THE KOREAN FASHION FIELD
At SFW, Korean high fashion designers do what they know how to do, which is to stage fashion shows (often through the industry event known as Seoul Fashion Week, which is partially supported by the city and national governments) and hope to garner international attention via the global gaze of overseas press and, to a lesser extent, overseas buyers. However, the main function of buyers within the commercial fashion field is to possess as many commercially viable items as possible to offer for resale in the stores and showrooms of the venues they represent. Since the obvious goal of high fashion designers is to sell clothes, mainly to buyers, designing runway shows to appeal to them while making the clothing easy to photograph for members of the media and commercial catalogues, the entire structure of the fashion show has shifted from that of a small, intimate affair designed to show clothes to a small, powerful elite gathered in a small room to one designed to have clothes paraded before a large, professional photo corps positioned at the end of a long runway, with the intention of having each piece of clothing shared as widely as possible in magazines, TV programs, and other forms of media. To this end, both still photographers and videographers not only expect but demand to be placed as close to centre runway position at the far end of the long runway, with general “house,” then designer “house” official photographers getting first priority for shooting placement before the beginning of each show, followed by photographers with official press passes from other outlets on a first-come, first-serve basis. The photo press clustered together at the end of the runway are the main focus of the show, since their role in getting the designer’s end product — the clothing — out to the world in a concrete way — through their photographs and recordings — is crucial to making sure the event has any impact at all outside of the halls of the venue, which has now become permanent and official, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), housed in the fashion/textile district of Dongdaemun, the traditional garment district that has been officialised by the Seoul city government as the center of fashion in Seoul, and hence, the entire nation. Fashion writers and other members of the non-photographic press are seated, along with buyers and VIPs, along the side of the runway so as to facilitate being able to see all details of the garments on the runway, from types of stitches and materials to cuts and how the garment flows and falls upon the models’ bodies. Both photo and non-photo press are categorised into overseas and domestic categories, with the overseas press being given higher priority by being seated or allowed entry before the domestic press, since Seoul Fashion Week, supported as it is by funds from the Seoul Metropolitan Government and the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, has prioritised the elevation of SFW into greater global prominence and gives special care to facilitate the jobs of members of the overseas press, even to the detriment of the functioning of the local press that is actually more responsible for documenting and promoting the work of the designers in question. VIPs such as famous pop stars and actors are crucial to adding to the social capital of designers who can successfully invite them to their shows, even as glitterati attendees benefit from the glamorous boost to their respective images in being photographed in a front row fashion show seat. It is worth noting that only SFW
And this is exactly why Korean street fashion and its constituent paepi are important as social phenomena to theorize. Because, of all the things worthy of the attention of the Cultural Studies academician that fall within the realm of even the widest definition of “popular culture,” street fashion is the most truly organic and naturally-evolved realm of linked social actions that aren’t controlled by a very monied and interested few. The field of Korean street fashion includes no political/governmental motivations to subsume this truly popular endeavor into the nationalist frame through the use of the “K” signifier. Far too much academic effort has been made to rationalize the appending of a K-prefix to words describing popular social phenomena, with little thought given to the inherent contradiction of studying the predations of political interests or the concatenations of capital as actual “popular” culture.
Simply put, the product of these formations are popular in their consumption, but not in their creation. And this limits their utility as a marker of what is really going on in the realm of social action. What is especially interesting about the street fashion paepi is how they have engaged in linked social actions that have come to define a field unto itself by turning consumption into creation. And that is the purest sense of how Cultural Studies ur-theorist Stuart Hall might describe the “Special K” signifier often assigned by institutionally-interested parties as the ultimate marker of top-down, oppressive, culturally exploitative power, whereas the much more organic, bottom-up, truly popular "discursive formation" signified by the self-created term “paepi” – by the Signified themselves – would mark the proper regard – and theoretical approach – to the serious consideration of the vibrant, sartorially-oriented community that has formed amongst South Korean youth. Such serious consideration should be a matter of course given their status not as a mere “subculture” or “tribe,” but as a “scene” of sartorial staging of consumption-as-creation the likes of which the world has never seen.
