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Book review: Make, Break, Remix

Make Break Remix - the rise of K-styleTrying to encapsulate a country’s design aesthetic, even when looking back at the past, is a challenge. With Korea, one might start suggesting that the monochrome art movement of the last 50 years or so, the simplicity of hanok architecture and the purity of Joseon dynasty white porcelain points towards an overriding aesthetic of restraint and harmony with nature. But then one has to reconcile that proposition with the bright colours of dancheong and obangsaek that one finds in temple architecture and folk art. So it is difficult to make generalisations, and really one can only comment on individual movements or on the preferences of particular classes or categories of people at a particular point in time.

When turning one’s attention to the present, the task becomes an impossibility. One cannot see the wood for the trees, if it even makes sense to try to see the wood at all. And as Korea becomes more globalized, one wonders whether, despite the ubiquitous K- branding, there is a common factor that unifies a particular K-content other than the country of origin. A few years ago there was some debate online as to whether it made sense to talk of K-pop as a musical genre: and while I don’t think there was a definitive conclusion my recollection of the consensus was that what distinguished K-pop from other music was not the music itself but things such as visuals, choreography, the process for assembling and training the idol bands and the globalization of its songwriting. In other words, that K-pop could be summarized in terms of its production process rather than its music.

If it is not possible to talk about K-pop in musical terms, it is hardly surprising if there is a similar challenge with K-style. At one of the launch events of Make Break Remix held at Foyles, at which the speakers were designer Na Kim and the book’s author Fiona Bae, no attempt was made to suggest any distinguishing stylistic features of K-style: instead, the focus was on the can-do, positive attitude of the individual designers, the rapid pace of change, the need for speed in everything, and the fickle currents of Korean taste in an internet-driven world. Additionally, discussion centred upon an openness of Korea to ideas from outside, ideas which are then deconstructed, analysed, recombined with other ideas and then assembled in a new form – hence the name of the book.

Fiona Bae and Na Kim at Foyles
Fiona Bae and Na Kim at Foyles Charing Cross Road, 18 October 2022

The book itself is similarly realistic in its aims: the publisher’s blurb acknowledges that it “makes no attempt to define or categorize the [K-style] movement, instead celebrating the eclectic, multifaceted nature of K-style and its home city of Seoul”, and that is precisely what the book delivers. The title brings together brief interviews with almost 20 movers and shakers in Korea’s club culture and music and fashion industries, together with brief spotlight articles on four fashion labels. A lot of the interviewees comment on the speed at which they have to work; another theme to emerge is that while perhaps a decade or two ago a degree at a foreign college such as Central St Martins might have been a necessary item on the CV to make it in Korea, nowadays that is seen as less necessary: what is needed is the right mindset.

Unless you spend all your time browsing the Instagram feeds of a wide range of Korean celebrities and creatives, many of the people interviewed in this book may be unfamiliar to you. In fact, it is probably indicative of the book’s target audience that at the end of each interview the person’s Instagram ID is provided. At times, reading this book can feel like the experience of browsing one of those lifestyle magazines which are the only things to read in a hair salon while you wait for your stylist to become available: a window into another world which may not be one you inhabit every day.

The interviews are fairly standardized in format, with more or less identical questions addressed by each, helping you to navigate. Even where you don’t know of the person being interviewed, the article itself, particularly when taken with its companion pieces, enable you to build up a picture, and may make you want to find out more about the interviewee.

The book is parsimonious with biographical detail about the people featured. An interviewee’s one-line bio that reads “Head of Stüssy Korea and Director of Strategy at Hyein Seo” is unhelpful for a generalist reader: what one additionally needs is an indication of what sort of organization Hyein Seo or Stüssy Korea actually is. After all, listeners to news broadcasts are used to having the announcers explain, for example, that the National Audit Office is the “Government spending watchdog” to make the story accessible to those who are coming to a topic for the first time; a similar low-effort piece of glossing on company names would have made this book feel more inclusive.

Granted, too much fulsome prose about a particular fashion designer and the label they represent could easily make the book take on an advertorial feel. However, what also could have been improved with the interviews without appearing too partisan is greater attention to the photographs that accompany them. By contrast with the multi-page full-colour photo essays that dominate the book, the photos that go with the interviews are in black-and-white, often over-exposed and too small and indistinct to add any value. A few decent shots of the fashion label’s latest collection, the fully-styled look of that k-pop video or the restaurant’s signature dishes would have added much to the reader’s appreciation of the interviewee’s contributions to the world of K-style.

The photo essays make you work hard: you need to consult the back pages to find out who is featured in the images, and while some of the essays – for example, the one entitled Trailblazers, which focuses on some of the people interviewed in the book – are coherent in terms of theme, others require a lot more effort to see any story being told or relevance to the book’s themes. The photos themselves tend to be in a street style: grungy and grainy, taken at speed and at an angle, giving them an edgy vibe.

You even need to work hard to read the headings of the interviews: as with the title of the book on the front cover, interviewees’ names are given both in Roman script and in Hangeul, with the two sets of text overlapping each other, making the names difficult to decipher.

Overall then, in look and feel this book captures well the velocity of the world of K-style and the diversity and attitude of some of the key players, mainstream and otherwise, in the various cultures, subcultures and creative industries that are part of modern Korea. It is welcome for its presentation of the views and stories of these tastemakers, and I would have welcomed a greater balance in favour of the written content, and less of the visual content except where it directly supports the valuable interviews.

Make Break Remix: The Rise of K-Style, by Fiona Bae with photos by less_TAEKYUN KIM
pub Thames and Hudson, 2022. score-2score-2score-0score-0score-0

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