Our group at Feetmanseoul.com has written extensively about Korean fashion and Seoul Fashion Week here and in other English-language publications in Korea. We had nothing but excessively positive things to say about previous edition of Korea`s premiere fashion event because the experience there was, obviously, excessively positive.
However, the tone this year was a bit different, not only for this writer, but for so many other foreign (and Korean) attendees. I would like to say at the outset that we had never run into problems during previous seasons at Seoul Fashion week.
Noticeable this year were many expat representatives from local Korean media sources, as well as a greater international presence at the shows from overseas media and international buyers. And given that the Seoul City government has become deeply involved in the planning and implementation of the event, the changes made this year seemed eerily familiar.
Seoul Fashion Week was marked by two main problems that plague many events and organizations here, especially as the stakes get higher, more foreign faces start showing up, and the government starts declaring Korea the "hub of" this or that. The first major difference we noticed this year was the extremely high level of haughtiness. As Fashion Week approached, the normal process of press registration had suddenly become more difficult, and after having been thanked for our coverage of SFW`s over the past two seasons, our initial inquiry into the press pass application process (which itself was haphazard and began just over two weeks before the shows started) was met with suspicion.
On the phone with a representative - whose contact information I had to glean from a friend in the PR field since the registration site was still "under construction" just three weeks before kickoff - I was told access to the show for the four invited international designers was for "high-profile" media only and that we would not likely be allowed to come.
Fast-forward three weeks later, the day of that particular show there were two empty rows on either side of the bleachers. Now we were welcomed with open arms. This was a huge PR blunder.
On to the second major problem that plagues many Korean organizations - extreme disorganization. It makes for a pretty onerous combination. Since I was not told that each member had to register individually (not the case in previous seasons), this was another cause of chaos.
There were no instructions given that submitting a picture was anything but optional, nor that it was a requirement for backstage access.
Adding to the registration confusion, all this was called "pre-registration," implying that there was some other official "registration" period.
I was mightily surprised to hear - three days before the kickoff - that not only had my backstage access been rejected, the "pre-registration" period had passed and we had apparently missed the chance to register the other members. Possibly trying to atone for their mistakes, I was told at around 3 p.m. that my entire team needed to register by 5 p.m., and that they were making a huge exception for us.
Seoul Fashion Week even would not allow The Korea Herald to arrange for my backstage passes.
I think had it been Time Asia, the New York Times, or some other "high-profile" outfit, we would have been ushered right in. However, domestic news organizations and online magazines/blogs that are actually the only English-language coverage Seoul Fashion Week gets on the internet - perform a Google search of "Seoul Fashion Week" and see who pops up again and again - the haughtiness-compounded-by-disorganization of Korean Fashion Week folks is damaging their own self-interests.
Neither Time Asia nor The New York Times was in attendance. Nor do I see them there in the foreseeable future without the help of the bloggers and other English-language domestic press here.
In the end, the only on-the-ground information made available to the English-speaking world is through the expats giving them extensive coverage season after season.
Then there is the lack of any Web-based information on the shows, designers, or just about any other aspect of Seoul Fashion Week in English.
Ask someone outside Korea what Seoul Fashion Week is. The Korean fashion industry has made a clear goal of making Korea "the hub of fashion" in Asia, but even on their own website (www.seoulcollection.org), the only downloadable pamphlets with information about designers and shows were available only in Korean and were login-only.
The world will have to learn Korean for Korea to ever be the "the hub of fashion" in Asia.
Yes, there was a press release and profiles of the 41 designers in a glossy pamphlet offered to the press, but that`s too little, too late, too lame. Why not put that information on the internet? And not only for a few select media elite to see, but as information available to be added to the searchable Google database and potentially bring in others out there searching for information on Korean designers?
Our coverage of Yang Hee-deuk`s show is the No. 1 ranked hit on Google.
