however my dad spent 80 p.c of his ardour on wanting good,” she mentioned, citing him as the rationale she ultimately pursued males’s put on design and is commonly impressed by artwork and structure.

“Actually, I felt ashamed by all of it — the best way our home was embellished, the garments I needed to put on — however wanting again on it now, I feel my father was a really inventive, very cool particular person,” she mentioned.

Regardless of her background, she by no means considered being a fashion designer as a result of, she mentioned, “phrases like ‘fashion designer’ didn’t exist in Korea then.” She didn’t move an examination for entry to regulation faculty, which she referred to as “destiny.”

Ms. Woo mentioned she had “momentary illusions of genius” all through her fashion programs at Sungkyunkwan College, nevertheless it wasn’t till she was invited to compete on the 1983 Osaka Fashion Assortment that she began to dream large.

Hyunji Nam, the lead editor of Korean content material at Ssense, mentioned that when it got here fashion, Japan and South Korea had been on very totally different taking part in fields on the time. “By the tip of the Nineteen Eighties, Japanese fashion was already changing into acknowledged overseas due to the work of names like Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake,” she mentioned. “However South Korea didn’t have the nationwide energy to help fashion in or outdoors of the nation, and most designers, no matter how gifted they had been, had few alternatives to point out their work in or outdoors of Korea.”

The journey to Osaka was Ms. Woo’s first overseas, and he or she was intimidated, not solely as a competitor but in addition as a Korean amongst a number of countries with extra established fashion histories. She remembered the opposite international locations coming in teams — coalitions of individuals from Europe, Hong Kong, Singapore — and he or she, a lone Korean. She stayed up the evening earlier than the competitors, a needle trembling in her arms as she accomplished her minimalist tackle hanbok (conventional Korean gown). She was shocked when she was awarded the prize.

“In Korea, nobody cared that such a contest existed, and nobody cared {that a} Korean was capable of win, nevertheless it impressed me to assume large about fashion,” she mentioned.

Ms. Woo bounced round just a few Korean fashion conglomerates earlier than beginning her first enterprise in 1998, a small boutique in Seoul, together with her youthful sister, Jang-Hee. “She was the one who at all times informed me I may do it, after I felt like I couldn’t,” Ms. Woo mentioned about her lifelong enterprise associate, who died in 2015.

They referred to as the ready-to-wear males’s put on label Stable Homme and described it as garments for his or her supreme man. “I imagined him to be straight and slender, the kind of good man most ladies would need to marry,” Ms. Woo mentioned. The outcomes had been clean-cut, minimal appears that many on the time described as metrosexual.

Ms. Woo mentioned the label hit the market on the proper time: simply forward of the 1988 Summer season Olympics in Seoul. International vacationers and Olympics attendees had been flooding the capital, and Koreans had been changing into fascinated about how non-Koreans appeared and changing into extra open-minded a couple of variety of kinds, she mentioned.

Specifically, Stable Homme caught the attention of two teams of trendsetters. The primary had been referred to as Orenji-jok (Orange tribe), a bunch of rich youngsters and 20-somethings, usually from the Gangnam district in Seoul. They’d traveled overseas and had been fascinated about fashion with a Western edge.

The second had been Korean music’s first ballad singers, like Lee Moon-sae, Lee Seung-Chul and Yoon Sang, who catered to largely feminine audiences. Stable Homme grew by way of phrase of mouth and movie star publicity.

“Stable Homme and Wooyoungmi have been go-to manufacturers for male Korean celebrities for so long as I can bear in mind,” mentioned Gianna Hwang, a stylist for purchasers like Lee Jung-Jae, Eric Nam and Tune Kang. “It’s not straightforward for a males’s put on firm to attain this sort of gentle however lovely look that each these manufacturers possess. Her garments are barely oversize, as per the development these days, however total, they’ve an incredible match, which is a very powerful factor should you’re dressing males.”

