Becoming Seoul: The Creation of Identity Through the Dongdaemun Design Plaza

After opening to the public in spring 2014, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza is now recognized as a cultural icon that informs Seoul's overall identity as a rising global fashion and design center.

Words Deserae McGlothen, Photos Elizabeth Royal

 
 

Every city has a story. An identity. A pulse. But have you ever stopped to think about where those identities come from? How, for instance, does the heart of a traditional country become the Asian center of design and fashion? What has to happen to invoke that sort of change? To answer this question, we inevitably look towards what’s happening in Seoul, South Korea’s capital, to find out  when, how, and why it gained international attention as a center for innovation in design.

Truthfully, even a city native would be hard pressed to tell you anything certain about the when, how, and why the city evolved. After all, if you tried to explain the exact moment that you became “you,” the conclusion could be drawn that there is no defining moment in which an identity is born… that you’re still becoming yourself. As each of us faces change, encounter new people, and accumulate experience, we find our color. Naturally, we become ourselves.

Places gather their identities in similar ways. There are very few instances where you can point out one date or one event to explain why a place has become the place it is now. A combination of history, chance, acceptance, and maybe even fate all have to work together to craft a new identity. In time, that identity can even cultivate a new way of life for the citizens in it.

 
 

Seoul hasn’t always been recognized as a fashion center by the rest of the world. It’s only been in recent years that we’ve finally started looking twice at the unbranded treasures found in South Korea’s outdoor and underground markets. Even though it’s been 15 years since Seoul’s first Fashion Week in 2000, Western attention is still primarily focused on the spectacle outside of the event. This attention is squarely placed on the street fashion and model appearances rather than on the event inside that showcases the work of Korean designers. Within South Korea, however, beauty and fashion have always been an integral part of society. It only took a bit of politics and chance (and yes, maybe fate) to get the rest of the world to recognize it as a center of inspired fashion design.

 
 

Seoul has always been a progressive hub so it’s hard to start at the beginning of this story. To understand its metamorphosis in the fashion world from quiet kid in the corner to new kid on the block, I should probably start with where we foreigners come in. We need to understand the power of purposed international appeal. Global attention to South Korea and its capacity for design reignited in 2007 with an architectural project in Dongdaemun. The then Mayor of Seoul, Oh Sehun, launched the Design Seoul project, perhaps due to political ambition… perhaps for something else.

Many think that Oh Sehun was looking to ride on the coattails of his predecessor’s success in winning both national and international esteem by leaving behind a sort of legacy project during his time in office. With the Cheonggyecheon Stream Restoration in 2005, Oh Sehun’s predecessor Lee Myungbak not only earned respect in sustainability circles worldwide, but also favor among his nation’s people, going from the mayoral office to the Presidential office the year Mayor Oh came onto the scene. Though simple political ambition may be part of Mayor Oh’s reasoning behind launching the Dongdaemun project, a bigger part, I believe, involved strategy following the ICSID’s 2007 announcement of Seoul becoming the World Design Capital title holder for 2010.

What’s in a name? Your new focus, apparently. Though the World Design Capital title is given to a city whose economy and culture are effectively supported or heavily influenced by design, Seoul received the title due to IT infrastructure— not architecture, fashion, or whatever restoration project it was up to in order to revive its traditional roots.

Mayor Oh, though, saw an opportunity. With the announcement of WDC Seoul, Mayor Oh also announced that he wanted to see his city “reinvent itself into a globally recognized city of design” (ICSID Calendar Statement 2010). He made it clear that he wanted to collaborate with foreign designers in order to realize this goal. His Design Seoul initiative was immediately launched with the mission of creating tangible landmarks to represent an innovative Seoul. 

Among the many projects started under this header, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) Project was in the forefront of national and international attention. Since it was set to be built on an iconic location (the site of the old Dongdaemun Baseball Stadium) and the project pulled in a world-renowned but non-native designer, many of the city’s locals were left skeptical about it while foreigners looked on, intrigued by the collaboration. All of these feelings— of doubt and discontent, of curiosity and expectation— were further drawn as years went by and the building slowly came together. Both sides watched attentively; both wanted to see what it would be when it was done and what its impact would be on the city, if any at all.

Ultimately, what started as a could be political move ended up becoming a worldwide spectacle. Oh Sehun left office before completion of the seven year long, 450 million dollar project. However, architect Zaha Hadid’s out of this world, atypical design for the DDP that featured flexible public spaces embedded into concrete pathways, curving metal walls, and stark white open floors,  caused the world to look intently at Seoul in a brand new way.  

 
 

The DDP was completed in November 2013 but officially opened to the public in March 2014— one week before Seoul Fashion Week that year. Now the two (once obscure) names are almost synonymously linked. When we think SFW, we think DDP. When we think of the DDP, we recall the bustling Dongdaemun Market that’s practically always open and we can’t even remember a time when this wasn’t how it was. It just is. Seoul no longer holds a “soft-city” title. It’s no longer only quietly innovating through technology and restorative, rather than creative prowess. Now, we look to this city for inspiration, for what’s next. 

When we look up at the giant spaceship landed smack dab in the middle of the Dongdaemun Wholesale Market, that's featured in dramas, and the product of a 7 year wait, we have to ask ourselves if this was the thing that helped Seoul gain its design-oriented identity. Perhaps fortune played a part. Or perhaps we should just admit that the identity was already building— already there.

In the past 60 years particularly, Seoul has proven to have been a hub of innovators and creators— a trendsetter in terms of creativity, fashion, and design. But I still think Seoul is becoming something greater. Something greater than the physical architecture that caused the world to give attention to Seoul as a design center.

Greater still.




To learn more about the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, check out the official DDP site.