SEOUL, South Korea — I’ve made a professional career of being able to spot new fashion design talent early on. I saw the Scandinavians rise to prominence in the early 2000s, anticipated the ascent of the Americans in the middle of the decade and witnessed London successfully become a star fashion capital a few years later, all the while taking notes — and chances — on those I thought had the raw talent and resolve to succeed in what is a highly competitive and unforgiving industry. While a buyer at Seven New York, I placed bets on rising European designers like Raf Simons, Gareth Pugh and Haider Ackermann, helping to introduce them to the lucrative American market.
But unlike many Americans, I also kept an eye on Asia.
When I was first invited to fashion weeks in Seoul and Singapore in the late 2000s, I have to admit, I scoffed at the idea that I might find truly original design talent there. Indeed, it was accepted wisdom at the time that the only Asian designers worth paying attention to — brands like Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto, for example — chose to show as far outside of their home continent as their budgets allowed.
Nonetheless, attending Seoul Fashion Week was a no-brainer for me, because I had already discovered and fallen in love with the work of Korean designer Juun J and clung to the slim hope there might be more where that came from.
In the end, Seoul did not disappoint. I've been particularly impressed by the menswear from established brands like Song Zio (Juun’s mentor) as well as new labels like Groundwave. Both of these companies took tailoring to fresh, new levels. Both also took advantage of the little known fact that Korea has both incredible textiles and an apparel manufacturing base that produces designer-level quality at low prices.
Womenswear took a bit of a back seat to menswear for me in Korea, but I nonetheless found standouts in the high contemporary market. One of the brands I like is called Johnny Hates Jazz, designed by Ji Hyung Choi, who combines the clean lines of Céline with the feminine sensibility of Marni while maintaining her own unique flair. And then there is Kaal E. Suktae, designed by Lee Suk Tae, who trained at Dior for years, before setting out on his own, and whose first collection I saw somehow successfully blended the otherwise hard and angular aesthetics of the epic sci-fi film The Empire Strikes Back with a classic, easy elegance — not a simple task to pull off effectively.
Never heard of these designers?
I'm not entirely surprised, given that today's fashion media is jammed up with marketing messages from the same old luxury labels. I think there's also another big reason why Asia's rising fashion designers have not yet connected with Western audiences: the stereotype of Asia as a manufacturing centre for the production of cheap clothing. But I can assure you that there are truly exciting fashion labels originating from this continent with sensibilities as crisp and modern as the region's neon-drenched, Blade Runner-esque skylines.
Upon further investigation, I was also pleased to verify the top-flight pedigree of several of the designers I discovered, like Daydream Nation, two of whom graduated from London's Central Saint Martins, and Ek Thongprarsert, who attended the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. So, the creativity and skill-level are absolutely there.
What's more, many of these innovative Asian designers are positioning their lines at contemporary to high contemporary price points, a savvy commercial move, as demonstrated by the success of brands like Alexander Wang and 3.1 Phillip Lim, which combine fashion-forward design with more attainable prices.
According to Euromonitor International, the Asia-Pacific region will see apparel sales grow by $175 billion over the next five years, with China alone accounting for 77 percent of the total expansion and set to overtake the US as the world's largest apparel market by 2017. As this happens, make no mistake, the new spending power, rising self-awareness and increasing sophistication of the Asian consumer will create new demand for unique and innovative fashion “for us, by us.”
As a new generation of designers step up to seize the opportunity and develop their design languages accordingly, something very interesting is beginning to take shape. And, in terms of design innovation, I'd say it's already beginning to steal the thunder away from the West.
Editor’s Note: This article was revised on 12 November, 2013. An earlier version of this article misstated that the Asia-Pacific region would overtake the US as the world's largest apparel market by 2017. In fact, China alone is projected to overtake the US as the world's largest apparel market by 2017.