Skip to content Skip to footer

From the military to streetwear, the journey of a South Korean fashion designer

Wook-Il Choi started with only a needle and thread. A few years later, he’s the owner of the fashion company COKIE, and it all began while he was working for the South Korean military.

The South Korean government has had a conscription requirement in place since 1957, where all Korean men perform compulsory military service for two years.

Choi spent six months working as a soldier per the South Korean conscription requirement but was planning on entering fashion school after leaving the service the whole time. That is until he fully thought it out. Choi explained,

“The amount of money it would take to go into fashion school was a lot, so I decided to just start a company. I already had plans for it.”

Choi reflected on the times while he was in the service. He had used the sewing kit intended for fixing uniforms to make an arrangement of bags and eventually got permission for a sewing machine from his higher-ups.

Many of his peers were convinced that his company would flop and that his plans for fashion were not reasonable. Sporting his aesthetic, gangster-style label from head to toe, Choi challenged that arguing,

“In Korean society, it’s all about how much money you’ll make, or if you’ll be successful. You can’t really be creative unless it’s profitable.”

South Korea is notorious for its high-pressure working culture, with Koreans laboring nearly 240 hours more than the average American per year.


View this post on Instagram


코비 프로젝트002

A post shared by COKIE_COBI STUDIO 코우타(こうた) (@cokie.eo) on

Socially, there is an expectation for individuals to work towards the goal of a civil service job, which is considered a more secure option compared to other forms of work. Koreans strive for the security of income — something that fields such as fashion can’t necessarily provide. Choi described how Japan and Europe, unlike South Korea, boasts a more promising environment for a career in high-end fashion. He said,

“I have visited Japan and Europe, and the fashion was a bit disappointing. In Korea, there are a lot of talented people in street fashion, but society prevents many of them from expressing themselves. When people try going into fashion, people around them really just care about the money rather than the creativity.”

After leaving the military, Choi moved from his hometown of Ansan to Seoul alongside his friend to start his company. With only 200,000 won (about $200), Choi began working at a department store and learned about the business behind organizing his new line.

He was heavily undermined by those he spoke with from the department store as many of them said that starting his own company would be “impossible.” He then left Seoul and went to Dongdaemun. There Choi observed their infamous street markets where vendors sold their merchandise at bargain prices.

Choi’s style is based mostly on practicality, and he incorporates a lot of pockets and bags into his work. During the interview, Choi fashioned numerous different items from his label, including a multi-pocketed, heavy-duty backpack and shoes tailored with a strapped on pocket for storing extra cash or other items. He went on to explain what it is that inspires him when he’s creating saying,

“I try not to look at other brands or buy other brands, and most of my inspiration comes from my mood. I like to incorporate bags to make things more useful.”

Now, Choi has already gotten his line on Artist Runway in a collaboration with various other artists. The runway was aimed at incorporating the personalities of the models. The swanky event included different artists, tattooists, and rappers. Choi mentioned one act they incorporated on the runway.

“We had the models hold a flower and throw it at the end of the walk. The flower meant ‘potential talent’, and when we burned all the flowers at the end of the show — it was meant as a way to show that your talent shouldn’t be silent. It should be shown and expressed for the world to see.”

During the building of the runway, a storm came through and tore down much of the layout. The director, however, said to leave the damage: it retained the uniqueness of the show and gave it another layer of artistic expression.

Since the runway’s production, Choi has been looking towards the future for his company. He has even been contacted by some VMC music directors to discuss concepts and potential collaboration on future music videos.

Choi joked about directors who came from LA and wanted to meet him. They struggled to find him and ended up reaching out to him from a police station. They connected through Instagram, and are still discussing future plans.

Choi admits, happily, that this collaboration offers his company the prime opportunity of expanding West.

“I never intended to make my company in Korea, but it just happened. The plan is to move West and build the company there.”

He also hopes to launch a new brand named “Searching for Meaning,” coined “SEARCH,” yet he is still deliberating on the concept. The final destination, however, will be a fashion magazine. He says,

“I want a magazine to promote artists. When I was in the military, there was nothing like that for people to read. I want to create something where artists are able to express themselves and get the attention they deserve.”

The name he plans to give the magazine roughly translates to “Nevertheless,” meaning that no matter what, artists should continue working towards their goals. Choi told me lastly,

“I don’t care about money when I consider collaborating with someone. And it doesn’t have to be just in fashion. I want to work with someone who shows pure passion as an artist. Someone with no self-limit with their abilities. That’s what matters.”

Translations by Guest Translator Ka-eun Yun