And this is exactly why Korean street fashion and its constituent paepi are important as social phenomena to theorize. Because, of all the things worthy of the attention of the Cultural Studies theorist that fall within the realm of the widest definition of "popular culture," the street fashion field/phenomenon/formation is the most truly organic and naturally-evolved realm of linked social actions that aren't controlled by a very monied and interested few. The field of Korean street fashion includes the least number of political/governmental motivations to subsume this popular endeavor into the nationalist frame and signifier of the "K." Far too much academic effort has been made to rationalize the appending of a K-prefix to words describing popular social phenomena, with little thought given to the inherent contradiction of studying the predations of political interests or the concatenations of capital as actual "popular" culture. Simply put, the productis of these formations are popular in their consumption, but not in their creation. And this limits their utility as a marker of what is really going on in the real of social action. As this paper will show, what is especially interesting about the street fashion paepi is how they have engaged in linked social actions that have come to define a field unto itself by turning consumption into creation. And that is the purest sense of how Cultural Studies ur-theorist Stuart Hall might describe the "Special K" signifier often assigned by institutionally-interested parties as the ultimate "discursive formation" of top-down, oppressive power, whereas the much more organic, bottom-up discursive formation signified by the term "paepi" -- by the Signified themselves -- would mark the proper regard -- and theoretical approach -- to the serious consideration of the vibrant, sartorially-oriented community that has formed amongst South Korean youth. Such serious consideration should be a matter of course given their status not as a mere "subculture" or "tribe," but as a "scene" of the sartorial staging of consumption-as-creation the likes of which the world has never seen. This analysis would be in line of Shane Blackman's excavation and explication of Steven Miles' far more theoretically useful notion of "lifestyle" as the best descriptor of what's is happening with the paepi:
The work of Steven Miles is comparable with that of Bennett to the extent that he proposes a theory of lifestyle based on a critique of the CCCS theory of subculture and identifies consumer culture as offering individuality for young people. Miles’s interpretation is more structural; he argues that ‘lifestyles are not individualized in nature but are constructed through affiliation and negotiation . . . Lifestyles are, in effect, lived cultures in which individuals actively express their identities, but in direct relation to their position as regards the dominant culture’ (Miles 2000: 16). This argument is a reconfiguration of the CCCS theory of subculture with its implicit use of Gramsci’s ideas where he asserts the desire to speak about the dominant culture in terms of institutions such as school, the labour market and ‘power structures’ (2000: 9). For him youth identities are constructed through stable commonalties: ‘through consumer goods, which allows them to feel unique’ (Miles 1995: 42). It is clear that Miles wishes to promote an understanding of youth subcultural identity as stable, which offers agency, but he sees adherence to particular forms of collective solidarity as more ephemeral due to conditions of postmodernity. (Blackman, 122)
As those on the inside of it know, "paepi" is an aspirational lifestyle, marked by conspicuous consumption and sartorial display as the locus and point of the social activity itself, rather than as mere markers of other social norms or values outside of the consumptive acts themselves.
The paepi are successful at navigating KAGFaC as mediated people in the world of hyper-extended selves, as masters of what Brooke Duffy and Emily Hund have aptly described as an "entrepreneurial femininity" in which many fashion bloggers and others do productive work in which the self is the product, as they themselves as fashion/photographic subject have become the product itself, the brand. (Duffy et al)
Duffy and Hund employed their term as they described Western fashion bloggers-as-entrepreneurs, mostly in the realm of Instagram and blogging platforms, but the concept is of great use in the Korean case. For the paepiare fluent in the way that (Western) social media creates not only the means, but the need to curate and even brand one's extended self. This is what some other actors (professional fashion designers and their brands) in the KAGFaC field pay other actors within the field (PR firms that represent brands and even the SFW brand of the city) to do but continually fail to gain traction in terms of the global charge of the field. These traditional actors fail on the level of globality, the very level where the paepi unintentionally succeed. And since KAGFaC is as dominated by Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter as any other fields in an increasingly smaller and more globally interconnected world, the paepi rise to the top of the field and accomplish what professional fashion designers and their industry organizations cannot, even with the nearly inexhaustible resources and money of an actor such as the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism behind them.
