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Feeling Asia through South Korea: Trans-Local Production of Girl Subjects in Fashion and Music
As part of the decade-long rise of South Korean popular culture in East Asia, Korean fashion has gained currency among young women as a trendy, practical choice of everyday wear. In Taiwan, the abundant supply of clothing marketed explicitly as ’Korean fashion’ in offline and online retail markets has been facilitated by small-scale apparel buyers and shop owners who regularly visit wholesale fashion and garment markets in Seoul and other East Asian cities, primarily Tokyo, Osaka, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Humen, and Bangkok. This paper is an attempt to explain the transnational and translocal making of Korean fashion in Taipei. The business activities of the small-scale apparel buyers and shop owners are first contextualized as part of Taiwan’s history of shuttle-trading. I then discuss how current flows of people and goods have been shaped by manufacturing and labor practices in China and the state’s globalization policies in South Korea, which have made Dongdaemun an attractive fashion sourcing destination in Asia. At the heart of the paper is an analysis of how Korean fashion became embedded in the Shida area of Taipei—a university neighborhood with an active night market that experienced an explosion in the number of clothing shops featuring Korean fashion between 2009 and 2011. While the Korean Wave and the decline of Taiwan’s apparel industry contributed to the merchants’ choice of Seoul as a sourcing destination, what does the frequent border-crossing mean given Taiwan and Korea’s ambivalent political, economic, and cultural relations? In Taiwan, Korean fashion is understood liberally to include made-in-Korea clothes, Chinese-made knock-offs, and clothes made under various authorized material and labor arrangements in and outside of South Korea. It carries three disparate connotations for retail buyers and shopkeepers in Taipei. For the start-ups, Korean fashion is simply an a la mode taste that guarantees business. For individualist fashion-loving entrepreneurs, Korean fashion challenges the aesthetic habits formed by Japanese fashion. For those toiling in the transnational reality of the apparel and fashion business, Korea is a formidable fashion and fabric sourcing stopover, but it is by no means the only wholesale destination in the region.
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