Also on the Fashion Week website was a great concise history of Korean fashion, which I translated and linked to in just a couple hours time. Why would this information not be translated into English? As it was, the several buyers and other media representatives, who all use Google - no one outside Korea uses Naver - were very much in the dark about these very basic things, and I was not so surprised to hear that they had already come across some of these very posts made by my own site, ExpatJane (www.expatjane.blogspot.com), or other crossposts made at places such as my own personal blog, The Marmot`s Hole (www.rjkoehler.com), or ZenKimchi (www.zenkimchi.com), to name a few places that have mentioned Seoul Fashion Week on their sites and have high Google placement. Yet, the Fashion Week planners, despite having been extremely friendly and helpful during the week, did not seem so hip to "the internet" or domestic (expat) Korean press before the fact.
Also telling was the fact that at several shows managed by the show management agency called The Models, my Korean American writer - with a "PRESS" pass around her neck - was constantly harassed about sitting in the "PRESS" chairs.
It was perplexing and distressing to her to be constantly approached and asked to move by the show staff, being told, "These seats are reserved for foreign press only." Combined with the fact that other expats from domestic media such as The Bling, The Korea Herald, and others were sitting in the same seats but not being asked to move, one if forced to assume that their definition of "foreign press" includes having a foreign-looking face. It is also telling that when my writer shot back angrily in English after being asked for the fourth time to vacate her seat for "foreign press" even as others sitting in the next seats were not, they left her alone.
As for myself, the most unfortunate incident occurred in conjunction with the haughtiness and disorganization described above. One of the managers continued harassing my writer, then began to try to prevent me from taking pictures from press seats as well. I and others in the press seats were some of the few actually following the rules of not using flash photography during the show (I was authorized to take pictures during the shows).
However, the rule only seemed to be in force for press people, as cellphone cameras, point-and-shoots, and students armed with DSLR`s were firing away throughout all the shows.
The grumpy manager constantly made a beeline for me before I took out my camera. He was now insisting that I was not even press, since my badge said "Back Stage." In this incident that is difficult to comprehend, before I had even sat down in one show or had even taken out my camera, he came over to me yelling at the top of his lungs, "I told you! You are not press! Can`t you even read English? What does that (badge) say?"
When I dared reply that he was in the wrong - I had checked with the Fashion week staff about press statuses (lo and behold, my press pass was indeed a press pass) - he would not budge. He was screaming and gesticulating like a madman.
Other staff members apologized and told me to go ahead and sit, but in the meantime I had lost my seat, my composure or desire to shoot, and was far too embarrassed to stay for the show. The Fashion Week staff apologized profusely. They explained that different management agencies were handling different shows and it was obvious that the SFW rules and statuses were not clear to everyone.
At this year`s Fashion Week, uniformed high-schoolers had more rights than the press - especially the English speaking press.
The problems caused by the unprofessionalism in judging who is or is not "foreign press" by the shape of their face, or arbitrarily making up rules about photography on the fly, are not directly the fault of the Seoul Fashion Week staff; however, the too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen way in which the event was put together, with no clear entity in charge, made for a very confusing and frustrating experience.
As I was leaving that aforementioned incident, in doing so skipping a great show because my hands were literally shaking with anger, the other photographer from our group who had stayed to cover it reported to me that this man remarked to him, about me, "I can`t believe he`s so lazy that wants to shoot from a press seat."
He added, "If this were Milan or Paris, the press seats are in the back."
Upon hearing this, my first thought was, "If this were Paris or Milan, I wouldn`t have been treated like that, nor would you need people like me to cover you. Then you could afford to treat members of the press this way."
If this were Paris or Milan. At this rate, I hope that Seoul Fashion Week will educate staff from other agencies that the domestic English press is actually a valuable ally, not an annoying obligation to be tolerated.
Michael is the editor-in-chief of Feet Man Seoul, Korea`s first online street-fashion magazine. More information about fashion and style can be found at FeetManSeoul.com - Ed.