Seoul Fashion Week wins over Chinese buyers with digital format
Once fashion month draws to a close and the fashion weeks hosted by the "Big Four" fashion capitals – New York, London, Milan and Paris – are wrapped up, a number of other runways light up around the world. And this year the challenge for events both great and small was the same: trying to square the circle that is successfully organizing a fashion week in the middle of a pandemic. Having already witnessed the solutions proposed by the Western fashion powerhouses, it's worth taking a look at Asia. More specifically, South Korea, where from October 20 through 25, the Spring/Summer 2021 edition of Seoul Fashion Week took place in an exclusively digital format, featuring videos from the likes of veteran designer Gee Chun-Hee and the UK's Edward Crutchley. In a leading market for technology, the Korean fashion industry's big event went all in on innovation to adapt to the challenges of Covid-19.
Someone who knows this better than most is Jeon Mi-Kyung. With a career in media and communications spanning more than two decades, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar Korea, she is now the director of Seoul Fashion Week, having taken over from local designer Jung Kuho last year. As noted by the editor, her role was made significantly more complicated over the last few months, due to the pandemic.
"We are trying to make the most of this unique opportunity to turn somewhat analogous aspects of our existing fashion week into innovative changes better suited to the current digital environment," explained the director when discussing the event, which saw Spring/Summer 2021 collections by 46 designers presented over the course of six days, all through the medium of creative videos.
WeChat Mini Program: a showcase for 400 million Chinese users a day
Jeon highlighted how the event used "various digital platforms" to open up "access to not only the fashion industry but also ordinary people," recognizing that although they lost something of the "dramatic touch" of physical runway shows, they managed to achieve a "far wider reach" for the event. Made available through the event's own site and YouTube channel; Naver, the largest web portal in South Korea; Chinese messaging app WeChat, where pieces from some collections went on sale directly during shows; and the fashion video platform founded by British photographer Nick Knight, the videos have racked up more than 670,000 views to date, according to the latest data from the event.
Faced with the restrictions currently challenging the industry, Jeon maintains her optimism. "More press and buyers gained access to the collection compared to previous invite lists. This was only possible because it was digital," she said, acknowledging that "some of the front-row emotional impact, or direct orders on showroom visits is lost. Nevertheless, the interest from press and buyers who access shows and designers via digital platforms and videoconferences is still very much alive." The event is therefore not dismissing the idea of taking some of the newly implemented formats forward to future editions, even if, ultimately, it intends to fuse offline and online experiences as soon as this is possible again.
In order for its digital strategy to work, it was fundamental for Seoul Fashion Week to provide support for brands. "Helping designers get used to producing their own digital content to introduce their collection in this fashion week was a key priority," stated Jeon, while also pointing out the need to explore "different ways to promote the collections and sales," including specific strategies for the Chinese market.
The event's approach to social media was therefore notably different to that adopted by European fashion weeks, where Instagram reigns supreme. Instead, Seoul Fashion Week placed its bets on shopping options offered by the WeChat Mini Program, a platform launched in collaboration with e-commerce giant Tencent, which owns messaging services QQ and WeChat, and boasts some 400 million daily users in China. The event also set up direct shopping sessions through Naver's fashion and beauty channel and organized a "Designer Window Exhibition."
A post-Covid-19 strategy focused on direct sales
"Besides the basic support to promote the designers’ collections for B2B sales as in the past, we are expanding our support for B2C sales," said the event's director, explaining the choice to use the "see now, buy now" format and live commerce as mechanisms to support designers in "recovering the drop in sales due to Covid-19." Interestingly, Jeon sees more potential for this recovery in emerging design. "The traditional corporate brands are currently struggling, but young and creative designers with unique and practical items, targeting millennials are on the rise. I have no doubt these brands, already growing in Asian markets, will advance Korean fashion in the global scene," she posited.
The stars of the latest edition of Seoul Fashion Week were the collections offered up by 33 South Korean designers. These included former K-Pop star Park Seung-Gun and his streetwear label PushButton, the sober aesthetic of Kim Jae-Hyun's Aimons and Lee Jae-Hyung's conceptual brand MAXXIJ. Han Hyun-Min's Münn, which is inspired by 60s tailored pieces, also took part, as did Park Yun-Soo with the urban stylings of Big Park, and veteran designer Gee Chun-Hee, who celebrated 20 years in the fashion industry with a video from her Miss Gee Collection, which opened the fashion week.
The event also featured "Generation Next," a selection of nine new local talents, as well as a presentation from British designer Edward Crutchley, the result of an exchange program developed with London Fashion Week. In parallel, the event organized "Generation Next Seoul," a professional trade show aiming to promote South Korean fashion beyond the country's borders, connecting 91 domestic brands with up to 115 foreign buyers.
As a market which is sensitive to trends, South Korea is seen by its neighbors as a country with "good taste." According to Jeon, the nation's fashion imports come from a wide range of countries, but the majority of its exports go to China, the largest foreign market for the South Korean fashion industry. Furthermore, the country's status as an important consumer of global luxury goods has also had an effect on the impact of the pandemic on the sector.
"Despite the economic downturn, the interest and spending in fashion have not dropped. If anything, Covid-19 has slowed the growth and impact of local fashion influencers but the fashion industry is still growing, and its spectrum expanding," concluded Jeon.
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