Fashion Is Important, But Not for the Clothes
Here's the thing. I'm not a fashion guy. I'm not a fashionable guy. I'm not really into fashion. But I do find Korean street fashion endlessly, academically interesting. And have, since stumbling into its direction, in around late 2006. Let me tell you why you might also find it intellectually interesting.
Street fashion in Korea isn't interesting because of the clothes. (Since I'll refer to "street fashion" as just "fashion" from now on, stick with me.) Fashion in Korea isn't inherently interesting. Trends change but pretty much stay the same. Debating about what's coming next season or what particular trend is good or bad is like debating about whether or not you're a good person because you do or don't like the color Royal Blue. Or whether you like French or Russian caviar. It's pointless.
Korea is a place where people enjoy tonkatsu while wearing blue jeans and listen to gangster rap while wearing English word-emblazoned fashion tees made in the city's unique vertically-integrated fast fashion sweatshop/department stores and chat on Facebook on android cellphones made by Samsung.
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 toooo 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 coud be expected to yield a flower from even the best possible seed.
A Melange of Meaning
Fashion has long been the medium in which signs and symbols -- the referers -- freed from their original meanings and contexts mutate, merge, and metamorphasize into a completely new thing that id completely separate and unmoored from their original referents. You can do it consciously, like the playful mix of mix going on with the orange-and-green girl directly below, or you can participate in a branded irony that makes a new meaning and thing out of a random mix of words and brand symbols, in the shirt that is a quite nearly an avant-garde art piece in the way it pairs up words and symbols into a sea of meaninglessness. It's genius. And that's the meaningless (or meaningful?) remixing that modern Korean culture is super-adept at. I talk about this here, in a post I called "ON THE HYBRIDITY, IMPURITY, AND POSTCOLONIALITY OF KOREAN POPULAR CULTURE TEXTS", which is a pretty theoretically useful read if you want to understand what's going on on these mean Korean streets.
Defining a Hyperreal Aesthetic
What I'm actually trying to do with this lookbook of Seoul street fashion is take a disparate group of people who are not being funneled into the aesthetically controlled and formally consistent shooting box of the runway and placed into a regime of visual conformity through highly technical shooting and editing into a consistent regime of visual conformity defined by a clearly visible and palpable style and aesthetic. And I want that aesthetic to logically, tonally, and stylistically match the hyperreal nature of Korean hypermodernity as represented by Korean street fashion's extreme textual remixing. I want the lookbook to have such an aesthetic consistency that even given the fact that the subjects in the pictures will be in so many various and random poses in front of myriad backdrops, the look will define a kind of connective tissue between the pictures that in most fashion lookbooks from the runway is created through having all the models pictured in the exact same positions on the runway, in the same, exact, highly controlled body positions and poses.
In short, our lookbook is attempting to provide an aesthetic consistency to highly varied sartorial subjects that would normally be provided through formal consistency in traditional fashion media. So, the look is that of a turbo-boosted reality that resembles life looked at with the Saturation slider pushed half its range up to the right, in which the Real still looks too real, and nearly too much so. It visually gives the feeling that what is being pictured is almost Simulation and not unfiltered reality itself. It's documentary, but feel feels a bit fake. Like the pictures we see on Instagram, and indeed in a variety of mediated forms on the Internet and through our mobile devices, this reality is heavily filtered. Through filters. Which is why on Instagram nowadays, it's a mark of pride and veritable bravery to post something proudly labeled as #nofilter. we are so used to looking at a heavily filtered, mediated, made up reality that it's hard to look at #unfiltered reality without its makeup on. The goal of this lookbook is to remind the viewer of this layered on hyperreality by photographing in a way that makes everything more enhanced, pumped up, saturated, manicured, curated, and Photoshopped. That's why I like to edit with Instagram filters and frames as my main tools, autosharing and hence saving the "originals" on Flickr as I upload them through Instagram and publish the images to be seen, LIKEd, and hopefully commented upon. I want the images in the Seoul street fashion lookbook to evoke the consciously felt, tingling sensation on the nape of the neck that we live in the world of Baudrillard's Simulation and Simulacra; I want the viewer to feel like something's a little off, in the niggling way one often feels the wash of deja vu that Morpheus told us indicated the existence of a glitch in The Matrix.
Hopefully, it's working.