During this winter, the streets were full of black, caterpillar-shaped coats, a trend that presumably started from the sale of the affordable yet extremely warm coats by Lotte Department stores as Olympic souvenirs. Hundreds of people lined up to get their hands on them. But not all high-quality clothes become trendy — none of the fashion magazines out there predicting future trends saw this coming. Maybe whoever designed the iconic coats understood trends better than the fashion magazines and designers of Korea, but we all know that this cannot be the case. How can the Korean fashion market change this quickly yet remain so standardized?
At the risk of generalizing all Koreans, I would like to claim that Koreans are highly conscious of how others perceive them. Many criticize Koreans for choosing what to wear not based on what they like but on what is perceived as attractive. But Korean fashion trends are not just about self-consciousness; they are the products of homogeneity and marketing by the fashion industries that can afford to persuade us to buy into the new trend.
The Korean culture of enforcing the norm has an important role in the homogeneity of Korean fashion trends. Standing out is frowned upon. Everyone has a fear of leaving the group they belong to. Being different can be considered inconsiderate or selfish at times. For example, asking questions in class is looked down upon as being arrogant or oblivious, as the professor could have finished the class earlier if the person had not asked. Koreans have grown to fear not being able to join “the norm”. But the essence of fashion is to express oneself as a unique entity. Everyone wants to be unique, but at the same time, no one wants to stand out. Behind Korean fashion trends is an eternal conflict between the desire to be different and the desire to fit into the norm.
The Korean advertisement market is dominated by celebrities. Products or brands have their own celebrities as models. Idols are attractive, confident, fashionable, and sweet. Actors portray themselves as ideal relationship partners in Korean dramas, which mostly focus on romance. The celebrities become popular as they move the audiences’ hearts. As everyone desires to be popular, they are persuaded unconsciously that the way celebrities dress is the “fashionable way.” Companies take advantage of this fact and expose the products to the public through the celebrities. The fashion industry bombards its customers with cheap online advertisements, always showcasing the latest heartthrob wearing its newest product.
Clothes were traditionally costly for the middle class to buy on a regular basis. Instead of creating long-lasting goods, companies decided to mass produce clothing that is affordable for the rising consumer group: single-person households. Mass producing then leads to the homogeneity of the whole market. The number of people belonging to the single-person household group grows year by year. The number grew from 21 percent in 2010 to 34 percent in 2015 according to Statistics Korea. Younger generations started to seek out a different lifestyle compared to that of the older generations. Instead of devoting their whole lives to their children, people have started to forgo marriages and children to invest time and money into living the moment. Rising interest in travel and artistic showcases such as concerts and exhibitions shows how this new generation finds value in something that is new to them. The experience of following the trend or wearing what one wants at the moment is what the fashion industry is trying to sell. Companies have been lowering the barrier for these eager customers with relatively thin wallets. The surge of specialty retailers of private label apparel (SPA), or “fast fashion”, brands such as Uniqlo and H&M across the entire country is an example of the popularity of these mass-producing, fast-paced companies.
The homogeneous and fast-changing culture, however, should not be frowned upon. It may cost more to keep up, but the constant changes and attempts at creating something new have played a key role in the development of Korean culture as a global sensation. It is up to the people whether they decide to follow the trend or not. But no one should have the right to judge others for following that trend.