The mother of South Korean menswear rides the K-wave

Her clothes are worn by stars like Lee Jung-Jae of “Squid Games,” Choi Woo-Shik of “Parasite” and members of the Ok-pop sensation BTS. But when the South Korean designer Woo Young-mi made her worldwide debut in 2002, few folks believed high-end vogue might come out of a rustic recognized for its war-torn historical past.
Woo, or Madame Woo, as she’s typically referred to as, is arguably one of the most profitable Korean designers. She is the chief govt of Solid Corp., an organization that controls two profitable labels: Solid Homme and Wooyoungmi. She turned the first 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.
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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, Woo grew up in Seoul throughout a time of fast financial growth that adopted the finish of the Korean War. “The nationwide motto was ‘work exhausting and dwell properly,’” she mentioned. “Caring about vogue was seen as a social evil, particularly for males.”
But Woo had an unconventional upbringing that gave her a pure affinity for the arts. Her mother, an artwork trainer, dressed her and her 4 siblings in distinctive, home made garments that made them stand out at college. Her father was an architect with solely occasional work who socialized with American troopers, collected uncommon gadgets and invested in his look. Among his possessions, she recalled, had been items of Bauhaus furnishings, European vogue magazines and an extended, leather-based coat reminiscent of one Clint Eastwood may need worn.
“At that point, 95% of males dressed the similar,” she mentioned. “Fathers wore fits and uniforms to their workplaces and factories, however my dad spent 80% of his ardour on trying good,” she mentioned, citing him as the purpose she finally pursued menswear design and is usually impressed by artwork and structure.

“Honestly, I felt ashamed by all of it — the approach our home was embellished, the garments I needed to put on — however trying again on it now, I believe my father was a really artistic, very cool particular person,” she mentioned.
Despite her background, she by no means thought of being a designer as a result of, she mentioned, “phrases like ‘designer’ didn’t exist in Korea then.” She didn’t move an examination for entry to regulation faculty, which she referred to as “destiny.”
To Osaka and Beyond
Woo mentioned she had “momentary illusions of genius” all through her vogue programs at Sungkyunkwan University, nevertheless it wasn’t till she was invited to compete at the 1983 Osaka Fashion Collection that she began to dream large.
Hyunji Nam, the lead editor of Korean content material at Ssense, mentioned that when it got here to vogue, Japan and South Korea had been on very totally different enjoying fields at the time. “By the finish of the Nineteen Eighties, Japanese vogue was already changing into acknowledged overseas as a result of of the work of names like Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake,” she mentioned. “But South Korea didn’t have the nationwide energy to help vogue in or exterior of the nation, and most designers, regardless of how gifted they had been, had few alternatives to indicate their work in or exterior of Korea.”
The journey to Osaka was Woo’s first overseas, and she or he was intimidated, not solely as a competitor but in addition as a Korean amongst a number of nations with extra established vogue histories. She remembered the different nations coming in teams — coalitions of folks from Europe, Hong Kong, Singapore — and she or he, 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 costume). She was surprised when she was awarded the prize.
“In Korea, nobody cared that such a contest existed, and nobody cared {that a} Korean was in a position to win, nevertheless it impressed me to suppose large about vogue,” she mentioned.
Woo bounced round a number of Korean vogue conglomerates earlier than beginning her first enterprise in 1998, a small boutique in Seoul, along with her youthful sister, Jang-Hee. “She was the one who all the time advised me I might do it, once I felt like I couldn’t,” Woo mentioned about her lifelong enterprise accomplice, who died in 2015.
They referred to as the ready-to-wear menswear label Solid Homme and described it as garments for his or her splendid man. “I imagined him to be straight and slender, the kind of good man most ladies would need to marry,” Woo mentioned. The outcomes had been clean-cut, minimal seems that many at the time described as metrosexual.