At present, with extra Korean celebrities touring abroad for fashion shoots, there’s a rising dialog about including hints of Korean model to outfits. “There are plenty of worthwhile Korean manufacturers these days, however neither Stable Homme or Wooyoungmi are simply Korean manufacturers,” Ms. Hwang mentioned. Ms. Woo, she added, is “an amazing designer who solely occurs to be Korean.”

Fourteen years into Stable Homme’s success, Ms. Woo mentioned it wasn’t sufficient that she was doing properly in Korea. She needed to create a luxurious model for a extra refined and delicate grownup, unafraid to be weak. And regardless of buddies and acquaintances expressing concern, she needed to do it in Paris, the fashion capital of the world.

“They informed me I used to be loopy,” she mentioned. “First, they mentioned I couldn’t do it as a result of I’m Korean. Then they mentioned it’d be all of the extra inconceivable as a result of I used to be a girl.”

Others urged that if she needed to attraction to Europeans, she ought to play up her label’s Korean-ness and make garments that appeared extra visibly Asian. “They mentioned it was like making an attempt to promote croissants in Paris,” Ms. Woo mentioned.

“If you wish to make it as a Korean, it’s important to promote tteok,” she mentioned, referring to Korean rice muffins. “You need to make one thing they don’t have already got. However what may I do? I needed to make croissants.”

The French fashion scene did certainly transform uninviting to her. At Paris Fashion Week, Wooyoungmi’s present time slot was rescheduled a number of occasions — even after invites had been despatched — and fashions she had employed had been scouted by different designers, she mentioned. The gathering lastly debuted on a Sunday at 10:30 a.m., the morning after the most important Fashion Week events, to fewer than 150 friends. Had been it not for one optimistic assessment in Le Figaro, she mentioned, she might need given up altogether.

Ms. Woo vowed to develop into a full member of the French Federation of Fashion, believing a seat on the desk was the one method to safe the label’s future at Paris Fashion Week, however the path there wasn’t straightforward.

Till 2009, her workforce operated with out an workplace in Paris, introduced every part — scissors, needles, thread — from Korea and labored out of lodge rooms. On a number of events, she was rejected by showrooms that wouldn’t take an opportunity on a Korean designer. One of the vital humiliating experiences, she mentioned, was at a gathering with a showroom during which the house owners spoke over her in French — “Korea? Have you learnt the place that’s? Are Koreans doing fashion now?” — as if she couldn’t perceive.

“I held it collectively till the assembly was over and cried and cried afterward,” she mentioned. “However I confirmed there, did properly there and left by myself accord similar to I promised myself I’d.”

Within the final decade there was a shift in how Korean fashion, and males’s fashion specifically, is talked about.

The South Korean luxurious market boomed and now ranks the seventh largest on this planet, in response to Euromonitor, a market analysis agency. Gross sales of males’s skin-care merchandise alone elevated 44 p.c between 2011 and 2017. And, after all, as Korean males make investments extra money and time on fashion, the world is seeing extra of them.

“It’s not like one factor occurred after one other,” Ms. Woo mentioned. “It’s that each one these elements interacted with each other.” Then she added, “It was additionally me.”

Wooyoungmi now has 44 shops throughout Asia, Europe, North America and Australia. Ms. Woo has expanded into jewellery, equipment and ladies’s put on. Final 12 months, she collaborated with Samsung on restricted editions of Wearable Wooyoungmi objects. In line with knowledge by Korea’s Monetary Supervisory Service, the Stable Company earned 548 billion received ($46 million on the time) in 2020, up 20 p.c from two years earlier.

“Wooyoungmi elevated the notion of Korean fashion abroad by proving it might be performed,” Ms. Nam, of Ssense, mentioned. “A Korean designer might be an everyday at Paris Fashion Week. A Korean model might be bought at luxurious shops.”

Ms. Woo, she added, “paved the best way for future designers to come back.”


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