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The Namhansanseong Project: Mixing Old and New at a UNESCO Cultural Heritage SIte

The Seoul Fashion Report was recently asked to participate in a project designed to attract attention to one of Korea's recently anointed UNESCO World Heritage site, the Namhansanseong Fortress (남한산성), which was the back up capital city during Korea's Joseon Dynasty. The idea was to design an event that would attract some South Korea's most influential foreign bloggers and content producers. The problem was that, despite the undeniably important historical and cultural significance of the site, ancient structures of great cultural and archaeological importance are often not the most compelling subjects to bring people from near and far to cover through words and pictures.

That's where we came in. In the conversation with Tae-Hoon Lee, who had initially been tasked with this event by the Public Diplomacy group (공공외교) created by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs  as a picnic on the UNESCO world heritage site. I suggested mixing the best and brightest aspects of Korean contemporary culture with the historically weighty, beautiful background of the Namhansanseong site. Photographically speaking, this made perfect sense since the site would provide a beautiful visual backdrop against any pretty posing that would be done by models in front of it, making for a great visual space in which to combine elements of Korean culture, both old and new. I had full faith that it would work out beautifully, but first, work had to be done to just get out to the site with the camera and actually plan angles and times of shooting. What became the working question during the scouting expedition was simply where to place people in relation to the backgrounds and where specific shooting concepts would be staged, as in the specific places where models would stand and cameras would fire. Everything looked good in theory as of a few days before the event. In terms of lighting and where B shadows would fall from about 5 or 6 PM, everything looked good for the plan of offering a short photo workshop and an opportunity to photographers of various levels of skill and experience to shoot live models in the fashion genre, while also offering an opportunity to shoot on one of the worlds most important historical sites as a bonus.

And thusly hast God wrought. While wrangling the models together and getting them to the site was somewhat  touch and go, akin to the proverbial task of "herding cats", the shoot was upbeat and interesting for everyone, which helped result in good pictures. The mix of seemingly divergent cultural elements made for a new, syncretic fusion that wasn't forced or stilted but rather reminiscent of a surprisingly pleasant melange so compelling that it simply begs to be re-created later, again and again. It also seemed quite in keeping with the apt description of the culture here as "dynamic" -- as channeled through the former tourism slogan "Dynamic Korea."

Of course, as with all good ideas, they are often remixes and borrowings from other good ideas. I had always been impressed with what I saw in the well-planned and immaculately executed Korean Cultural Heritage Show, which I had the privilege to shoot as a runway photographer back in October, 2011. Here are a few shots from that show, which was the first and only time I have seen a runway show done on the grounds of one of Korea's most important and famous cultural sites, the Gyeongbok Palace in the center of downtown Seoul.

That was one of the most amazing show sites  I had ever seen in my entire life, and that experience informed the idea I had for mixing elements of old and new in the present. One might note that technically, the traditional Korean culture theme of that show offered itself as a unifying element between fashion and the traditional structure in which the 2011 show had taken place -- a more natural fit between the historical and the sartorial. However, despite the fact of this more natural "fit", it must be noted that the link provided by the common element of Korean tradition was spurious at best. Notwithstanding the fact that the clothing in the show was inspired by  Korean tradition, the chronological and cultural distance between the modern spin on Korean traditional clothing and the actual hanbok that would have been appropriate to be worn at the time is so great as to render that putative link of Korean "tradition" both academic and irrelevant. Basically, many of the models were walking completely modern Korean clothing down the runway, creating a fascinating artistic energy from the anachronistic tension between the clothing and the backdrop. The only times where the venue and the clothing came together to present to the audience a vision directly from Korea's Joseon Dynasty past were in instances in which Korean traditional hanbok were walked down the runway, where the clothing in itself where unaltered and unadulterated artifacts from a time long gone. While that is surely the instinctive and natural fit between clothing and the environment, this"Total fit" was merely one of several delectable morsels on offer in the feast for the eyes during that event. Click on the gallery below to be quickly walked through the hanbok part of the show.

In all the several senses of the words, old and new had been truly, effectively fused. And it was a beautiful sight to see. 

Click to enlarge to the gargantuan proportions of your browser window or mobile device.

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Seoul Fashion Week Super Trooper!

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Thias is a true, blue fashionista, who came to Seoul Fashion Week dressed to impress, come hell or high water, leg in a cast or no. From head to toe, she channeled the Korean cutesy in her personality well sartorially, and was an easy model to work with. Here, this Super Trooper walked, or rather limped, for my camera as I tried to get just the right runway shot of her shoes, dress and coat, along with her hair, hat, and smile. 

