Borderless Fashion

These women prove that age, size, race, and religion don’t matter when it comes to fashion

Story: Dianne Pineda-Kim and Wendy Palomo (Iman’s story)

Photos: Daniel Kim/ Natalie Rapisarda

Seyoon Kim and Dianne Pineda-Kim (Seoul Kids Fashion Show)

Makeup: Valentina Chang

Hair: Hair and Joy 

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It is often said that you are what you wear. An outfit can be simple, eccentric, whimsical or practical, reflecting not only a person’s aesthetic proclivities such as personal taste, style, and mood, but also their intrinsic points of view—ultimately, of their beliefs, passion, and sense of being. Perhaps more often than we’d care to admit, there is more meaning to clothes than basic necessity or as a means to impress. Depending on how it is used, fashion can be a mask with which to hide one’s true self, or for those who are brave enough, express what’s real. It can also be a memento of a certain time, with different styles that define bygone eras and preview a future that is yet to come. 

For these women, fashion and beauty are tools for opening important conversations about representation and celebrating creative talent in Korea. 

Seoul Kids Fashion show founder Natalie Rapisarda and director Saemi Moon opened the door to young local and multicultural kids to hone their talent on the runway through yearly shows that usher in today’s new generation of style. Rosemary Manso, on the other hand, saw the need to diversify the fashion stages in Korea and expand the public’s awareness of the infinite capabilities of African designers and models through her Seoul Africa Show. Iman Mohamed, a Seoul-based Somali-American English teacher, provides practical tips, guidelines, and motivational stories in her videos and social media posts for navigating being a Muslim in Korea—and being loud and proud to be one. If there’s one thing that these women have in common, it’s that they created a platform for voices that need to be heard, whether it’s tiny little tots who dream of becoming a model when they grow up, a man or woman of color who has what it takes to make it in the fashion industry, or a hijabi who wants to show the many beautiful stylings and meanings of the hijab. 

In a sense, the clothes that these women cloak themselves with fundamentally reveal the universal truth that fashion is not exclusive. It knows no age, race, religion, size, or fit.

Groove Korea explores the dynamic relationship between these women and fashion: how they use it to represent themselves, their culture, and conviction, going beyond the physical manifestation of clothes to spread an important message of inclusivity, diversity, and being confident inside and out.

 Korea’s little dreamers

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Seoul Kids Fashion Show (SKFS) founder Natalie Rapisarda and director Saemi Moon probably have the most difficult job in the world: selecting kid models from hundreds of applicants hoping to model in their show every year. Instead of featuring models who are typically six feet tall, the two creative collaborators especially seek out tiny tots who may be small in size but pack a big punch when it comes to charisma and talent. Starting in 2017 and formerly known as Seoul Fashion Futures, SKFS features local Korean childrenswear designers and kid models who make the runway their playground. 

“Our event continues to grow each time, with a record number of 600 model applications received for our show this year,” Saemi, who is based in Seoul says. “The overwhelming interest is an indication of the willingness from parents to give their children an opportunity to take part in such an exciting event, and as we grow bigger, we want to give everyone the chance to participate.”

Natalie, a fashion photographer and entrepreneur who flies in from Australia to Seoul each year, has been passionate about Korean fashion even before starting SKFS. “I have always been into fashion and was curious about the industry in South Korea as I felt the clothing suited my personal style,” she shares. “In 2013, I decided to visit South Korea for the first time when I attended Seoul Fashion Week as a freelance photographer. It was an experience that ultimately changed my life.”

Having attended fashion weeks in Australia and in different parts of the world and hosted events that bring creatives together, Natalie wanted to put the spotlight on the culture of collaboration, love for fashion, and celebration of the young talent that she has seen in Korea. “I did not see the interest for kids fashion or the amazing vibe that exists in Korea anywhere else in the world. I felt it would be an amazing opportunity to create a professional platform where children’s designers and kid models could have the chance to showcase their talent and to gain credibility that so many others have the privilege of achieving around the world.”

As with any beginnings, hardships are inevitable. It is easy to see that there is an immense potential and market for kids fashion in Korea and at Seoul Fashion Week alone, where droves of professional photographers clamor around stylish kids hoping to take their picture. But the biggest challenge, according to Natalie, is overcoming the language and cultural differences that a foreigner such as herself inevitably faces in Korea. With their teamwork, Natalie and Saemi were able to organize, keep the shows going, and help make a positive difference to the industry.

Despite being only a two-woman team, they were able to enlist 90 kid models and nine Korean brands to participate in their 2019 show at the Hyundai Department Store in Cheonho. It was their biggest show since their inception three years ago.  