Woo mentioned the label hit the market at the proper time: simply forward of the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. Foreign vacationers and Olympics attendees had been flooding the capital, and Koreans had been changing into desirous about how non-Koreans appeared and changing into extra open-minded a couple of range of types, she mentioned.
In specific, Solid Homme caught the eye of two teams of trendsetters. The first had been referred to as Orenji-jok (Orange tribe), a gaggle of rich youngsters and 20-somethings, typically from the Gangnam district in Seoul. They had traveled overseas and had been desirous about vogue 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 principally feminine audiences. Solid Homme grew through phrase of mouth and celeb publicity.
“Solid Homme and Wooyoungmi have been go-to manufacturers for male Korean celebrities for so long as I can keep in mind,” mentioned Gianna Hwang, a stylist for purchasers like Lee Jung-Jae, Eric Nam and Song Kang. “It’s not straightforward for a menswear firm to realize this type of comfortable however stunning look that each these manufacturers possess. Her garments are barely oversize, as per the pattern these days, however general, they’ve a tremendous match, which is the most necessary factor when you’re dressing males.”
Today, with extra Korean celebrities touring abroad for vogue shoots, there’s a rising dialog about including hints of Korean fashion to outfits. “There are rather a lot of worthwhile Korean manufacturers these days, however neither Solid Homme or Wooyoungmi are simply Korean manufacturers,” Hwang mentioned. Woo, she added, is “an amazing designer who solely occurs to be Korean.”
Lessons in French Baking

Fourteen years into Solid Homme’s success, Woo mentioned it wasn’t sufficient that she was doing properly in Korea. She wished to create a luxurious model for a extra refined and delicate grownup, unafraid to be susceptible. And regardless of buddies and acquaintances expressing concern, she wished to do it in Paris, the vogue capital of the world.
“They advised 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 the extra inconceivable as a result of I used to be a lady.”
Others advised that if she wished to enchantment 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,” Woo mentioned.
“If you need to make it as a Korean, it’s a must to promote tteok,” she mentioned, referring to Korean rice desserts. “You should make one thing they don’t have already got. But what might I do? I wished to make croissants.”
The French vogue scene did certainly develop into uninviting to her. At Paris Fashion Week, Wooyoungmi’s present time slot was rescheduled a number of instances — even after invites had been despatched — and fashions she had employed had been scouted by different designers, she mentioned. The assortment lastly debuted on a Sunday at 10:30 a.m., the morning after the largest Fashion Week events, to fewer than 150 friends. Were it not for one constructive evaluation in Le Figaro, she mentioned, she may need given up altogether.
Woo vowed to change into a full member of the French Federation of Fashion, believing a seat at the desk was the solely solution to safe the label’s future at Paris Fashion Week, however the path there wasn’t straightforward.

Until 2009, her staff operated with out an workplace in Paris, introduced every thing — scissors, needles, thread — from Korea and labored out of resort rooms. On a number of events, she was rejected by showrooms that wouldn’t take an opportunity on a Korean designer. One of the most humiliating experiences, she mentioned, was at a gathering with a showroom through which the house owners spoke over her in French — “Korea? Do you understand the place that’s? Are Koreans doing vogue now?” — as if she couldn’t perceive.
“I held it collectively till the assembly was over and cried and cried afterward,” she mentioned. “But I confirmed there, did properly there and left alone accord identical to I promised myself I’d.”
Korean Men Glow Up
In the final decade there was a shift in how Korean vogue, and males’s vogue specifically, is talked about.
The South Korean luxurious market boomed and now ranks the seventh largest in the world, based on Euromonitor, a market analysis agency. Sales of males’s skin-care merchandise alone elevated 44% between 2011 and 2017. And, of course, as Korean males make investments extra money and time on vogue, the world is seeing extra of them.
“It’s not like one factor occurred after one other,” Woo mentioned. “It’s that every 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. Woo has expanded into jewellery, equipment and womenswear. Last yr, she collaborated with Samsung on restricted editions of Wearable Wooyoungmi gadgets. According to information by Korea’s Financial Supervisory Service, the Solid Corp. earned 548 billion gained ($46 million at the time) in 2020, up 20% from two years earlier.
“Wooyoungmi elevated the notion of Korean vogue abroad by proving it could possibly be completed,” Nam, of Ssense, mentioned. “A Korean designer could possibly be an everyday at Paris Fashion Week. A Korean model could possibly be offered at luxurious shops.”
Woo, she added, “paved the approach for future designers to come back.”
This article initially appeared in The New York Times.
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