From Fashion Fandom to Phenom: "Paepi" as an Interruption in the Discursive Formation of "Hallyu" and the Special "K"

CAPTION: A young paepi middle school student who makes her own glasses accessories and who plans to open an online shop of her goods poses for the camera in Hongdae. Between her haircut, retro glasses, sukajan jacket, retro jeans, socks, and old-school shoes, she is a good channeller of the Korean “boko”  retro trend.

CAPTION: A young paepi middle school student who makes her own glasses accessories and who plans to open an online shop of her goods poses for the camera in Hongdae. Between her haircut, retro glasses, sukajan jacket, retro jeans, socks, and old-school shoes, she is a good channeller of the Korean “boko”  retro trend.

WORTHY OF CRITICAL ATTENTION?
There is a tendency to dismiss fashion and its concerns as superficial, trivial, and in the end, inconsequential. There is also the sense that fashion – especially “street fashion” – is too squarely located in the market itself, too near the ground, and hence too unfocused through the more evolved critical faculties of society’s cultural elites or well-connected aesthetes. And in that sense, street fashion is too unruly, too uncontrolled, and too unfocused to really make any real sense of. All of these things seem to be true if a look at most of the existing work on Korean popular culture is any guide, which is exactly why a look at street fashion, especially in the historically layered, compressed development-turbocharged, culture industry-driven petri dish that defines South Korea is a crucial necessity at this point in the conversation about Korean “popular culture”.

If one is to speak meaningfully of popular culture in the theoretical, academic sense, it is important to note that the “K-pop” and “K-cinema” incarnations of Korean popular culture are difficult to to describe as such, given how little most of these fields’ manifestations are rooted in the work and workings of everyday people. Along the lines of how Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer described the “culture industry,” the “K-pop” and other commercial, corporate formations in the economy are best described as mere simulations of natural, popular cultural formations, more than entities that are an organic part of society themselves. As windows into the workings of the lived reality of everyday people, as a peek into the content of their social norms and values, a close look at the specific cultural products in these fields are not especially revelatory in themselves; rather, the more useful way of looking at these formations of capital production is in terms of the responses and forms of engagement they engender from normal people. Which is why the study of various fandoms is important and has accelerated and intensified in the way that theorists such as Stuart Hall would find critically useful to the study of “popular culture.”

  •  insert discussion of the appropriateness of looking at fashion as a way to read popular culture, starting with LaBerge (http://soc.sagepub.com/content/47/2/407.short)
  • "Appearance Stratification and Identity: Fashion as the Clearest Example of What Sociology is All About" (Yves Laberge 2013 47: 407 Sociology)
  • then Barthes, The Fashion System, quote about fashion as sociological cipher. 
  • then Rocamora, on the history of the "street fashion" image in the "Straight-Up"
  • then de Perthuis, on the ontology of the street fashion photograph, especially as an inherently mediated form of sartorial, social knowledge.  
  • (de Perthuis, Karen. 2016. “People in Fashionable Clothes: Street Style Blogs and the Ontology of the Fashion Photograph.” Fashion Theory 20 (5). Routledge: 523–43. doi:10.1080/1362704X.2015.1115656.)

WHAT IS "STREET FASHION"?

THE STREET AND THE "STRAIGHT-UP" REPRESENTATION OF REALITY
Given that haute couture fashion has always been a white, European space in its origination and articulation as a field, albeit one marked by brief and occasional interruptions by fleeting "guest appearances" of raced alterity brought with, on, and through colorful bodies, the inherent whiteness of the (high) fashion field has never been significantly interrupted. 

The first street fashion picture, featured in the "Straight Up" column of i-D magazine in 1980. 

The first street fashion picture, featured in the "Straight Up" column of i-D magazine in 1980. 

But in the lower realm of "street fashion," raced bodies have held a different valence in a field with a far shorter history, marked by most scholars of the subject from the first appearances of the "straight-up" fashion portrait in i–D Magazine in 1980 (Rocamora, 185).  It may be obvious that it is likely no coincidence that "street fashion", as an ongoing procession of the weird, found its origination and eventual articulation in the popular imaginary, as both a field and popular practice, through its first, Japanese iteration. 