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Ajumma -- Style Influencer!

Korean fashion culture brings more attention to Korea in Audrey, an online Asian American fashion magazine. The amazing ajumma takes center stage here, although my feeling is that the writer didn't have much in the way of a variety of Korean street fashion pictures to choose from. That's where we can help out a bit. 

OG Ajumma .

You want eclectic? Mismatched patterns and colors? We got ya. Oh, and visors?

Under the ajumma visor.

And you can't forget an ajumma's dog.

"Say hello to my little friend!" An ajumma's dog I bumped into in hongdae. Apparently, the doggie bites.

And an ajumma who brings the sexy back.

Deep Gangnam ajumma in heated discussion.

And the ajumma does colors like no one else.

Ajumma power.
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And then there are ajumma who are just awesome, forces unto themselves.

Ajumma or halmoni? Either way, she's busting through!

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The Korean "Sports Jersey" Look

I first noticed what I now call the "sports jersey" look on young Korean women back in September of 2013 when talking with a fashion design major in my university. I was really struck by how much her top looked like a football jersey, down to the mesh holes and inexplicably large  lettering in stark, football-team allcaps that I at first thought said "LOWELL" -- as in perhaps a football team from a high school in Lowell, Massachusetts. On closer inspection, I realized it said "LONELY", with a superimposed V over the N to double the stencil as "LOVELY."  But it struck me that it was definitely in the style of an American football uniform, down to the high cut, mesh holes, and all. But I saw it as a one-off. But that was going into fall and winter's colder weather. Now, in the subsequent summer, I realized again that no matter what, whatever fashion-forward Hongdae kids are wearing will become the thing within 6 months, no exceptions. Exhibit A:

Got a football jersey in there with player number on the flautist, as well as a stark capital A on a flowery, girlish print with the gayageum player (the girl playing the thing that looks like a harp on its back). And of course, the ubiquitous hot pants that all young girls not in a convent must wear here. 

And the combination of football jersey text with girlish flowers and even lace doesn't end there. Behold:

Besides just winner teams such as the Eagles -- which surely a pronto moda house in Dongdaemun picked up on very recently from American sports follies -- aren't the only teams and things found on women's jersey tops around Seoul.

An actual sports Jersey meets snobgirl faux classism, with oversized, allcaps lettering on the skirt. We also have pictographs meeting faux Boy London here.

Which brings us back to "LONELY."

And back to the first fashionista who started both my thinking on this trend and this post, when you combine an actual, full-on football top with a conservative, school uniform-eque collar, coquettishly quaint miniskirt, along with thick socks and sandals, you get interesting things going on.

But inevitably, all memes evolve into new directions, according to the rules and dictates of their particular ecosystems...

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MY A-DI-das!

Rockin' the Adidas gear.

I ran into this very sporty young lady while catching  a taco after my run to the bank.  since I've been keeping an eye out for especially sporty outfits this summer, I couldn't help but ask for a portrait. And I happen to bump into her again when I circled around to go back to my office, at which point I got a candid shot as well. I also took the opportunity to officially ask her, as the representative of all Korean women wearing summery outfits with stockings, why young Korean women like to wear stockings in the summer, which is a question sometimes foreign women ask me. the answer I got from her in Korean was to have a "보정된 느낌," which means to basically cover and smooth out the look, actually explained to me. It covers bruises and other marks and make everything look clear and even, she explained. of course, many non-Korean women will remark that wearing stockings kind of defeats the purpose of wearing cool clothing in the summer, but remember,  appearance seems to trump comfort here in South Korea.

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Pleasant Korean Contradictions

A GREAT dress caught during the noontime lunch hour in Yeouido. So full of pleasant Korean contradictions. It's demurely conservative with the high buttons and covered shoulders, but with a pretty high hemline, and yet there's a hint of wanting to cover even the neck, but the whole thing is still almost as form-fitting as a cocktail dress, for the most part. As full of seeming contradiction as Korean femininity itself does these days.

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The Performance of Gender and Fashion in Korea

There's a lot going on here that I can see. There's that sports jersey thing that's been going on lately on otherwise demure women's clothing, except this time on the skirt. There's the socks with sandals thing, and the typically really high skirt is coupled with an almost puritanical coverage on top. Oh, and we can't forget the bad English on the skirt. "Weird but adore" is an attempt to appeal to a sense of consumer individualism as a way of putatively allowing people a means of self-expression and "being different," to put an Apple spin in things. But hey, despite the fact that I think it's weird, I adore. Therein lies my conflicted view on Korean female fashion and the particular way Korean women of perform gender identity.

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