Jeans in South Korea
Nippon-ppil: Recommodification of Japanese fashion trends in case of the consumption of Levi’s Coke Jeans in South Korea
PhD student, Edinburgh College of Art
My research explores the issues of authenticity and consumer autonomy in South Korea by focusing on fashion culture of both genuine and counterfeit Levi’s jeans. A key element of my research from 2006 to 2008 entailed my observation of shopping malls and street markets in the centre of Seoul. However, the primary research methodology which I have employed is the qualitative analysis of various dialogues on Korean Internet shopping sites and communities as they offered more substantial discussions on this subject.
Levi’s jeans represent the archetypal American material culture; and yet, in recent years, Japanese fashion trends have become highly influential in terms of the appropriation of vintage jeans in South Korea. A classic example of this kind of fashion practice can be seen in the consumption of Levi’s Coca-Cola (Coke) jeans which are known in South Korea as a limited Japanese edition. In 2007, a debate on the issue of the authenticity of Levi’s Coke jeans which were worn by a young Korean male celebrity heated up an online message board; the main argument was whether those jeans in question are the original Japanese, or the imitation Thai, Levi’s Coke jeans. At that time in South Korea a pair of the genuine Levi’s Coke jeans from Japan was sold for £260.00, whilst a pair of the counterfeit ones would sell for between £35.00 - 50.00. The popularity of this style of jeans resulted in the circulation of a variety of fake versions in the South Korean fashion market: Levi’s “Big E” Coke jeans, Levi’s Buffalo, Levi’s Pepsi and so on.
question of authenticity seems more significant as consumers often consider the
origin of material goods as having a close tie with its wearer’s identity. A
self-claimed second-hand Levi’s specialist in South Korea commented, “In my
personal opinion, the reason why Japanese jeans are known as the authentic
while Thai ones are as the fakes is because Japan is a developed country, but
Thailand is a developing nation.” It is possible that if Levi’s Coke jeans were
first produced in Thailand rather than in Japan, the perception of South Korean
consumers might have been different. Moreover,
there are numerous shops in South Korea which trade cheap and trendy
Japanese-imported vintage (-style) jeans. In an interview I conducted whilst on
my field research, Bung-eun explained: “I think that Japanese affection for
vintage fashion advances about 10 years ahead of us [Korean]. So, they have a
plenty of vintage jeans in stock which are enough to slip through to Korean
markets in relatively cheaper prices.” Therefore, I argue that Korean consumers
are vulnerable to Japanese fashion trends because they are subconsciously
supposed by the consumer to be more advanced.
A fashion professor, Gill-Soon Park, also noticed that the vintage trend in South Korea “has been highly influenced by the charming Japanese street fashion which is full of the kitsch modes of dressing with intended vulgarity” (Park 2006: 102). In this respect, a Korean expression Nippon-ppil (which translates as Nippon appeal) epitomises latent Nipponophilia which has a great influence on subcultural fashion practices among younger generations in South Korea. Giddens states, “To many living outside Europe and North America, it [globalisation] looks uncomfortably like Westernisation – or perhaps, Americanisation” (Giddens 1999: 15). The current landscape of imported vintage (-style) jeans consumption in South Korea demonstrates that Nipponisation – or Japanisation plays an important role within a broad spectrum of the global material and cultural flows.
Giddens, Anthony (1999) Runaway World: how globalisation is reshaping our lives, London: Profile Books.
Park, Gill-Soon (2006) An Exciting Fashion World, Daejeon, South Korea: Choongnam University Press.