When streetwear first originated in the ‘80s with its eccentric colors, baggy silhouettes, and athleisure expression, it was seen as a simple fashion trend that would eventually go out of style. Forty years later, streetwear has taken the fashion world by storm. Not only has it found its way into the sector of luxury fashion, it's also been able to transcend global boundaries. Streetwear is especially popular in Asian countries like Korea, which has become a powerful force in mainstream fashion.
Korea's rise in the fashion industry is a part of "Hallyu", which directly translates to the "flow of Korea." Today, it is colloquially referred to as the "Korean wave." Hallyu signifies the government's efforts to build Korea's political soft power by increasing the global popularity of Korean culture. As a result, it has saturated all sectors of pop culture, including music, film, and fashion. Korean culture has particularly flourished in the entertainment sector as Korean pop and dramas have been especially successful in contributing to the widespread popularity of Korean fashion. K-pop stars are not only known for their music, but also for their unique clothing choices, which often feature loud, colorful, and layered looks, closely resembling the essence of American streetwear. What stars choose to wear becomes trendy, propelling Korean fashion forward and allowing it to transcend cultural boundaries and gain reputability. The world's fascination with Korean culture provides a gateway for their designers to enter mainstream fashion spaces.
Concept Korea is a fashion collective sponsored by the South Korean government in an effort to promote native designers in international spaces. The collective has made multiple appearances at the renowned New York Fashion Week. LIE, a brand presented by Concept Korea at Fall and Winter NYFW, covered models in both feminine midi skirts and masculine trench coat silhouettes, exploring a masculine-feminine duality. Despite the visual variety in the collection, many pieces shared noticeable similarities; numerous showcased an emphasis on baggy but structured silhouettes, splashes of opposing but muted colors, and layering of many different textures. Luxury Western streetwear brand Off-White can be seen mirroring the trends of Korean fashion. For instance, their Fall 2020 collection exhibited their experimentation with structured business-like blazers. Fun patterns like animal print coupled with splashes of bright pastel colors allowed Off-White to explore the versatility of this traditionally formal silhouette. Like LIE, the brand also explored the masculine-feminine duality, pairing neon colored windbreakers with large, extravagant tulle skirts.
IISE, another brand presented by Concept Korea at Fall and Winter NYFW, embraced minimalism. To enhance their cool-toned, monochromatic pieces, IISE added embellishments like fringe, buckles, and strategically placed zippers. The brand also experimented with baggy silhouettes, heavily featuring puffy jackets, cargo pants, and sportswear in their collection. Striking similarities can be drawn between IISE and American streetwear brand Supreme. Famous for their Bogos, plain pieces where the brand’s box logo is the central focus, Supreme often parallels the simplicity of IISE. Additionally, their primary focus on athleisure apparel leads them to reinvent the same baggy silhouettes through incorporating unique patterns and textures.
Korea's influence on American fashion will undoubtedly become more prominent as the two industries begin to merge. Korean designer Hyein Seo, famous for her distinct bold and rebellious style, not only created her own eponymous brand, but also styles fashion icon Rihanna. By wearing Seo’s pieces, Rihanna popularizes Korean streetwear in American fashion. Designer Kathleen Kye's primary use of pastels, textures, and patterns, have allowed her to Westernize her Korean label. Her ability to stay on trend appeals to younger consumers and as a result, her collections can be found in stores like Urban Outfitters or on mainstream celebrities like Kendall Jenner. Korean celebrities can also be seen styling American streetwear brands. For example, BTS singer J-Hope consistently dons popular Western brands, while simultaneously making it his own; one of his most iconic outfits features a Stussy headband, Supreme x Louis Vuitton black and white sunglasses, a Balenciaga denim shirt, and blue Puma Fenty sneakers. In this outfit J-Hope not only rocks popular Western brands, but also the classic Korean baggy but structured streetwear silhouette. This tendency of American and Korean street fashion to build off one another has caused the two to be almost indistinguishable.
As Korea expands its soft power, Western pop culture will continue to derive many of its contemporary trends from Korean influences. This increasing fascination with Korean culture ensures that it will continue to be at the forefront of fashion, and that its designers will remain the pioneers of streetwear.