The mother of South Korean menswear rides the K-Wave

Her clothes are worn by stars like Lee Jung-Jae from “Squid Games”, Choi Woo-Shik from “Parasite” and members of K-pop sensation BTS. But when South Korean fashion designer Woo Young-mi made her international debut in 2002, few people believed that high-end fashion could emerge from a country known for its war-torn history.

Ms. Woo, or Madame Woo as she is often called, is undoubtedly one of the most successful Korean designers. She is the CEO of Solid Corporation, a company that controls two successful brands: Solid Homme and Wooyoungmi. She became the first Korean member of the French Fashion Federation in 2011, and her Wooyoungmi line is now a staple at luxury retailers such as Le Bon Marché, Selfridges and Ssense.

Ms. Living on and off in Paris for about 20 years, Woo has had front-row seats to South Korea’s emergence as a cultural juggernaut. It is a phenomenon that she has contributed to and benefited from throughout her career, she said.

Born in 1959, Ms. Woo grew up in Seoul during a time of rapid economic development that followed the end of the Korean War. “The national motto was ‘work hard and live well’,” she said. “Caring about fashion was seen as a social evil, especially for men.”

But Ms. Woo had an unconventional upbringing that gave her a natural affinity for the arts. Her mother, an art teacher, dressed her and her four siblings in unique, homemade clothes that made them stand out at school. Her father was an architect with only occasional work who socialized with American soldiers, collected rare objects, and invested in his appearance. Among his possessions, she recalled, were pieces of Bauhaus furniture, European fashion magazines and a long leather coat reminiscent of one Clint Eastwood might have worn.

“At that time, 95 percent of men dressed the same,” she said. “Fathers wore suits and uniforms in their offices and factories, but my father spent 80 percent of his passion on looking good,” she said, citing him as the reason she eventually pursued men’s design and is often inspired by art and architecture.

“Honestly, I was ashamed of everything – the way our house was set up, the clothes I had to wear – but looking back now, I think my dad was a very creative, very cool person,” she said.

Despite her background, she never thought of being a fashion designer because, she said, “words like ‘fashion designer’ didn’t exist in Korea back then.” She failed a law school entrance exam, which she called “fate.”

Ms. Woo said she had “momentary illusions of genius” through her fashion classes at Sungkyunkwan University, but it wasn’t until she was invited to compete at the Osaka Fashion Collection in 1983 that she began to dream big.

Hyunji Nam, head of Korean content at Ssense, said that when it came to fashion, Japan and South Korea were on very different playing fields at the time. “In the late 1980s, Japanese fashion was already being recognized abroad because of the work of names like Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake,” she said. “But South Korea did not have the national power to support fashion inside or outside the country, and most designers, no matter how talented, had few opportunities to show their work inside or outside Korea.”

The trip to Osaka was Ms. Woo’s first time overseas, she was intimidated not only as a competitor, but also as a Korean among a host of nations with more established fashion histories. She remembered the other countries that came in groups — coalitions of people from Europe, Hong Kong, Singapore — and she, a lone Korean. She stayed up the night before the competition with a needle quivering in her hands as she completed her minimalist take on hanbok (traditional Korean dress). She was shocked when she was awarded the award.

“In Korea, no one cared that such a competition existed and no one cared that a Korean could win, but it inspired me to think big about fashion,” she said.

Ms. Woo bounced around a few Korean fashion conglomerates before starting her first business in 1998, a small boutique in Seoul, with her younger sister, Jang-Hee. “She was the one who always told me I could do it when I felt I couldn’t,” said Mrs. Woo said of his lifelong business partner, who died in 2015.

They called the ready-to-wear men’s brand Solid Homme and described it as clothing for their ideal man. “I imagined him to be straight and slim, the kind of good guy most girls would want to marry,” said Mrs. Woo said. The results were clean, minimal looks that many at the time described as metrosexual.

Ms. Woo said the brand hit the market at the right time: just before the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. Foreign tourists and Olympic participants flooded the capital, and Koreans became interested in what non-Koreans looked like and became more open to a diversity of styles, she said.

Solid Homme in particular spotted two groups of trendsetters. The first ones were called Orenji-jok (Orange strain), a group of wealthy teenagers and 20-somethings, often from the Gangnam district of Seoul. They had traveled abroad and became interested in fashion with a western edge.