The birth of Japanese "street fashion", especially as it found heavy mediation outside of the confines of Japan and the medium of paper through the early days of the World Wide Web in the latter half of the 1990s, left the indelible mark of Japanese otherness on the very idea of the street, fashion, and even Japan itself. 

The birth of Japanese "street fashion", especially as it found heavy mediation outside of the confines of Japan and the medium of paper through the early days of the World Wide Web in the latter half of the 1990s, left the indelible mark of Japanese otherness on the very idea of the street, fashion, and even Japan itself. 

But even the appearance of the vaunted Fruits in 1997, Japanese street fashion in the 1990s eventually found comfortable, permanent reception in the West as a part of the Orientalist view of "Wacky Japan" (Wagenaar) or even "Cool Japan" trope (Leavitt) One reason this is true has to do with the reception of the particular styles in question being essentially in-the-street manifestations of mostly Harajuku or Shibuya fashion as haute couture fashion objects with very little connection to real life sartorial uses or concerns. They were always objects of nearly pure spectacle, and there was a particularly Japanese warp and woof to "street fashion," especially as that was often embodied in  the "Harajuku girl" look, as well as a very particular trajectory to the structural forces, demographic shifts, and cultural manifestations as exemplified and incorporated by the kogaru in Japanese society that explain how the street fashion kids in Tokyo started appearing in the first place. (Suzuki et al) The origins and articulations of Japanese street fashion placed Japanese street fashion into a haute couture space of spectacle defined by extremely raced bodies through the work of photographer Shoichi Aoki (Black, 239) before settling, as a category, into a default, not-as-heavily-raced category that eventually became a normalized, photo-sartorial practice through the work of American photographer Scott Schumann. 

A TRULY POPULAR ENDEAVOR?
Much ado has been made about the putative genre of "K-pop" music, the allegedly rising star of "K-cinema," and even "K-Beauty."  But comparatively little attention has been given to a critical interrogation of the discursive formation denoted by the Chinese-originated term hallyu,  known in English as the "Korean Wave." Besides the problematic use of the wave metaphor apropos to a description of cultural flows, the obvious, inherent limitation of the moniker lies in that fact that waves ebb as much as they swell. Moreover, the notion of the a wave's relentless power is an inherent part of the Chinese journalist-coined word that signifies an unstoppable cultural force crashing over Chinese borders like a tidal surge that cannot be held back. As the Korean broadcast media instantly took to utilizing the term and its utility in denoting Korean popular culture's putative relentlessness out of feelings of nationalist pride, the birth of a new, mediated discourse of "Korean pop culture ascendant" was nigh. And for K-pop and all its siblings, the K-signifier would mark the inclusion of all types of pop culture product within the discursive formation of hallyu, which is actually an circularly-defined category of semantic vagueness that actually is the very basis of the category's surprisingly versatile and extremely facile utility in focusing Korean government concern, money, and other means of support. 

Some interrogation of the of the inevitably ethno-nationalist signification of things "K"  has been questioned by those who have taken up a study of Korean pop culture products, e.g. "What is the K in K-pop", with some attention being given to (cheekily) define what is actually Korean as signified by the K. However, little attention has been given to other implications of the signifying  act of placing a "K" prefix before a word describing a Korean popular culture field, such as found in "K-Drama" or "K-Cinema." If the original markets in which these popular cultures first began to flourish did not understand them as especially or specially "K", it is indicative of the fact that the "K" only has meaning outside of its original productive context. It is also indicative of the fact that the prefix actually has no real descriptive meaning, other than to indicate either that a) the cultural product was produced in Korea, or b) the persons involved in either the text or its production are "Korean"(in the ethno-nationalist sense of the term). Interestingly, the K-prefix rarely signifies any actual Koreanness, Traditionally defined in the very self-same ethno-nationalist discourse within which the product is generally uses) within the product itself. This leads to the crucial consideration of what the K-prefix actually signifies, and is a point that is rarely sussed out and debated: The "Special K" is a signifier that most accurately indicates the institutionally led, top-down discursive formation of hallyu and all its commercially interested agents. In short, the Special K indicates putative popular culture that is indeed not very popular in its origins. If anything, the industrial cultural text production machines indicated by the Special K , as found in K-pop, K-Cinema, K-Sports, K-Beauty, and even K-Fashion are textbook exmples of the "culture industry" formations and their role as devices of "mass deception" theorized about by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.

