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Kodak, National Geographic pivot to become fashion brands in Korea

Photography and magazine brands reinvent themselves with trendy clothing, but critics warn of an identity mismatch

By Jul 08, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)

A magazine name becomes a trendy fashion brand
A magazine name becomes a trendy fashion brand

For more than a century, Kodak was a household name for quality cameras that were treated as valuable possessions -- often kept in the cabinet and only taken out to photograph special occasions like birthdays or outdoor trips.

With the rapid decline in sales of photographic film, however, Kodak filed for bankruptcy protection in the US in January 2012.

But in recent years, the Kodak brand has reinvented itself as fashion apparel by partnering with South Korea’s Highlight Brands to launch a series of vintage Kodak clothing lines, which are catching on globally.

Inspired by Kodak’s unique heritage, the Korean apparel maker has developed a clothing range under a 2019 license with the US firm, and last year its sales topped 10 billion won ($8.7 million) in just a year of launch.

Encouraged by the decent growth, Highlight Brands plans to expand its outlets to 80 with a sales target of 60 billion won this year.

Highlight Brands is one of the Korean fashion retailers that are pivoting non-apparel global brands such as MLB, National Geographic and Discovery into trendy fashion clothing, appealing to young people, referred to as MZers, or Millennials and young adults in Generation Z.

According to the fashion industry, a total of 25 global and local brands have been reborn as designer labels in partnership with Korean apparel makers and importers.

F&F Co. has been leading the trend, starting with MLB apparel in 1997, followed by MLB Kids and Discovery Expedition.

Discovery Expedition, a popular apparel brand in Korea
Discovery Expedition, a popular apparel brand in Korea

CHINESE MZERS

F&F said it plans to increase its MLB and MLB Kids outlets in China to 270 and 40, respectively, by the end of this year. Last month, the company opened an MLB Kids outlet in the Global Harbor Shopping Mall, Shanghai’s largest retail shop.

The Korean company posted 49.5 billion won in sales from its MLB outlet in China in the first quarter of this year, an eightfold increase from a year ago.

“With a big logo and colorful design on its themed goods, MLB is fast catching on among the Chinese MZers,” said an industry official.

“In Korea, the MLB brand almost disappeared from the fashion industry years ago. But with the global popularity of Hallyu (the Korean wave), it has been successfully resurrected.”

A duty-free shop official in Korea says Chinese peddlers and wholesale traders are visiting Seoul to buy MLB products in large quantities at the risk of being quarantined for more than a month due to concerns over the COVID infection.

The Nature Holdings, a Korean importer of popular apparel brands such as National Geographic, Jeep, NFL and Vera Wang, said it recently opened its fourth overseas outlet in Hong Kong to eventually enter the bigger Chinese market.

Kodak apparel
Kodak apparel

Last month, The Nature Holdings said it is participating as a strategic investor in a $1.7 billion purchase of TaylorMade Golf Co. by Seoul-based private equity firm Centroid Investment Partners.

Through the equity investment in the US sports equipment manufacturer, The Nature Holdings aims to expand its business into the golf wear and gear market just like Titleist, the world’s largest manufacturer of golf balls and equipment, which also makes related apparel goods.

IDENTITY MISMATCH

As the established non-apparel brands are winning the hearts of young, trend-sensitive people, other Korean retailers have also jumped into the retro clothing business.

Barrels, a domestic apparel company, has revived the popularity of Lee, known for denim jeans,  together with global brands such as Levi’s and Wrangler.

Another Korean company SJ Trend introduced the Storm London brand into Korea in April this year.

MLB fashion caps
MLB fashion caps

While Korean apparel companies have turned baseball, magazine and photography names into successful fashion brands, some critics say excessive collaboration between those brands with clothing retailers could turn consumers away from a growing number of various themed goods.

“I notice some fatigue among consumers about the quirky branding. Some such fashion brands are not in sync with the images of the original brands. This could bring about an identity issue,” said Jun Joo-en, a business administration professor at Anyang University.

Write to Jeong-Cheol Bae at bjc@hankyung.com

In-Soo Nam edited this article.

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