17 Nov 2015
" South Korea is well recognised as one of the most 'wired' countries on the planet. Style from overseas is slowly making its way into the country and fusing with South Korean ideas."
Sarah H. Imm, Founder of Vélo-à-Porter
With plenty of steam, the pink, blue, and white shirts were easy to iron. He had a large collection of colourful, patterned silk ties and off-the-rack suits that fit him well.
When I first travelled to Seoul as a nine-year-old and later as a university student I noticed South Korean businessmen dressed very differently. In particular, there were generous cuts, shiny materials and adventuresome patterns.
In 2007, I started travelling to work in Seoul while working for Morgan Stanley Australia. People were curious about me as a tall Korean-American-Australian woman and I was curious about them – and what they wore to work. Business wear in Korea had changed only slightly from my trips as a tourist and student.
Many of my male Korean friends now work in Seoul. I would have described their style as 'preppie' at university - a toned down version of today's Abercrombie & Fitch.
This translates well in the workforce to spread-collar blue or white shirts, fitted suits which give a hint of the shape beneath and beautiful silk ties.
Seoul is a demanding city with great extremes of temperature in winter and summer. Consequently, the favoured natural fibres include wool, cotton, linen, cashmere.
As they have become more senior, all my university friends have invested in a variety of suits with differing weights to deal with the extreme humidity of monsoon season, below-freezing temperatures for weeks at a time during the winter and constant travel around the region.
Still, on a recent trip to Seoul I saw the same suits of my youth. And the same classic-suit-style-mistakes: too much drape in the body and trousers, a poor fit in shoulders, too long or too short jacket cuffs and trouser hems, shiny fabrics.
What was most distressing to me, now a professional observer of fashion and ex-banker, was seeing men disappear into their suits. It was as if their suits were wearing them.
But there are signs that this is changing. South Korea is well recognised as one of the most 'wired' countries on the planet. In tandem, style from overseas is slowly making its way into the country and fusing with South Korean ideas.
Park Chang Jin of B&Tailor, a bespoke tailoring house in Seoul, says many of the younger generation are embracing the modern fitted suit. He credits the internet and social media as the means by which style is transmitted very quickly to youth.
Indeed, those who do not work as traditional 'salary men' have cultivated a very personal and fashionable style. However, he concedes many South Korean men spend an extraordinary time at work and do not have time to consider personal style.
Kwak Ho Been of Tailorable notes bespoke tailoring was considered the domain of the older generation a decade ago. But fortunately, more young people now recognise how bespoke tailoring can enhance and accentuate the figure.
The primary difference between a bespoke and a made-to-measure suit is that made-to-measure is created from a standard-sized base and an individual's measurements are taken to alter a base pattern to match.
Bespoke suiting includes a high degree of customisation and an individual's involvement in the production process.
The Elements of Seoul Style
“White shirts (와이셔츠), dark formal suits, a dashing tie, leather slip-on dress shoes (for ease of removal when dining formally), the trench coat (바바리코트). White shirts and trench coats (especially Burberry) essential”
For both Kwak and Park, of the 30 to 40 per cent of their clients who are over 40 years of age, most are technology savvy and have travelled and/or lived overseas. Now some come with their sons for fittings and enjoy spending the time together often casting a critical eye on each other's style choices.
My friends and their colleagues in Seoul maintain word-of-mouth is the key to finding a great tailor. Amongst colleagues, friends, and acquaintances, someone with an innate sense of style is often a good place to start.
Kwak suggested looking at tailors' display windows with a critical eye. Generally speaking a good tailoring house will have a full-time tailor and studio on-site and salesmen to understand a customer's needs and lifestyle to assist in creation of a suit. And in Seoul, a bespoke suit is very affordable.
Bespoke tailoring houses tend to focus on classic style as opposed to 'trends', according to both Park and Kwak. However, Seoul is notoriously cold in winter - not unlike the winters of my youth in Minnesota.
Fortunately, the cold can help with style in the office by making it possible to dress in layers. A cashmere coat is light, versatile and warm in winter. Tweed, flannel and cashmere are the warmest suit materials and a waistcoat can help.
In summer, linen blends and seersucker are breathable and help to keep cool and dry. One-hundred per cent cotton shirts as a base with a merino wool or cotton t-shirt underneath can also help with the heat and the cold to both protect the shirt from excessive perspiration and to stay warm.
Korean fashion is changing. Now you might be wondering - do I iron my husband's shirts? Fashion's not all that's changed - he irons mine. So much for all that 'training' as a young woman.
Sarah Imm is the founder of Vélo-à-Porter, a lifestyle brand based in Sydney, Australia. She had a 19 year career in investment banking with Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse and UBS in New York, London, Hong Kong, Seoul and Sydney. She writes about fashion and bicycling at veloaporter.com.
The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.
17 Nov 2015
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