Candid Meets The Man Behind Songzio, The Label Fusing Art With Fashion

1st April 2017

In summer of last year, at the SS17 shows of London Fashion Week Men’s (or LC:M as it was then) a new designer addition to the schedule made waves – the collection was titled ‘Ocean’ after all – in the fashion line-up. After a decade of showing in Paris, Songzio was the label on everyone’s mind by the end of London’s three-day menswear showcase, the Korean designer’s approach to design standing out from the rest.
zio song
Founder and designer Zio Song studied at Paris’s prestigious fashion school, ESMOD, in the 1980s. He founded his (kind of) eponymous line in 1993 in Seoul, South Korea. The high-end menswear brand can safely lay claim to playing a part in the popularity and prominence of luxury fashion in Korea today. Showing in Seoul for over a decade, Song took his label to Paris where he first showed on the Paris Fashion Week schedule in 2006. He showed in Paris for a decade before moving his show to London in 2016, all this time retaining his position on the Seoul Fashion Week schedule.

His collections follow an unusual route from concept to creation and have spawned the term ‘Paint on Black’ to describe their artistic roots. The first step in Song’s creative process is painting on canvas, but not the traditional sketchbook or mood board method where sketches of suits and trousers would be etched. Full-scale artworks, sometimes in excess of six feet tall, are created and it is these creations – often with an emotional or philosophical undertone – that then form the mood of the collection that Song then draws and manufactures, the artworks dictating the colour palette and being transformed into printed fabrics. “Wearable art” as it was coined by GQ’s Zak Maoui, following the brand’s first London outing. Of course, this grabbed our attention with our Art Issue currently on newsstands.

Having just shown his AW17 collection at Seoul Fashion Week, having debuted it at LFWM in January, Mikael Jack spent some time getting to know the process, the history and the man behind the Korean brand that is blending art with luxury fashion.

MJ: The brand was founded in 1993 and showed in Paris for a long time before coming to London – why did you decide to move the show to LFWM?
ZS: Moving to London was a new start. I was doing a fashion show in Seoul for 20 years and Paris for 10 years. Paris is a more familiar place for me as I had been showing in paris for 10 years and studied there too. London was brand new so it held a curiosity of how my collections would work in London. When I was in Paris I often visited London on weekends and found it very interesting with much inspiration.

There was a turning point about a year ago. Dylan Jones (editor-in-chief of British GQ and a director at the British Fashion Council) and Frank Cintamani (President of ACF, the Asian Couture Federation) invited me to show in London, which I wasn’t sure about at first simply because of it being so unknown, but now I love it. In London there is a lot of support for marketing and PR to help set up the show, from agencies but also the BFC and ACF, which I felt was much more left up to me in Paris. The London fashion community was very welcoming, it was a very different atmosphere to Paris, there are lots of people – families, almost – helping me here. Paris was more solitary.

MJ: Was there a different reaction in London from press, buyers, etc. than you had experienced in Seoul and Paris?
ZS: Seoul feels comfortable and there is a massive, positive reaction there, as my collections are better known. I am also a chairman of CFDK (Council of Fashion Designers of Korea) so that means my shows are slightly higher profile, but that comes with some pressure.
In Paris, I liked the challenge but it was a big one. But I felt that the Songzio identity really found itself in Paris and it became clearer what the DNA of the brand was.
In London, as I said, everyone was very welcoming, to the Songzio brand and to my team and I, so I am working on the challenge of making a success in London. Every five to 10 years, I like to set myself a new challenge. I’m enjoying it.

MJ: You seem like you enjoy a challenge?
ZS: Yes [laughs] it would seem that I do.

MJ: Is it important for Korean designers like you and Eudon Choi, who also shows in London, to show in Europe as well as in Seoul?
ZS: Thirty years ago when Japanese designers became very well-known around the world – Comme des Garçons, Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, Kenzo – they spawned a generation of Asian designers that came to prominence in Europe. Then there was two other generations. Takeo Kikuchi, Junya Watanabe, were the next generation and now, Sacai, myself, Choi are the next generation to make a name in Europe. I hope that more Korean designers in the future will show in and be successful in European markets.

MJ: Is promoting Korean designers in the Europe, and exposing them to the cities and markets in Europe, something that you are involved in with the CFDK?
ZS: As the CFDK chairman it is important that I create a bridge for more young Korean designers to give them the opportunity to become known in London and Europe, and through the success of Songzio this can hopefully happen. It’s another challenge I have set myself.
The British Fashion Council (BFC) is also really interested in Korean designers so I am hoping there can be more relationships between the two, not for people my age necessarily, but for the next generation of designers.