Perhaps one of the biggest achievements that SKFS has gained is to introduce multicultural children models who have big dreams to the world stage. “We support a diverse range of models. The fashion show is not just about the runway. We provide events that give all parents, models and designers, regardless of their background, the opportunity to connect and interact,” Natalie says. 

 Even though the models are only 4 to 12 years old, their proud stride, professional poses, and ease in front of the camera belie their young age. Natalie and Saemi believe that SKFS is a good training ground to build their self-esteem from a young age and “help them to grow into confident and successful adults.”

“Some children have modelled with us for the first time and have been so grateful for the wonderful experiences and memories they’ve created, through being given the chance to wear a designer outfit, learn to walk the runway and to make friends and have a good time,” Natalie shares.

What they have built is not just a fashion show but ultimately a big family who meet every year just like a reunion of kin members who come in their best attire. She continues, “South Korea is still a proud traditional country and what stands out for me has been the respect and kindness shown from the children involved in participating in our shows. It has been a lovely experience to work with the children and their parents.”


A fashion lesson in African culture

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“You can find yourself in Korea,” Rosemary says in her soft, whispery voice that seems to have the uncanny power to soothe and calm the nerves of anyone she speaks to. But her sweet utterances do not imply that her message is weak. Not at all. As she tells the story of how she moved to Korea in 2016 as a semi-retired model who had an impressive work portfolio and experience in Europe, the courage it took for her to get here can clearly be seen. Somebody once asked her, “Why Korea?” To which she simply replied, “Why not?”

Having seen fashion shows around the world from both behind and in front of the stage, Rosemary observed that something was missing from Korean shows: people of color.

“That was unsettling to me, especially since I personally knew so many beautiful and talented black people in Korea that should be booked for modeling jobs. There was clearly a market of untapped potential in Korea for talented models of color,” she says.

 And this does not only apply to the fashion industry. There is a tendency for Koreans to compartmentalize Africans into certain groups and age-old impressions simply borne out of their lack of understanding or reluctance to accept them. “Most Koreans think that Africa is a very poor continent, where there’s a lot of poverty, disease, uneducation. They don’t think that we are very learned and talented. They still have this very old perception, and that’s not what Africa is at all,” she explains. “Unless a Korean has actually has traveled to Africa and seen the developments, culture, and beauty there, they wouldn’t know. But I think there’s no excuse for this. We have books, Internet, TV⁠—one can easily seek knowledge.”

Not wanting to simply dismiss or accept this situation and wait for big changes to happen, she found a creative way to smash these preconceived notions through a fashion show that features the best African art, design, and talent has to offer. 

“I learned early on that I would never get anywhere if I was passively waiting on everyone else to let me through. I had to make the opportunity myself,” she says. 

Starting in 2017, her project was dubbed the Seoul Africa Fashion Show (SAFS), which was first held together with the Seoul Africa Festival. Accompanied by the irresistible rhythm and heart-pounding beats of drums playing traditional African beats, models of color walked on the runway wearing designs from Ethiopia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Morocco, Ghana, East and South Africa, among many other parts of Pan Africa. 

The process of making this happen wasn’t easy. “The biggest challenge that I faced in the beginning and that I am still facing now is securing Korean sponsors for the fashion show,” she says. “It is often difficult to pitch an African fashion show to Korean companies due to the negative stereotypes of Africa. This is another reason why SAFS is so important to Korea because it positively promotes African culture to audiences that have either negative attitudes or little knowledge about Africa.”

In 2018, SAFS presented the theme of “African Renaissance,” with one highlight segment featuring signature African designs worn with pieces from the Korean hanbok, showing the beauty of both cultures when put together. It encapsulated the organization’s vision, as Rosemary puts it, “to educate Korea on the benefits of diversity and inclusion in the fashion industry with hopes of fostering strong relationships in Korea.”

If last year was all about rebirth and invigoration, the next theme is an answer to what comes next after this re-awakening: “Afrofuturism.” What are Africa’s fashion movers and shakers making now that will ultimately shape their future and that of the world?

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“The show is about designs that reflect the future of art with technology intertwined and the distinctiveness of African geometric patterns and bold colors. Our creative designers this year are talented and have amazing collections to share. The audience can expect a show that will be bold, epic, and innovative,” she excitedly shares. 

The after-effects of the show are proving to be positive. Models who participated have started booking more jobs and little by little are breaking into the Korean fashion industry, which used to be extremely hard to crack. For Rosemary, the future for African fashion and creative types here in Korea looks bright—but it still has a long way to go. With SAFS, she hopes that the conversation continues to grow and that multiculturalism will be more welcomed in Korea. 