The other was Korean music’s first ballad singers, such as Lee Moon-sae, Lee Seung-Chul and Yoon Sang, who catered to mainly female audiences. Solid Homme grew through word of mouth and celebrity exposure.

“Solid Homme and Wooyoungmi have been go-to brands for male Korean celebrities for as long as I can remember,” said Gianna Hwang, a stylist for clients such as Lee Jung-Jae, Eric Nam and Song Kang. “It’s not easy for a menswear company to achieve this kind of soft but beautiful look that both of these brands possess. Her clothes are slightly oversized, as is the trend today, but overall they have a great fit, which is most important if you dress men.”

Today, with more Korean celebrities traveling abroad to do fashion shoots, there is a growing conversation about adding hints of Korean style to outfits. “There are many valuable Korean brands today, but neither Solid Homme nor Wooyoungmi are Korean-only brands,” said Ms. Hwang said. Ms. Woo, she added, is “an amazing designer who just happens to be Korean.”

Fourteen years into Solid Homme’s success, Ms. Woo said it wasn’t enough that she felt good in Korea. She wanted to create a luxury brand for a more sophisticated and sensitive adult who was not afraid to be vulnerable. And despite friends and acquaintances expressing concern, she wanted to do it in Paris, the fashion capital of the world.

“They told me I was crazy,” she said. “First, they said I couldn’t do it because I’m Korean. Then they said it would be all the more impossible because I was a woman.”

Others suggested that if she wanted to appeal to Europeans, she should play up her brand’s Korean character and make clothes that looked more visibly Asian. “They said it was like trying to sell croissants in Paris,” said Ms. Woo said.

“If you want to make it like a Korean, you have to sell tteok,” she said, referring to Korean rice cakes. “You have to make something they don’t already have. But what could I do? I wanted to make croissants.”

The French fashion scene really turned out to be uninviting for her. At Paris Fashion Week, Wooyoungmi’s showtime slot was rescheduled several times — even after invitations were sent — and models she hired were scouted by other designers, she said. The collection finally debuted on a Sunday at 10.30, the morning after the biggest Fashion Week parties, to fewer than 150 guests. Had it not been for one positive review in Le Figaro, she said, she might have given up altogether.

Ms. Woo vowed to become a full member of the French Fashion Federation, believing a seat at the table was the only way to secure the label’s future at Paris Fashion Week, but the road to get there was not easy.

Until 2009, her team operated out of an office in Paris, bringing everything—scissors, needles, thread—from Korea and working from hotel rooms. On several occasions, she was rejected by showrooms that would not take a chance on a Korean designer. One of the most humbling experiences, she said, was at a showroom meeting where the owners spoke over her in French — “Korea? Do you know where that is? Are Koreans doing fashion now?” – as if she couldn’t understand.

“I held it together until the meeting was over and cried and cried afterwards,” she said. “But I showed there, did well there and left on my own, just like I promised myself I would.”

In the last decade, there has been a shift in how Korean fashion is talked about, and men’s fashion in particular.

The South Korean luxury market boomed and now ranks as the seventh largest in the world, according to Euromonitor, a market research firm. Sales of men’s skin care products alone rose 44 percent between 2011 and 2017. And of course, as Korean men invest more time and money into fashion, the world is seeing more of them.

“It’s not like one thing happened after another,” said Ms. Woo said. “It’s that all these factors interact with each other.” Then she added, “It was me too.”

Wooyoungmi now has 44 stores in Asia, Europe, North America and Australia. Ms. Woo has expanded into jewellery, accessories and women’s clothing. Last year, she collaborated with Samsung on limited edition Wearable Wooyoungmi items. According to data from Korea’s Financial Supervisory Service, Solid Corporation earned 548 billion won ($46 million at the time) in 2020, up 20 percent from two years earlier.

“Wooyoungmi raised the perception of Korean fashion abroad by proving that it could be done,” said Ms. Nam, of Ssense, said. “A Korean designer could be a regular at Paris Fashion Week. A Korean brand could be sold in luxury department stores.”

Ms. Woo, she added, “paved the way for future designers.”

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