MJ: South Korea is the third largest market for luxury goods in Asia and it has been reported that Seoul Fashion Week’s aim is to become the fifth city in fashion. You’re quite new in your role at the CFDK, do you have a plan or vision for that to happen?
ZS: Compared to the main fashion cities in Europe, Seoul is very far away, so it is hard to find a commonality or to have the same crowd come on the back of Paris or London. I don’t think it is enough for celebrities to come to the shows either. I want designers to be more creative with their collections and the show is very important. My plan is to support them in achieving that, and that will hopefully boost the recognition of SFW.
The second part of the plan is to collaborate with the BFC, to do an exchange where a Korean designer comes here and a London designer shows in Seoul, that would be really interesting. A fashion foreign exchange. I’ve only been the chairman for a few months, but in the next year I am planning to propose a collaboration between the ACF and BFC too.

MJ: Where is the Songzio collection designed and produced?
ZS: We design and manufacture everything in South Korea.

MJ: The current collection was influenced by the sea, with bright colours and prints on a blue base complementing the ubiquitous dark tailored pieces. Where do your ideas tend to come from?

ZS: The season is always the most important thing. For SS17 the title was Ocean and I was inspired by light spectrums coming through water, all very fluid and bright. For AW17 I was thinking much more about nature at that time of year, so it was dark. Colour bases of brown and black, with camel, orange and beige as the highlights; very natural colours, a contrast of the previous season’s bright mood.
Every season we start with a painting. I paint onto canvas as the starting point. Then I can start on designing the collection.

For AW17 there is a cross – the vertical and horizontal representing the subject and the emotions behind it – and other artworks that depict autumn forests. Some of the paintings are taller than me. We create digital prints by taking photographs of the paintings and then developing this into fabrics that make up the collection. For AW17 we have lined the tailoring with printed fabric too, which is the first time we have done this.

songzio aw17 painting
Paintings by Zio Song, created ahead of designing his AW17 collection

MJ: You have developed a signature style, merging art and tailoring, and in the past few seasons some sportswear influences have made their way into your show, which always feels new and fresh. How do you update achieve this while keeping your signature style?
ZS: Our customer is always the brand’s protagonist each season. I think about different people, emotions and styles and how different markets and individuals will interpret this and wear our brand. So each time we have different styles and categories but always with that base in tailoring which is what the brand’s identity comes from.

MJ: You’ve talked about collaborating with BFC and having a London designer swapping with a Korean one etc., but would you want to collaborate with other designers or artists on your own label?
I would love to if I get the chance. The thing I love most about London is the contemporary art culture that is here, and I would love to bring a London designer’s work together with mine. Seoul and London combined. Not just established fashion people, but students, young artists… I would like that.
There are many art schools and courses in Korea but there is nothing like there is in London, so it would be amazing to bring artists or designers to Korea to introduce some of that culture in Seoul. It would be great for those young Korean designers to be able to experience the inspiration that I do in London, as it is expensive for them to be able to travel here.

MJ: In issue 14 of Candid – the Art Issue – I asked the question of if fashion can be considered art. What are your thoughts?
ZS: The Songzio design approach very much fuses the two together, so it is more difficult for me to see them both as two separate entities. I see fashion more as a visual art, like cinema, not like sculpture and fine painting. It is its own type of art. I think they both need to exist together, certainly for what I do, as I am both a designer and an artist. There are limitations – if a painter tries to design fashion or vice versa it might not work – but if the two can come together it creates a new energy.

MJ: As a menswear designer and a relatively small label compared to the fashion powerhouses, are you concerned about the shift to the ‘see it, buy it’ formula and the co-ed shows where many menswear shows were left off the schedule and joined womenswear?
ZS: The big companies have their own retail stores and it makes it a lot easier for ‘see it, buy it’ to be possible. It is difficult for smaller designers to be able to produce at risk or with short notice, and to get these out to buyers.
For next season, we are looking to launch t-shirts that will go online shortly after the show, which is sort of a ‘see it, buy it’ option, and it is much easier to achieve. The tailoring aspects and most other wouldn’t be possible at this stage for the brand. If it happens we will need to find a solution but it will be hard.

MJ: And finally, the AW17 collection is titled ‘Misanthrope’ and from the show notes we are told visually depicts the story of a young man, walking the cold yet serene streets on an eerie morning of an unknown city.  All of the models in the show had a similar look, with one of the standout faces of the season, Michael Walker, closing the show. Do you think about that “man” when you cast models for the show?
ZS: When the time comes to cast, I always have a look or image in my head of the model. When we saw Michael, he looked like the boy I had drawn in my sketches, so he was perfect. We had to have him.

Songzio finale aw17 michael walker photo by Ashley Verse
Michael Walker leading the finale of Songzio AW17. Photo by Ashley Verse.

Songzio will show his SS18 collection at London Fashion Week Men’s in June 2017.
Candid issue 14, the Art Issue, is available now.

Mr Song was interviewed via a translator; the original interview has been transcribed as accurately as possible.
Images courtesy of Songzio, with the exception of the cover photo by Ashley Verse.

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