With the global charge of the KAGFaC field lost upon most of the actors within it, most actors are not able to garner the coveted global recognition of which coverage in international press outlets is both a symbol and concrete enabler. And this is true, despite the fact that the putative paepi social actor is not even actually a single actor in motion as a unified body with a conscious will or action plan; despite being relatively bereft of other forms of fiscal, objectified or institutional social capital, or a relative modicum of the embodied cultural capital (habitus) that other actors are possessed of either individually or in tandem, this being English language ability that come through desirable educational pedigrees and preparation, along with the concrete connections this brings. Indeed, despite actually being apparently fatally crippled in the game of gaining primacy via globility within KAGFaC, when international press come even to cover the high fashion event Seoul Fashion Week, the only coverage revolves around street fashion, a conversation in which the paepibecome the main cast and characters.
CONCLUSION -- FLIPPING THE FIELD
We have been talking about Korean street fashion, in the wake of the standardization and normalization of the genre by and through The Sartorialist, and how the Korean aesthetic, as one developed from the peculiar and particular cocktail of cultural hybridity, textual impurity , and postcoloniality enabled and amplified by the "social mediascape" (Jin) in the context of describing the success of hallyu, was able to quickly metastasize into the de facto street fashion aesthetic standard by which all others are now judged. To some extent, this must have to do with the fact that the original street fashion body was, in its initial iteration, Asian. In a similar way, the West has long been engaged in a relationship comfortable with a longing (and often Orientalizing) sartorial gaze towards the East. Talking about the Korean paepi necessitates a conversation about the body as a site of cultural production. It is, therefore, useful to reference Melissa Blanco -Borelli's theoretically facile notion of "hip-(g)nosis." (Blanco-Borelli) The body is a site/tool/act of, or a way to act out culture -- to produce it -- they are not mere passive conduits for culture to be produced through or on them. (Put some Stuart Hall on it here.) Most importantly, the paepi embody a hypermodern, corporealized agency created as the result of a self-actualized remix and rearticulation of imposed aesthetic, structural, and cultural signifiers, focused through a South Korean emphasis on body techniques (Tae-yeon Kim)
It should almost go without saying that one does not perform a dance, play, or put on another performative act, alone or without an audience. And more often than not, connecting with an audience or onlookers is facilitated by a stage. This section will talk theoretically about "staging" from performance studies and more specifically, about the role of the DDP in socially focusing or enabling certain kinds of action in terms of architectural theory.
As a stage, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, which has served as the permanent home of Seoul Fashion Week since 2012, has allowed the former fashion fandom that formed around the edges of fashion events in various places in Seoul before 2012 to develop into the main event, a new, de facto "runway" that eclipses the shows on the formal runways of Seoul Fashion Week to the point that the international fashion outlets from -- Vogue, GQ, and The New York Times -- that do now regularly cover SFW rarely even mention high fashion designers in their rush to talk about the "next level" interestingness of Korean fashion. This amazing flipping of the stage of the fashion field has only become possible through the fascinating structure that now houses SFW -- the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, which amplifies the extant "flexible sociality" of Seoul (Cho) through the "multi-modality" that Zaha Hadid designed into the structure (Shumacher), focusing it through the bodies and hypereality-enabled habitus of the paepi to allow a completely new kind of social interaction and urban fashion culture to form.
