We’re proud to be one of the only North American stockists of the Korean brand SAN SAN GEAR. SAN SAN GEAR is more of an amorphous, secretive, and dynamic creative group than a traditionally structured fashion brand. Besides continuing to expand and challenge the meaning of “gear,” SAN SAN GEAR feels no obligation to draw inspiration from similar places season to season; they’d rather chase interest and energy where it leads, whether that’s cosmic horror or rave culture. We interviewed owner and founder of SAN SAN GEAR Sang-yeop Lee about his sources of inspiration, the state of Korean fashion, and what’s next for the brand.
SAN SAN GEAR exists between the fashion and outdoor worlds. What about your lived experience made you want to explore where those worlds meet?
We make an effort to avoid limitations in the messages we wish to convey, believing that it resonates well with our approach whether it be in street culture, outdoor activities, or various subcultures. Among the diverse expressions, SAN SAN GEAR has emerged as a prominent figure in the high-performance style, widely recognized as a high-performance brand. However, we have been conducting various experiments ranging from rave, cosmic horror, and anatomy to magazines. We have explored different areas meeting diverse people and broadening our horizons.
In terms of clothing, our focus has been on designing garments that highlight materials and details not commonly used by other brands along with active functionalities that cater to the wearer's preferred style, such as changeability, integration, and separation. This approach has drawn inspiration from the materials and technical design elements of functional outdoor clothing becoming a defining characteristic of SAN SAN GEAR apparel.
Coinciding with the trend of the high-performance style gaining popularity in Korea, the distinctive features of SAN SAN GEAR apparel have attracted significant attention aligning seamlessly with the high-performance style. While the brand may now be strongly associated with the high-performance image, we are prepared to explore and enjoy any domain as long as it aligns with our interests and promises to be a fun endeavor.
Could you discuss your sources for inspiration?
It might be various subcultures and artists. SAN SAN GEAR is a group that has never been publicly disclosed to the masses, a gathering of sorts for social misfits. It could be described as a collective of perennial escapists who haven't faced their own realities or weaknesses. In Korea, individuals involved in the arts are often evaluated by the older generation as those turning away from reality. As a result, various subcultures and the realm of art are often treated with disdain and categorized as 'things that don't help in life.' Therefore, most Koreans tend to naturally distance themselves from such things as they start engaging in economic activities and societal life.
Most members of SAN SAN GEAR are individuals who love such subcultures and the arts, a group formed by people who want to live by 'doing what they want.' Born out of the desire to do only what they want, SAN SAN GEAR is still likely to appear as escapists to some adults, like children who, having heard the phrase 'live doing what you want' steadily from a young age, grow up to rebel in order to do only what they want.
For SAN SAN GEAR, the cultures and actions of 'escapists' can serve as sources of inspiration. Non-mainstream and mainstream alike, anything without constraints, pure, and creative can all be sources of inspiration. Whether it's rave music, band music, outdoor activities, cosmic horror, animation, physics, astronomy, and more - anything created by those who want to pursue it can inspire us. In reality, within SAN SAN GEAR, there is often a sharing of respect for the culture created by these 'outsiders' and discussions among team members about the aesthetics of this culture. While there may be no paradise for escapists, the hope that SAN SAN GEAR could become a bunker for them is a constant driving force for us.
What is the story behind the name “SAN SAN GEAR”?
"璨璨" is pronounced as “SAN SAN” in Japanese. It means “sparkling and shining,” reflecting the strength of synthetic fiber, a distinctive feature of SAN SAN GEAR. It can also symbolize our diverse experimental spirit. Above all, we chose the name “SAN SAN” for its easy and memorable pronunciation. We completed the name by adding “GEAR,” which signifies equipment and machinery.
With SAN SAN GEAR, ADER, Andersson Bell (and many more brands) coming out of Korea, how would you describe the state of fashion in Korea?
I believe that the current state of fashion in Korea can be likened to a period of enlightenment. After the Korean War, the country underwent rapid economic growth, catapulting it into the ranks of advanced nations in a remarkably short time. This achievement was made possible by the unimaginable efforts of our grandfathers’ and fathers' generations. At that time, when the focus was on basic survival, the field of culture and arts could not be a priority. However, present-day of Korea, having achieved substantial growth, is experiencing rapid development in the realm of culture and arts.
Due to the inherent characteristics of our people or perhaps the result of the older generations' dazzling economic growth, even in less developed areas lacking well-established infrastructure, there are artists and brands making noticeable strides. They are gaining recognition not only in Korea but also internationally.