AN AUTOETHNOGRAPHIC INTRODUCTION TO A NEW FANDOM

Korean fashion fandom finds its origins in the unquely public nature of the Seoul Fashion Week ("Seoul Collection" until 200x) event's status as a government-funded culture event. Since most fashion weeks in the world are privately funded, pointedly unpublic affairs, the public nature of SFW comes from its operation having been dependent on taxpayer-colleted public funds, which necessitated granting some degree of public access, which thereby resulted in the culture of selling tickets, in rock concert fashion, to members of the public. Which resulted in behaviors and modes of interaction already fmiliar in other culture industry fandoms in Korea. (NEED SOME ARCHIVAL/HISTORICAL SOURCES HERE)

 

Model fans make their catch, armed with cameraphones and show schedules.  

Model fans make their catch, armed with cameraphones and show schedules.  

Fashion show fans were easy to identify and photograph after scouting them while waiting in lines for shows and it was quite unusual to see photographers shooting show attendees for their fashion...

Fashion show fans were easy to identify and photograph after scouting them while waiting in lines for shows and it was quite unusual to see photographers shooting show attendees for their fashion...

Often, the best and only place to photograph was in the parking lots when lines extended out from the main convention hall, a situation that generally yielded more dedicated fashion show fans. 

Often, the best and only place to photograph was in the parking lots when lines extended out from the main convention hall, a situation that generally yielded more dedicated fashion show fans. 

Or, alternatively, at the Seoul Fashion Artists' Association shows, which was a group pf Korean designers who had split off from the main Seoul Collection (Seoul Fashion Week) event for political/organizational reasons. 

Or, alternatively, at the Seoul Fashion Artists' Association shows, which was a group pf Korean designers who had split off from the main Seoul Collection (Seoul Fashion Week) event for political/organizational reasons. 


An Autoethnographic Take on Korean Street Fashion, 2006-2012: The Days of Fast Fast Fashion Fandom as Outsiders, Fandoms forming in a familiar, top-down culture industry field

  • entry into street fashion photography and the days of hiphoper.com (sic)
  • street fashion portraits as records of ethnographic interactions, early evidence of the spatial delineations of fashion field actors (field theory-based spatial analysis)
  • the "global fetish" and the markers of field success, Seoul as entry into 7 fashion capitals, mayoral plans, government support, Concept Korea ==> KAGFaC

This is a case in which a traditional fandom that grew around the edges of a culture industry, once transformed and differently enabled by the unique spatial matrix of the Dongdaemun Design Complex after SFW's permanent move there, would become  the main and most powerful actor in the KAGFaC field, as measured by the field's own "global fetish"-based markers.

HOW BODIES MOVE THROUGH FIELDS

In the bigger picture, this part of the article is both a response to and enhancement of ideas put forth by John Levi Martin (Martin).

What Martin is talking about is an extended metaphor taken from the physical sciences for use in social science, simply stated. And it has great utility as an explanatory metaphor, especially when explaining many far-ranging and diffuse social phenomenae.

Often, people seem to treat social phenomenae as something discreet and definable, akin to something "real" that one can pick up and touch with one's hands. However, the problem here is defining something that is inherently difficult to see, which is the defining characteristic of most social phenomenae -- you can't see the ism itself, but only its effects. Sure, sexism and racism, like gravity, all exist; but you can't see those things themselves. Like Isaac Newton in the apocryphal story connected to his name, he didn't “see” gravity, as indeed no one can or ever has, but could clearly see its effects in the apples falling from the tree. If one goes up into a tower and drops an apple, a rock, and a feather at the same time, we know that they're going to be pulled down, as all mass is inside a gravitational field. Einstein complexified this difficult question by stating that gravity is not a force transferred by some medium or particle across empty space. And that was the essential problem. What is the medium of transference of energy within a field? Is there some movement of a magical ether or some other mysterious thing that we can't see? No, says Einstein. Gravity is the warping of space-time around any object possessed of mass. And that leads us to the major aspects of field theory that will define the theory for us and explain it.

