Over the past few years Seoul has become a melting pot of many nationalities that contribute to the city’s vibrance. The eclectic character of the South Korea’s fashion capital becomes evident as one wonders through the bustling streets. On every corner the city’s love affair with experimental fashion is evidenced through an inimitable street style that testifies to the sartorial eccentricity of its residents. One of the world’s most ethnically homogenous countries, South Korea is undergoing the greatest demographic shift in its modern history. Seoul Fashion Week – a rapidly rising event on the global fashion calendar – plays a significant role in progressively diversifying the rigid pillars of class, identity and gender stereotypes. You will find the bold looks being the order of the day with the fashion-forward crowd that navigates towards the unusual and unlikely combinations. Clothing does more than allowing young Koreans to experiment, create and innovate, it conveys an attitude and reflects the new mindset turning against the limitations of a society for centuries molded on culturally monolithic and patriarchal structures.
The success of a young Korean-Nigerian model Hyun Min Han (17) in the local fashion industry is a case in point that things are going in the right direction, considering a cultural environment that is awakened to embrace its growing multi-cultural diversity. While Han is cutting a regular figure on the catwalk and magazine covers as the country’s first black model, the path to inclusivity and acceptance was not a straightforward one. Growing up in Itaweon, a Seoul neighbourhood with a strong migrant background, did not protect him from facing the legacy of the country’s fraught relationship with its biracial population. When he was in kindergarten, some of the mothers on his playground would tell their children, “Don’t play with Han. If you play with him, you’ll become darker too.” Nearly everyone saw him as different, and even today people discriminate him for his looks. “I still experience people staring at me or other models thinking I’m a foreigner and can’t speak Korean”, says the model. With 190 cm and 65 kg, Hyun Min Han projects a lanky, elegant figure with cut cheekbones and long curling hair, that commands an arresting and unique presence on the catwalk. Last year Hyun Min Han was selected by Time Magazine as one of the 30 most influential teens in the world – a positive public image the model is intending to use as a tool for helping others who have been marginalised and encourage them to accept themselves.
Thankfully with a younger generation more exposed to the rest of the world, that old mindset based on the nation’s obsession with porcelain-white skin and myth of the pure bloodline embedded in the Confucian-Christian religious values, is starting to die out. At the intersection of local conditions and global shifts one thing is certain; South Korea’s fashion scene is consuming Western trends with the speed of blazing ferocity, as it is reexamining the inner sense of self.
Written by Nina Vukelic, editor-in-chief at This Is Badland.