The huge “spaceship” that is the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), conceived and constructed by Zaha Hadid, was criticised as an egregious eyesore and a waste of taxpayers’ money, being as it was, an obvious attempt to create a mere spectacle for tourism, at the cost of traditional structures, objects, and aesthetics. (Yoon) Yet, from the beginning, the design concept was one of constructing a “metonymic landscape” in which “each space is made unique and memorable in its articulation” in which “the various diverse, and often very specific, audiences start to use the building.” Thus, the DDP was “posited as a key test case for the claims of Parametricism.” (Shumacher)
As those on the inside of it know, “paepi” is an aspirational term, category, and even lifestyle, marked by conspicuous consumption and sartorial display as a way of self-expression through consumptive acts, and is a truly bottom-up way of being more than just a passive consumer, a mindless vessel of capitalism, or just another lemming following the herd.
But what is awesome about Korean street fashion culture isn’t the amazing styling, although you can like it for that if you want to; it isn’t the subcultural aspects, cuz there ain’t any, really. The Korean paepi doesn’t really constitute a counterculture, or any subcultural values different from the mainstream. Instead, they are fascinating as a new class of Korean superconsumers, as a group of youth who have found a way to gain social validation quickly and efficiently, as superconsumers who turn what Marx called the “commodity fetish” (Warenfetischismus) into a creative endeavor. They flipped a failing of capitalism into a veritable artform. They turned consumption into creation. Fucking think about that shit.
As the cultural product of hypermodernity, the Korean paepi are a testament to the power of human creativity to make the best out of a soulless system, to remix various social tendencies of postcoloniality, Korea’s compressed development, and the cultural hybridity and textual impurity that helped make K-pop a culture industry juggernaut.
Korea is barely shaking off the reins of fasco-capitalism (not the actual democracy that came as a response to it) and still lives with the accumulated leftovers of its all-rationalizing ideologies. Now that it's a consumer society in which the new ideology that rationalizes social action is a function of the structural requirement to consume, consume, consume, and even understand one's own identity as constituted by things one consumes or the choices one makes (or even sees oneself as a commodity for consumption), and young people have become socialized into seeing themselves and everything they do as part of this system, it makes perfect sense that young people -- who have never known a society not possessed of this rationale -- have increasingly developed a fashion culture that reflects these values of identity expression through consumptive acts. So, understanding Korea street fashion culture as the ultimate expression of these consumer values as the culture of a young class of super-consumers, should be a pretty straightforward thing to do.
Fashion As Cipher
In this way, fashion is a cipher for understanding the biggest cultural-structural shift in Korean society right now. It's the ultimate expression of dominant (not counter- or subcultural) values, of (predominantly) youth culture making sense of the master imperative to eat, consume, and die and, above all, do not question authority unless it's a "Critical Thinking Question" in the the back of the textbook chapters. It's the end of a pretty weird and unbalanced equation in which the Confucian "iron cage" of ideology says one should respect authority, the hierarchy, and the Way Things Are Done™ yet participate in the new Creative Economy™, and be a good critical thinker, but not actual too critical.
It's the way theorist Stuart Hall says that yes, while there is a structural imperative that we should all just shut up and be lemmings and consume culture and All the Pretty Things it hawks to us without question or exception, people do talk back to hegemonic control in their own ways. They read the meanings of cultural texts different, strip and denude them, break them apart and construct them, remix them, repurpose them, and a whole myriad of other things. To the extent that the Party Propagandist, the movie director, the poet, or the fashion designer ENCODE the texts with specific meanings, individuals and communities of individuals DECODE them in different ways. And in the wild consumer society that is Korea, in the age of the "Han River Miracle" having given way to "Hell Joseon", the creative act of resistance that is created by the critical space cleared/made possible by the idea of Hell Joseon is what constitutes the creative impulses behind Korean street fashion, especially in youth. In this way, Korean street fashion culture could no more spring up in the older culture of say, Korea in the 1990s (towards the end of the old Han River Miracle paradigm, for which the Korean "IMF Crisis" of 1997 was the death knell) could no more provide the soil for such a culture than a bottle of vinegar could be expected to yield a flower from even the best possible seed.
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