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How Lockheed Martin, CNN and Yale became fashion brands in Korea

Success of MLB, Discovery channel in Korean fashion opens door for plethora of global logos

March 31, 2024 - 17:58 By No Kyung-min
A hoodie with a Yale logo is sold on Korean online fashion platform Musinsa. (Musinsa)

On Seoul’s streets today, seeing someone clad in a CNN hoodie, Kodak pants, Yale socks, a Discovery jacket, a National Geographic backpack and a BBC Earth baseball cap may not seem out of the ordinary.

The presence of logos from global non-fashion brands, spanning academia, media and sports, in Korean everyday wear seems to be only growing, now including unexpected entrants like arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin.

As for Yale, the US university now ranks third among the top 100 fashion brands on the nation's largest online fashion platform, Musinsa, as of March 21.

"Has Yale secretly opened a campus in South Korea without me knowing?” a 41-year-old Lee Jong-yong quipped, noting the surge in Yale-emblazoned apparel.

A model wearing Yale's hooded sweatshirt poses for a photo with a dog. (PHYPS Department)

A hoodie with a CNN logo is sold on Korean online fashion platform Musinsa. (Musinsa)

Borrowed brand power

This infiltration of seemingly random global brands into the Korean fashion scene technically occurred from within, not outside, through licensing agreements with local firms.

That is, local companies possess the rights to produce and sell clothing adorned with the logos of licensor brands, which receive specified royalty rates in return.

In the case of Yale, its apparel line was launched by the Korean fashion company Words Corporation in 2020 through such a licensing deal. The same goes for the recently launched Lockheed Martin streetwear collections, manufactured by the local firm Doojin Yanghang Corp.

The leveraging of intellectual property for commercial trademark purposes is not a novel approach in the local fashion industry, although in the past it primarily involved foreign fashion houses such as Pierre Cardin, Daks and Renoma.

"Creating and expanding brand recognition takes a tremendous amount of time and resources," an industry insider told The Korea Herald on the condition of anonymity. "Domestic clothing companies are strategically tapping into the reputation of global brands to gain a foothold in the market more effectively."

However, the insider warned, "Just slapping on a trademark won't guarantee good sales. It is crucial to tailor designs to local customer preferences.”

South Korean clothing company F&F has been a pioneer in licensed fashion, in particular, at incorporating non-fashion brands.

In 1997, it launched the first such apparel line in a licensing deal with Major League Baseball (MLB). In 2012, it went on to launch the fashion brand Discovery Expedition, following the acquisition of the rights to use the logos of the American documentary channel.

Their MLB brand sets itself apart as a fashion brand distinct from other MLB merchandise produced by on-field uniform providers Nike and baseball cap supplier New Era.

"The MLB brand has the rights to expand their business into Asian countries such as China, Vietnam and Thailand, while the Discovery brand solely targets the domestic customer base under its contract," explained the firm’s official.

Local industry insiders note that logoed fashion had its heyday in the mid-2010s, when a new apparel line with a famous global logo could easily surpass 10 billion won ($7.4 million) in annual sales within its initial year.

By 2022, two documentary channels Discovery and National Geographic, launched as apparel brands in Korea by F&F and Nature Holdings, respectively, ranked second and third in the local outdoor fashion market, in terms of sales revenue, trailing only behind The North Face and surpassing traditional brands like K2 and Kolon Sports.

A child model in Los Angeles Dodgers apparel from MLB Kids brand (F&F)

‘Too many, too random’

As more local firms seek to replicate the success of brands like MLB, Discovery and National Geographic, the market has seen an influx of foreign logos in the past years.

This includes logos from renowned universities like UCLA, Harvard, and Cambridge; media companies like CNN and BBC Earth; and iconic brands of other fields, like Kodak or Jeep.

According to local fashion media Fashionbiz, as of February 2024, there are 218 licensed fashion brands in the nation.

Out of the 61 launched in the second half of the previous year, approximately 30 percent, or 18, were licensed brands, marking the interesting sartorial debuts of Lockheed Martin, Brooklyn Museum and the Siena Resort. Meanwhile, in the first half of this year, 42.3 percent, or around 11 out of the 26 brands expected to launch, are capitalizing on global logos.

The primary customer demographic of these brands includes young Koreans from not only the millennial generation, born between 1981 and 1996, but also their succeeding generations, such as Generation Z and Generation Alpha, encompassing those born from 1997 to the 2020s.

For some consumers who embrace these garments, their appeal transcends mere fashion, serving as a sartorial testament to the wearer's affinity for a brand's narrative.

"Wearing logos of global brands subtly communicates a connection to the brand's international presence, projecting a cosmopolitan image," explained Lee Eun-hee, a consumer studies professor at Inha University, while delving into the psychological dimension of brand consumption.

She added that this behavior also extends to flaunting their association with the brand's values, stating, "This phenomenon is particularly pronounced among young consumers in the digital age, who are accustomed to encountering brands and cultures from all over the world."

Park Jin-young, a 28-year-old photography aficionado, said in an interview with The Korea Herald that he recently bought a Kodak jacket. "Respect for the brand is what drove my purchase," he explained. "Kodak represents a rich history in photography, and I wanted to wear something that embodied that for me."

Yoo Min-ah, a 32-year-old resident of Gyeonggi Province, shared her preference for brands like Discovery Expedition and National Geographic over sportswear giants like Nike and Adidas.

"I'm drawn to the outdoor vibes these new brands exude," she explained. "They offer functionality and affordability while sporting distinctive looks that differ from common sportswear brands."

A model wears a Discovery Expedition's winter hooded jacket (Discovery Expedition)

She further noted that her friend embraces clothing and lifestyle products that display the LIFE magazine logo, to not only add a touch of edge and refinement to her style, but more importantly to express appreciation for the image the magazine brand projects.

However, not everyone views these logo-stamped products with approving looks. According to Kim Sae-min, a Seoul resident in her 20s, they seem to lack authenticity despite receiving the imprimatur from the original brands.

“It seems that these licensed products tread a delicate line between authenticity and being knock-offs, given that they are not essentially designed by the original company," she stated, followed by a pointed rhetorical question: “How would you react to seeing foreign visitors wearing clothing with Seoul National University or Korean Broadcasting System logos?”

Kim also pointed out that these items contradict the recent fashion trend centering around understated elegance without prominent logos.

Likewise, Lim Jae-min, a 30-something office worker in Seoul, expressed bewilderment at the proliferation of global non-fashion brands into Korean streetwear.

For him, the prevalence of logo-centric clothing has grown more arbitrary and unfashionable.

"Seeing these global brands solely exploit their logos feels like watching them hop on the bandwagon of an outdated fashion trend," he remarked. "With brands like the Siena Resort and even construction equipment manufacturer Bobcat joining in, I think the trend has lost its novelty and freshness to maintain a fashionable appeal."

Yet, Korean fashion firms are still betting on carving out a niche for themselves, by transforming easily recognizable brands from different sectors into distinctive apparel lines with a fresh look and feel.

As for Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest arms manufacturer, its Korean trademark rights holder Doojin aims to focus on a future-oriented technical aesthetic with new synthetic fibers and materials, setting themselves apart from other traditional outdoor brands. On Musinsa, a T-shirt featuring the image of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jet is listed at 78,000 won ($58.)

A T-shirt featuring a F-35 stealth fighter is sold on Korean online fashion platform Musinsa. (Musinsa)
A hoodie with a National Geographic logo is sold on Korean online fashion platform Musinsa. (Musinsa)