Korean celebs have never been more high fashion, or Korean designers more high-profile. This has opened K-culture up to a new breed of fan: the British fashionista. London Fashion Week played a big role in promoting this, when the Korean Cultural Centre exhibited a colourful and unique collection of fashion creations from a selection of Korea’s most exciting new designers comprising Ara Jo, Juhee Han, Kathleen Kye, Minky Jaemin Ha, Minju Kim, Unbounded A WE by Laykuni, Yoolhee Ko and Yeashin Kim. A fresh, creative and fashion-conscious crowd flocked to the centre to seek out the buzz surrounding the designs that won the British Council and British Fashion Council’s International Fashion Showcase Emerging Talent Award 2012.
Also during London Fashion Week, Girls Generation’s Yoona, Tiffany and Seohyun touched the hearts (and wardrobes) of Londoners with their visit to our city. Dressed impeccably in Burberry, a brand hailing from British shores and much-loved in Korea, they firmly secured their places as style icons.
Yet classic, Hepburn-like glamour and sophistication is not the look Girls Generation are most famous for. Over here, they are well-known for rocking the cute aegyo style, and this is what we are keen to replicate. Aegyo is all about being sweet, innocent and child-like. It’s not just about the clothes, either. Facial expressions, hand gestures, girly movements and constant giggles are all a part of the aegyo.
The fashions associated with aegyo are a massive part of the everyday style rocked by Brit secondary school children, college and uni students, and women in their 20s and 30s. These include bows, alice bands, wired hair bands, character t-shirts and animal hats. A couple of years ago, K-style followers would go to a store like Artbox to seek out the latest panda t-shirt or fluffy “handphone” accessory. Now there’s no need; we can get these from any high street shop like Primark, New Look, or Claire’s Accessories: aegyo is “in!”
Yet the babyish style is one that divides opinion right down the middle, and often provokes the question “What are you wearing?” for the wrong reasons. Maybe we Londoners can’t pull it off quite as well as Seoulites, and end up looking more like Charlize Theron in the Young Adult advert than Yoona! We work hard to achieve the aegyo look, but is it our attitude that lets us down? Unfairly or not, we British lasses are stereotyped as being sassy and assertive rather than sweet and submissive, and our girl groups are more likely to sing “I’m just a love machine” than “I feel shy because I’ve fallen in love.” That won’t deter us from another cutesie-filled shopping trip, though.
An extension of the aegyo cute and another Korean style emerging in Britain at the moment is ulzzang. The look focuses on having an impossibly perfect face, which could be likened to a cartoon character, dolly or computer avatar. On the internet, this can be easily achieved with some good lighting, strategic angles and a large dose of photo editing. In reality though, it requires a little more work. As the eyes are the main focus, circle lenses are integral. Matched with fake lashes, tons of make-up (to replicate airbrushing) and preferably some attention-grabbing clothes, the ulzzang style is complete.
It’s a huge online phenomenon that has sparked debate here in GB. Pictures of famous Korean ulzzang Mikki, and countless others, have circulated Facebook feeds with comments ranging from “She’s cool” and “Hot” to “She’s had far too much surgery” and simply “Fake!” In turn, this interest has led to a bunch of British ulzzang wannabes uploading their pics onto ulzzang websites, and entering online contests. Recently, the UK Ulzzang Facebook page was set up.
The “human doll” concept has also started to crop up in high-fashion spreads, advertisements and artworks. North-England-based alternative artist and photographer Gary Crozier has used a mix of photo manipulation and digital painting for his Broken Dolls shoots, half-transforming models into dolls. If you visit his website, you can even commission him to let you “Become a doll”. There’s no doubt these images look freaky, but they’re also really striking, well-composed and beautiful- just like real-life ulzzangs?
Whatever your view, ulzzang is no longer reserved for emos and goths, and thanks to the likes of Mikki, is becoming increasingly popular in everyday style. Enthusiasts will continue to enhance their looks and post their “selcas” (self-taken photos) online.
If your taste is somewhat subtler than this, never fear! There are more understated Korean fashion influences in the UK as well. Over the last few years, London girlies have been compelled to ditch their jeans in place of leggings or tights matched with a top / dress, as explored by Suzy Chung in her recent article Hey, Where’s Your Skirt? When my best friend came to visit me in Korea in 2009, she stockpiled short dresses, flouncy tops and patterned leggings, claiming that Korea offered a much better selection at a far cheaper price. She wasn’t the only one to pick up on this.
The ‘bottomless’ style, as well the feminine, flowery summer-dress style that has popularised over the last five years in the UK, are also available at a handful of boutique Korean stores dotted around London. My favourite of these is Terminal D in Covent Garden, owned and run by Korean designers who hand-make each of the items for sale. 50s-style prom dresses, jumper dresses and 60s-inspired shifts are all on sale at reasonable prices. Another lovely Korean store is Heaven and Earth in Fitzrovia. The staff are Korean, and the manager makes regular trips back home to pick up one-off items for their seasonal clothing, accessory and jewellery ranges.
These high street boutique shops delight petite fashion-followers, but have been criticised for their limited sizes, with a choice of merely ‘S/M’ and ‘M/L’ if you’re lucky. Obviously, this doesn’t cater for the many shapes and sizes that we Londoners come in, nor the size 6 to 22 ranges that we’re used to. Luckily, over the last few years, Topshop UK have teamed up with Korean designers including Steve J & Yoni P, and Selfridges with Eun Jeong. Then we have the acclaimed J.JS Lee, whose creations can be picked up at the Designer Studio on the first floor of Harrods. She presented her chic and futuristic autumn / winter 2012 collection at Fashion Week:
When asking London K-pop fans where they shopped to achieve their style, they cited Forever 21 and Uniqlo as cheap ‘n’ cheerful favourites. Being a savvy bunch, many preferred to shop online, and raved about www.yesstyle.co.uk and www.style-asia.co.uk for authentic Korean fashions.
Although UK ladies are spoilt for choice with Korean-inspired trends, there is a gap in the market where men’s fashion is concerned. But is this all about to change? London bloggers Korean Class Massive noticed a surge of fashion articles promoting looks like man-bags (as sported by Lee Minho) and make-up (worn by every male K-pop idol!) in London’s Shortlist magazine. Topman UK’s online mag Topman Generation recently featured a piece on Kpop style, citing Big Bang’s G-Dragon as an icon. Let’s keep our eyes on Brit male fashion, and see if teenage guys will be willing to wear teddy bear t-shirts, professional men gutsy enough to carry a handbag, or newlywed husbands happy to sport a couple-tee. Guys, you may scoff now, but watch this space!
Dissecting my wardrobe and current style, I can see that the main Korean influences have been: 1) Make more of an effort (if in doubt pick the dress, not the tatty jeans and jumper- although I still think wearing heels when hiking is one step too far!) and 2) Add an element of fun to every outfit. Wherever you are in the world, take a look at what you’re wearing. Maybe a Korean influence has already hit your high street, and maybe the style you’re rocking will make it over to Korea soon, too. After covering my head with a soft toy, looking like a doll and donning a “bottomless” outfit, I can only imagine what I’ll be wearing next season…