There’s more to South Korea than boy bands and “Gangnam Style,” and VICE, with their innovative documentary style, are proving it. Charlet Duboc and VICE’s Fashion Week Internationale went to Seoul to expose the quirky trends, underground 24/7 shopping centers, and an obsession with plastic surgery that dominate South Korea’s fashion scene. We spoke to Duboc about her experiences in the cultural capital of East Asia.
Portable: Korean fashion and culture is incredibly diverse, and very unique from the way it’s perceived by the world. What did you think South Korea would be like before you visited? How did your experience in South Korea change your perception of it, if at all?
Charlet Duboc: I had been warned I would find the culture somewhat “unfathomable,” and I’ve never been anywhere where I’ve come away after a week feeling more mystified than the day I arrived. I was told to expect a sexy, drinking culture among Seoul’s youth. Someone said, “If the Japanese are English, then Koreans are the French.” When you go there and see how fast the place has expanded in 20 years, you kind of get the sense of a place that is still developing its identity and catching up with itself. I loved it. I would love to go for a vacation and immerse myself in the nightlife. Bibimbap and makkegoli are two of my vices!
P: Those 4am shopping malls were crazy, can you tell us more about them? Why were they open so late in the night/early in the morning, and, more importantly, why were there people shopping at that time?
Charlet Duboc: They never close. The idea is that some people don’t have time to shop during ‘normal’ hours, especially those with the most buying power, so somewhere down the line it must have been decided that it was good economy to start to bend to them in innovative ways. I don’t shop, I hate it and buy everything online, but I guess that doesn’t satisfy enough Koreans to nullify this night-shopping culture. In terms of town planning, Seoul is so overcrowded and in order to allow or encourage people to keep consuming, rather than sprawling overground they have expanded underneath.
PL America is known to be a pretty superficial country, with its Hollywood obsession and plethora of fashion and beauty magazines. Which culture is more obsessed with appearances, in your opinion: America or Korea?
Charlet Duboc: I couldn’t say that one is more than the other but the obsessions are manifested in different ways. In America we accept that our celebrities are real people who shit just like the rest of us, but in South Korea, celebrities are seen as these perfect beings whose private lives are fiercely guarded. In Seoul, the obsession with appearances is more shocking to us because people are more open about it there. The majority of employers are transparent about the fact they only want beautiful people working for them, and in people’s every day lives, they are quick to point out each others’ flaws a la “who ate all the pies.” Parents endorsing their children’s desires to have surgery is definitely more unusual in the West. In Seoul, surgery is seen as normal, whereas in the West it is still regarded as vanity and a relative minority of people do it.
P: Why do you think it’s taken so long for South Korean culture to start gaining global popularity?
Charlet Duboc: I would argue that its taken surprisingly little time. [South Korea] only emerged from authoritarian rule in the 80s, so when you look at it like that, I’d say they’ve aggressively carved a cultural identity for themselves and in no time at at all made people take notice of them. Girls Generation were the first East Asian act to perform on David Letterman. K-pop is also the default culture that the urban youth in Southeast Asia look up to.
P: Can you explain the appeal of K-Pop from your perspective?
Charlet Duboc: Initially, I was shocked at these Asian girls behaving so provocatively, and at the same time mesmerised by the flawless production. And of course I’ve no idea what they’re singing about, so it sounds exotic to me. Their auto-tuned voices are like another instrument. I also know that the K-pop industry is run like a propaganda machine so I imagine the ruthless grooming and training the stars endure. I’ve always been a sucker for music videos, it’s like my porn, so in that sense it’s a no-brainer to me. I reckon that before long there will be a backlash and hopefully we will see the industry take more risks resulting in fewer manufactured talents finding success in a mainstream arena.
P: Boy bands in South Korea are a big deal, and starting to gain popularity around the world. Did you notice any differences between American/English boy bands and Korean ones?
Charlet Duboc: The way Korean boys are styled more innocently, almost to look sexually unthreatening. In the West, there’s always the “bad boy” element to boy bands, but there’s no room for scandal in K-pop.
P: There aren’t as many popular/successful girl bands in today’s music scene as there appear to be in Korean culture. Why do you think that is?
Charlet Duboc: I think K-pop is still developing and finding its feet, and is in the early stages of its journey. I believe more and more girls will appear soon.
P: What are the differences between Korean youth culture and the culture of American/English kids?
Charlet Duboc: How long have you got? In a nutshell, they have a much more conservative culture to contend with whereas in the West rebellion ain’t no thang these days. I feel like the stakes are higher and the pressure to succeed is greater there. Not just to succeed, but to not fuck up. In the West we are almost encouraged by our mistakes but in Korea there is no room for slipping up. But then there are many similarities. I challenge any American kid to go hang in Seoul for a week and not have fun.
P: The instance when you told the girl in the surgery room that she looked different from you was meant to be a compliment but, considering the fact that she wants to have Western features, was probably taken as an insult. Why do you think this Western beauty ideal has manifested in countries like South Korea, Japan and China?
Charlet Duboc: The grass is greener on the other side, so as a solution many East Asians are just watering their grass to make it look more like the other side. The patient’s reaction demonstrated to me how far gone the plastic surgery culture is, and how ingrained it is in the East Asian psyche. She had never considered that anyone might aspire to her natural look. I’ve always preferred Asian or African looks, I’d love to look more “exotic!” For many reasons, it has also long been culturally ingrained throughout history to look to the West. Nowadays, the majority of supermodels are Aryan-looking, for example.
P: With the popularity of androgyny in South Korean culture, is plastic surgery restricted to girls, or do some boys get it too?
Charlet Duboc: Boys too. I haven’t studied it thoroughly enough, but the stats show how the Korean male grooming industry is the biggest in the world. My friends said when they went swimming, the boys wouldn’t dare go in the water [or] remove their shirts because they were ashamed their bodies weren’t good enough.
P: Some designers voiced their desire to preserve what they called a “natural” Korean beauty. Does this apply to body image as well, or does it only refer to facial features? Did you observe any similar problems with overly thin models during Korean fashion week?
Charlet Duboc: It does extend to body as well. Girls want to be thin, but not necessarily in the Hollywood way. No one goes to the gym, they just are “thin, with flaccid flesh.” Coupled with the genetic tendency for girls to have thicker calves means many people have surgery to reduce their calves. Harrowing.
P: What was it like being in a country where your features are considered to be ideal, where people get surgery to essentially look like you? Was it flattering, bizarre, both?
Charlet Duboc: I try not to think about it but it’s always there. Not just in Korea, but all over the world. It does frustrate me because I am someone who thinks beauty is variety, and I actually prefer less Aryan looks. Sometimes I wish I could just be invisible, or male! I always try to tell people to look at things differently and see beauty in other things, but they often just think I’m being modest or polite, or “British.” But it genuinely makes me sad. I wish everyone wasn’t afraid of looking “wrong” or looking different.