Within a field, there are 5 rules or conditions to think about objects that fall within its influence. The field, in both the physical sciences and social sciences senses:

1. Causes "changes in the state of some elements but involves no appeal to changes in states of other elements."
2. “Changes in state involving interaction between the field and the existing states of the elements" and
3. "The elements have particular attributes that make them susceptible to the field effect.”
4. “The field without the elements is only a potential for the creation of force."
5. The field itself is not directly measurable; its existence can only be proved by its effects.” (CITATION)

In the end, according to Martin, “Field theory, then, has several generic characteristics no matter what the domain of application." And that is key to our purposes here, as social scientists trying to explain phenomenae in social fields. (CITATION)

So, moving from the ideas of gravitational or electromagnetic fields in physical science, let's postulate that the social field defined by its effects on agents within it is one that is shot through with the “global fetish”, an aspiration to a vaguely-defined “global” that is shared by all agents within the field and indeed has come to partially define the legitimacy of the field itself. We should also not forget the way that Bourdieau imagined the field in his employment of field theory, as the arena of struggle for primacy within it, with cultural capital as the deciding factor of success. 

For the sake of ease of discussion, let us try to compress the lengthy idea of an intertwined and cross-permeated field of fashion in Korea that is shot through with global aspirational desire -- with a certain globality -- parallel to the way that the related forces of electricity and magnetism have come to be expressed as electromagnetism. The resulting field generated within and defined by agents in the Korean aspirationally global fashion complex (KAGFaC) affects agents as diverse as Korean high fashion designers, the fashion design associations they constitute, overseas and domestic fashion buyers, international and local press outlets, and the paepi that are a major point of concern of this paper in a variety of different ways.   The field -- and its global charge --  affects the nature and behavior of the agents, which then interact with one another in terms of their altered characteristics and resultant different self-interests.

Before moving on from a review of theory to a discussion of the paepi and the field of fashion they enter, it is necessary to take a brief aside to mention a South Korean societal phenomenon that charges the field of fashion with a specific and peculiar valence. 

THE “GLOBAL FETISH”

It is useful to remember the concept of sadaejuui when we look at the way in which the commercialization and commodification of Korean culture and the desire to promote and export it outside of Korea’s borders, which scholar  Hyunjung Lee has crystallized into the notion of a “global fetish” in staged cultural productions. She points out how the notion of the “global” in South Korea has become so highly prioritized that it has become its own rationale, one capable of explaining just about anything, or alternatively put, has become a rationalizing framework able to give meaning and worthiness to just about anything put into it, to the extent that the object promotes Korea or Korean culture in the global realm, or functions to “globalize” South Korea. Seoul Fashion Week has certainly been overcome with just such a "fetish" and it certainly informed my initial ability to enter the field as a non-Korean foreigner possessed of almost no fashion-related cultural capital worthy of granting my access to most fashion weeks in other parts of the world...

THE KOREAN ASPIRATIONALLY GLOBAL FASHION COMPLEX

A FIELD INSIDER
It is useful to begin an explication of what I will call the "KAGFaC" field with Seoul Fashion Week (SFW), the industry event that brings all major players in the field together in a highly organized and controlled way, with the goal of gathering the global gaze as a given. Here, I'll use the insightful example and theoretical framing of Joanne Entwistle and Agnès Rocamora's 2006 field theory analysis of London Fashion Week "The Field of Fashion Materialized: A Study of London Fashion Week." Therein, the authors were able to enter the major event in the field, a "fashion week" as fashion researcher academics. In my own case, I have been attending Seoul Fashion Week every season for more than a decade as a member of the field -- a freelance photographer for organizations from CNN Travel, The Korea Herald, and The Huffington Post as a participant-practitioner who is able to make even more in-depth analyses from the "inside." In addition to the several hats I have worn as a freelance photographer, I was already known during those years as the first street fashion photographer and blogger in Korea, having shot street fashion publicly since late 2006. Also, by around 2011, I had also begun working as the house and/or backstage photographer for at least three Korean fashion designers, namely Yang Hee Deuk (양희득), Doii Lee (이도이), and IM Seon Oc (임선옥). Lastly, I have been covering SFW as press under the auspices of a local fashion industry newspaper called TINNews (The Industry News) to provide highly stylized street fashion portraits, which has allowed me to enjoy great latitude in gaining access to other field members. 

Doii Lee fashion show at Seoul Fashion Week SS2011 (Taken October, 2010)

Doii Lee fashion show at Seoul Fashion Week SS2011 (Taken October, 2010)

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. 

NOT LEMMINGS, BUT LEADERS

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.