She ends: “The show is really not for my benefit, it’s for African designers and models. It’s for creatives who haven’t broken into the Korean market. There are actors and models that you can see visibly in Korean media, but you can count them on one hand. There needs to be more.”

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NOT JUST ANOTHER INFLUENCER

The café is slowly filling up. In the back corner, a lone woman is quietly browsing on her cellphone. She can’t be missed.

Though donning neutral colors, she stands out due to her hijab. Iman Mohamed, up close, is a striking beauty. Her face glistens and her eyes are the most arresting of her features. Talking with her, you’ll understand why she has garnered a big following for both her YouTube channel and Instagram accounts – both named Hijabi in Seoul City. She is not just another influencer.

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Iman is a Somali-American currently living here in Seoul. Armored with her Journalism degree from the University of Minnesota, where she got the chance to study Japanese, French and Korean to add to her English and Swahili, she eloquently speaks her mind in a non-intimidating fashion. Undoubtedly, she had seen and lived in different cultures, but why and how did she become fascinated with Korea?

Her story isn’t a unique one. Her love affair with Korea started with Full House and Rain’s (비) music. She was delightfully surprised that a Korean singer – and actor – can sing impressive R&B. She was captivated from then on and the rest is history.

She came to Korea in 2012 for a one-month vacation. Proficient in the Korean language, she took the time to explore Korea’s various cities and took it as a chance for “full-on immersion when it comes to speaking the language.” Contrary to what her mother hoped for – that she was going to get over Korea – she came back in 2015 with a teaching certificate on top of her journalism degree.

And she became active on Instagram and YouTube. She maintains she is not a big social media influencer, yet the number of followers she has tells a different story – her Instagram account has more than 26,000 followers and her YouTube channel has more than 43,000 subscribers. She admits that the numbers have grown over the years and her hijab sets her apart.

Does she see her hijab as source of her power and strength? “It is definitely part of my identity, a part of who I am. It makes me different even though I don’t want to be different. It speaks for me before I speak. It’s something I have grown to appreciate.”

She started wearing hijab when she was fourteen years old, the age she began to understand why she needed to wear it. She proudly declares, “I am a practicing Muslim. This is a personal choice for me.”

How has it been to be a Muslim and a Hijabi in Korea? “I am black, a Muslim, and a Hijabi in Korea”, she emphasized. “When I first came, it was really hard because there weren’t a lot of Muslims living here in Korea. Lots of Muslims were tourists or students. I experienced discrimination but I don’t hold on to it. I just realize that there’s a lot of ignorance and some people just don’t know. I try to give them the benefit of the doubt.”

She has been using her social media presence to be a resource for women of color and Hijabis like her. She shares cafes, unique neighborhoods, where to get halal food, and daily outfit inspirations with her followers. She has remained steadfast in her faith, no matter how fast fashion changes and transforms. Aware of the struggles of other Muslim women here in Korea who were advised to take off their hijab for easier job placement, she gently confirms: “It’s one of those moments you are made to feel you are different. It’s wrong. I can’t turn back on my values and my morals. This is who I am. I don’t want to change for such a worldly thing…. It made me look at myself and really evaluate what it is that I want from my life. If Korea is not accepting of that side of me, I don’t need to compromise. I’m still here and I’m still working.”

Indeed, time has gone by fast.

It was only in 2017 when she experienced her first Fashion Week here in Seoul. It became more glaring that there weren’t a lot of Hijabis in the fashion week – and to a wider degree, in the fashion scene. She was elated her ensemble from Monki received a positive response.

Then, in March 2018, Q2Han posted an online contest to see who could put together the best outfit from H&M. She submitted her entry on the last day of the contest and wore it on the last day of S/S 2018 Fashion Week. She won and that made her feel more confident that she “maybe [does] have a sense of style.”

“I definitely like to be able to show that you can be fashionable and still dress modestly because I think a lot of people think they can’t do both, but you really can! I love this season of autumn and winter. I feel like I thrive the most during this time because layering is something I can do, and I just have fun with my outfit. I love giving outfit inspirations to people… but I know I am still learning myself.”

Early this year, she accomplished another feat all on her own. She obtained her resident’s visa. The visa change opens opportunities for foreigners, but she knows her hijab still poses an obstacle. Nevertheless, she has already inspired so many without compromising her faith and she has proven her competence. We will just wait and see… big things are coming her way.

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