Joe Fresh takes Asia! Inside the brand’s launch in South Korea

Joe Fresh Asia
Joe Fresh Asia

See the photos from Joe Fresh’s Asia launch »

After a 13-hour flight from Toronto to Seoul, South Korea (during which I watched three movies, ate two meals, read all my magazines cover to cover and tried unsuccessfully to sleep), Joe Fresh founder and creative director Joe Mimran steps off the plane, looking—sorry, but there really is no other word for it—fresh. It’s 2:30 a.m. our time, yet his white shirt is crisp and his lime-green sweater is tossed over his shoulders just so. As I stumble, significantly less together, toward the nearest water fountain (I know, I know, I’ve just set foot in a foreign land, but my traveller’s dry mouth is demanding immediate hydration), Mimran coolly glides his rolling Louis Vuitton carry-on straight through Customs and into the waiting AC of the Park Hyatt limo.

But this is how it must be for a player on the global fashion stage. And Mimran—with whom I have flown to Seoul for the launch of Joe Fresh in South Korea (next come Saudi Arabia and 21 other countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe)—sees fashion-mad South Korea as a key opening  move. Of course, Mimran has been here on this big-board game of fashion Risk before—back in the ’80s, with the launch of Club Monaco, before that sweet concept was gobbled up by Polo Ralph Lauren. “Korea was still very rough when I first came here,” says Mimran, gazing out the window of our creeping limo at the profusion of show-stopping architectural statements in the intense gridlock of Seoul’s legendary traffic. “But every time I come back, it’s become more and more polished. Now, it’s a big draw for absolutely anyone who is interested in consumerism.”

The Joe Fresh debut involves two fashion shows (one for press and one for VIPs) in the all-white envelope of the Beyond Museum in Seoul’s affluent Gangnam district. In the front row, between industry and society types, sit the A-list of hallyu, the K-pop stars and actors who set the fashion trends—and not just here in Korea, where fans are so devoted to their idols that the popular saying is, “They are not just singers, but a way of life.” According to The Wall Street Journal, everything Korean—from the K-pop videos that go viral to Korean TV stars and fried chicken—is all the rage in China. Savvy brands like Chanel and Louis Vuitton, which are already using product placement on Korean TV, increasingly see Seoul as the gateway to the buying power of young Chinese consumers. A veteran reader of the zeitgeist, Mimran too sees Korea’s potential, and Koreans themselves as uniquely focused on the latest trends, a quality he ascribes to their relative youth and openness: “Artistically, Korea is influenced by Japan, but, unlike Japan or North America, the culture here is so young.” And for a fashion retailer, it’s all about demographics. “Boomers just want to de-clutter, but young people live for the next fashion trend, the latest new music,” says Mimran. “There is a big appetite for newness here. And, unlike in North America, where your big status statement is around home and shelter, here it’s all about what you’re wearing out on the street.”

Indeed, as I come to discover, Seoul is like the shopper’s Vegas. Shopping here is a 24-hour unstoppable thrum, a day-and-night obsession that borders on mania. In Seoul’s packed and throbbing Myeong-dong district, where the ginormous Lotte.

Department Store flagship straddles a busy intersection, twin Zaras sit close to each other, along with two Uniqlos and two H&Ms lest any potential shopper find it discouraging to have to walk more than a block. This is precisely where Joe Fresh is opening its first Korean store, a 4,000-square-foot shop on two levels smack dab in the midst of this mass retail mayhem. It is a bold move to elbow into this highly competitive arena with an entirely unknown brand, but, according to Mimran, if you want to be in the game at all, you had better play to win. “The players in our segment are all big international players,” says Mimran, whose local partners, Origin & Co., plan to open another 10 Joe Fresh stores in South Korea over the next six to eight months. “You have to go big, totally saturate and make a statement in order to be able to pierce the consumer’s mind.”

Heaven knows the Korean consumer has no lack of choice when it comes to the fashion retail experience. In the maze of pedestrian alleys around Myeong-dong, I join the constant flow of It boys in skinny jeans and fashionable girls in marine stripes and bobbed hair scoping the latest offerings at the world’s most recognizable high-street brands, as well as fashion-forward Korean ones such as the Scandi-sounding “concept store” Åland and the wonderfully named 8 Seconds (basically the maximum staying power here of even the most compelling fashion trend). And the madness for acquisition is hardly confined to this district. This sprawling city of 9.8 million stretches for madly gridlocked, pedestrian-jammed acres of purchasing opportunity, from the elaborately designed temples in Cheongdam-dong for Dior, Givenchy and 10 Corso Como to boutique-crammed districts such as the rocking Itaewon, where edgy local talent like Jain Song and Steve J & Yoni P hold sway. There are luxe designer department stores and the Galleria, where well-heeled Chinese shoppers flock straight from Incheon International Airport to drop wads of cash on the latest from Lanvin, Rick Owens and Christian Louboutin (and at premium prices). There are also night markets like Dongdaemun—where at 11 p.m. on a Saturday, droves of hand-holding couples in matching trendy outfits grab at cute tops and bags as if their future lives together depended on it—and emerging designer kiosks in vast vertical malls set up like bazaars with themed floors like “character casual,” “hot club” and the perplexing “art street.” I meet one kid named Devon who has come all the way from L.A. to help set up a pop-up in Lotte Department Store of a street-smart line called Ro & De, owned by his parents, Billy and Jenny Kang. It was a smart move, given that the label’s hummingbird-print bomber jacket has been photographed on the most trendsetting K-pop stars—which for Ro & De basically means money.

Backstage before the first show, it’s like a scene from Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Style director Adrienne Shoom is running around trying to get the makeup artists to give the Korean models the signature Joe Fresh clean look, but nobody among the dressers and makeup artists speaks English. And yet somehow it all comes together on a sweltering afternoon. As Insta-crowds suddenly gather, the rows of waiting cameras snap away at the arriving K-stars in their own takes on Joe Fresh Spring 2014. After the Korean models kill it on the runway, the fact that nobody here had ever even heard the words Joe Fresh before (or really had any impression of their significance) seems suddenly beside the point.

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