Personally, I have a great appreciation for Japanese culture and arts. One of their greatest strengths, as often noted, lies in their astonishing expressive abilities, individuality, and the way they absorb and reinterpret their surroundings into their unique styles. In comparison, one of the strengths of Korean culture and arts is adaptability and popularity. I believe there is a fast and deep understanding of rapidly changing global trends and effective methods of appealing to the public. While Korea was once a market that hastily followed trends, it has now entered an era where diverse styles are respected, and individuality is acknowledged. Consequently, artists and brands with abundant individuality, adaptability, and popularity are harmonizing their diverse strengths to shape the present.
Why do you think Korea has become such a global hub for street style?
As an extension of the previously mentioned points, it can be further emphasized that Korea is currently demonstrating rapid growth in the field of fashion. This not only pertains to the artists and brands active in the fashion industry but also signifies the swift development in the consciousness and standards of consumers engaged in it.
In reality, there is notable attention from European and American designer brands converging on Korea. As Korea continues to increase its market share in the Asian region, many brands choose Korea as a benchmark for their expansion into Asia. With the advancement of social media, the trend-catching ability is swift, and the inclination of Korean consumers to actively pursue and embrace these trends is becoming more pronounced. This, I believe, has positioned Korea as a global hub for street style.
A recent SAN SAN GEAR collection has featured a Flight Cap, a Wing Trouser, an Air Dash Jacket, and an Alpha Industries collaboration. What does flight or military aviation mean to you and the brand?
We don't focus much on flying or military aviation itself. We just like using words that give off an active, free-spirited, and adventurous vibe because they fit well with the feel of our brand.
How did your collaboration with KOESY come about?
We always seek out artists who inspire us with new ideas. Whether they're mainstream or undiscovered, we introduce them in various ways, from interviews to collaborations.
One artist we've had our eyes on for a while is KOESY. Intrigued by KOESY's previous works, a team member expressed a desire to collaborate. The team believed that KOESY could bring a great synergy with 'SAN SAN GEAR,' and thus, the collaboration was set in motion. KOESY readily accepted our request, and we quickly moved forward with the planning.
Our collaboration with KOESY revolved around characterizing psychological unease and unfolding it through a contrasting episode. We completed the collaboration in various ways, including animation, editorial lookbooks, t-shirts featuring diverse colors and graphic designs, and products like figures. The collaboration was a joyful and creative time for both KOESY and SAN SAN GEAR.
It's worth noting that elements extending from the 23SS collection, 'MERCURIAL' for SAN SAN GEAR are woven throughout the collaboration. Exploring these aspects could add an enjoyable layer to the overall experience.
How do you approach collaborations to drive SAN SAN GEAR forward?
I believe that we prioritize novelty and synergy the most. Unexpected collaborations often yield interesting results, bringing forth images that couldn't be showcased in our individual domains. While these collaborations may not always be successful, when planning them, we prioritize inspiration and motivation over outcomes. Even with a significant workload, as long as the tasks remain enjoyable and aligned with our intentions, there should be no issues, aside from the absolute necessity of deadlines.
Can you give us a little insight into the future of SAN SAN GEAR?
SAN SAN GEAR seeks to continuously explore a new approach to GEAR. While conventional GEAR tends to emphasize functionality related to outdoor activities, SAN SAN GEAR aims to focus on various situations that can arise in everyday life. We believe that challenging the global market with this expanded perspective on GEAR is the future for us.
Where do you see the shared outdoor/fashion space going?
Fashion is an essential realm in all human activities. Whether it's for the purpose of various activities, expressing one's affiliation, personality, or ideology, the moment humans put on fabric for any reason, it becomes fashion. In a narrow sense, it extends from hiking to outdoor activities in the broader sense, encompassing all activities outside the home.
Considering that many contemporary styles have originated from military uniforms, I think it's a natural progression for the fashion domain, which has long focused on technical aspects in outdoor activities to transition into the realm of cultural arts. Modern technological advancements, details, and functionalities involved in the processes from fabric to finished products can serve as sources of inspiration for many designers. Moreover, consumers engaged in various outdoor activities who wish to maintain their individuality become a demand base, shaping the market.
I see 'gorpcore' style as a representative example created by the intersection of these two domains. Considering the diverse styles that have emerged in a relatively short time since the concept of gorpcore was introduced, I believe that the outdoor and fashion domains continually give birth to new styles and contribute to the creation of various core fashion trends.
Interview by Ian Schulte