For many, the lead up to ticking Seoul off their ‘to-travel’ list is full of anticipation. You’ve watched as many k-dramas as you can without fully neglecting the rest of your life, and you’ve listened to enough k-pop to become fluent in rhythmic gibberish (or at least I’m definitely not singing in real Korean). You’ve probably delved into the world of k-beauty and have attempted to cut your own ‘see-through bangs’. Perhaps you’ve even learned how to cook some Korean dishes, and trained yourself to eat increasingly spicy food. To top it off, all of these things have been in preparation for the moment that you finally drop everything and move to Korea to teach English or audition to become a trainee. Sound familiar? No? Was it just me?
Well, adventurers, precious, precious Twice fanboys, and Koreaboos, lend me your ears. I just returned from spending my summer (their winter) break in Seoul, and I have many a thing to share. I’ll stick to fashion-related things in this post, but if you want to chat some more, give me a bell. I am ready.
The last time I travelled overseas was to San Francisco and New York in 2014, which was actually the trip when I started KINGDOM. I set myself a challenge to only buy ethically made/sourced clothing whilst I was on holiday. As you can imagine, it was difficult at times to curb my YOLO-I’M-ON-HOLIDAYS-I-DO-WHAT-I-WANT mentality, but with the information available on the Internet, I was able to research away my FOMO and find some really great designers, brands, and second-hand stores.
Since then, I haven’t looked back. Shopping ethically has become my norm, and thorough research has become my leisurely reading. Therefore, when I booked my tickets to Korea, I jumped straight into finding out where I ‘could’ shop, and started scouting out some likeminded friends in the form of designers and bloggers. Now, it might just be my lack of mastery of the Korean language (even after three years of lessons), but I found it pretty difficult to find quality information about ethical fashion in Korea. There were a few articles here and there, and definitely a small group of phenomenal designers who were putting their values into practice, but nothing fully prepared me for what I was about to experience.
Having been (admittedly) a bit obsessed with the idea of Korea for a long time before I actually went, I automatically started perceiving everything through a lens of pure optimism. People would rave about how good the shopping was going to be over there, and I just gawked in excitement, and justified Korea’s fast fashion by deeming it ‘locally made’. I’d hear of how trendy and stylish everyone dressed in Korea too, and even though I don’t believe that trends promote sustainability, I justified their consumption habits as ‘being creative’ and ‘valuing style’. I’m always so amazed at how well I can deceive myself (Enneagram Type 3s, where you at?).
However, once I arrived, all of my optimism and best excuses couldn’t have convinced me to join in on the fun. You see, for me there is a level of (over)production and consumerism that even I can’t justify, regardless of the fact that you need to cater for a highly populated country. Excess is excess, and when you’ve got piles of new stock that no one will ever buy, as well as highly seasonal styles, a disservice has been done and an imbalance has been created. Imagine massive amounts of product lining the walls and filling the drawers of each store. Imagine basements filled with hundreds of styles, with each style coming in at least five colour ways. Then imagine going to the stores either side and seeing identical stock, still in large amounts. Although there are regular brand-name stores and designer boutiques, most people (particularly students and tourists) seemed to shop at these local wholesale stores.
Now, please don’t hear me shaming the Korean fashion industry or the people who engage in it. Everything I write here is just a personal reflection of how I felt and what I observed at the time, and as someone who cares about sustainability, I really wish someone had really warned me about the realities of fast fashion in Korea before I went. Though, I can’t guarantee that I would have actually listened whilst I was still in my ‘Korea is exactly the way that it’s portrayed in dramas’ mindset. Over the next little while, I’ll be publishing a few posts about how to do Korea KINGDOM-style. This’ll include sharing a few of my favourite second-hand shopping spots, as well as interviews with the aforementioned Korean designers who are leading the pack in the ethical fashion game.
Stay tuned and we’ll meet again soon.