Repurposing and reinterpretations of styles is one of the coolest things about looking at fashion on an international scale. Korean fashion is bursting with clever, and at times puzzling, reinterpretations of Western trends. What’s on the street back home – florals, high-top sneakers, Peter Pan collars, studs – have their own intensity and look in the Eastern Hemisphere. It could be said that certain style ideas get “lost in translation,” like an oversized co-ed style sweatshirt that reads “Monica.” But the new take on a familiar brand, sweatshirt, backpack, or sneaker is like a remake of your favorite film: it’s different and maybe off-target, but it’s still worth a watch. It’s part of what gives Korean style its signature playfulness and punch.
Mainly thanks to hipsters, the American brand’s “Classic” style, a clunky Volvo of a running shoe, has enjoyed a renaissance in the States. As it goes, Korea is a different story. The Classic styles come in variations like the 575 and the 1300 but are identified by their thick wedge of sole and single ‘N’ logo. Perhaps at the center of Korea’s style cult of active wear, the New Balance Classic sneaker is distinctively styled by the country’s youth. The look starts at the bottom-up with the square-ish sneaker in neons or classic black-and-white combo, paired with super-tight jeans or leggings, and topped with an oversized sweater or windbreaker. Some pulled-up, patterned ajumma socks pull it all together.
The khakis and workshirts that clothed the working man until punk kids repurposed it for skating and moshing, Dickies has yet a third life in Korea. Worn primarily by kids and teens here, Dickies’ new ego is a sporty brand selling items with its name sprawled on the fronts of sweatshirts, sweatpants and hats in bold type. You can spot a Dickies sweatshirt heaped on a garment table at Costco, or on a pricey department store rack. Athletic clothing in and of itself is HUGE in Korea right now. Dickies meets that demand without the red and yellow horseshoe stamp that used to indicate you might not be out of place at a Misfits concert. It seems you can make a lot of money in Korea by typing arbitrary sporty-sounding words, brands, and related logos on the chest and arms of sweatshirts. It appears Dickies is at least doing okay in one part of the world, whether or not Fall Out Boy has gotten back together.
A dorkier, sturdier answer to LeSportsac, Kipling is a child of the late 1980s, specializing in nylon ‘adventurewear,’ ie backpacks, pencil cases, and sporty handbags. Kipling’s popularity peaked in the States in the late 90s, cladding the funkier kids on the bus with Jansport alternatives. I’ll be darned if Punky Brewster didn’t rock some Kipling now and then. The Crayola-bright nylon material, toothy plastic zipper, and trademark furry monkey keychain (the brand derives its name from Rudyard Kipling) are making a comeback on the shoulders and desks of Korean children and adults. Nineties revival is not out-of-place in fashion right now, but it seems even Kipling has given a nod toward its special popularity in Korea by dubbing one backpack style the “Seoul.”
The price, not the branding, gets lost in translation in this case. The jeans and tee shirt one-stop shop is…still pretty much selling the same shirtdresses and basic sweaters, but at triple the pricetag of back home. Imports, be it Heinz ketchup or Gap jeans, always come at a premium in Korea. Expats might feel sheepish proclaiming they bought something at the Gap, but here a bold-letter “GAP” emblazoned tee shirt is something to display.
Your High School Varsity Jacket
In summation, nearly anything you would wear inside or near a locker room can be repurposed for fashion in Korea these days. This even extends to high school memorabilia. After thinking you couldn’t be caught dead wearing your heavy felt and leather varsity jacket more than 10 minutes after graduation ended, congratulations! A second chance. Varsity style jackets are enormous right now. Of course, Korea adds some whacky. On a Korean television show I recently saw a varsity-style jacket in navy and yellow with a giant Batman logo. Men will pair their varsity jacket with Buddy Holly lense-less frames to add some extra irony. Some varsity jackets look incredibly authentic with lettering and town names that seem so dead-on I could have sworn it was off a team in my district. (Go Eagles, for the record.)
What do you think of these brands? Do you wear any of them?