How did Kodak end up on a catwalk in Korea?

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Don Willmott

Don Willmott

Don is a writer focused on technology, travel, culture, and the interesting ways in which they all intersect.

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As a connoisseur of Asian dramas, I had a good laugh last month when The New York Times did a deep dive into the highly annoying prevalence of Subway sandwiches in Korean dramas.

Obtrusive product placement is something all of us drama fans have long since gotten used to, even when the sexy leading man has an improbable collection of 12 Rado watches or it seems that everyone in Seoul drives a Chevrolet. When it comes to instant coffee packets, ask me anything. I know which brands are the most delicious. 

What’s stranger, though, at least to my Western eyes, is the phenomenon of decidedly untrendy American corporate brands turning up as cutting-edge men’s fashion inspirations, not only on TV shows but also on Asia’s most stylish streets. 

Perhaps the best example is Kodak. Once synonymous with photography all around the world, the company imploded spectacularly when it was either unwilling or unable to meet the challenge of the digital photography revolution. I bought my last roll of Kodak film 20 years ago and never, ever, considered buying a Kodak digital camera when Sony, Olympus, Canon, and Nikon were out in front. 

Kodak still exists in various unsexy photo-adjacent and pharmaceutical markets, so can it really be considered “retro” enough to inspire fashion?

I would have thought not, but it appears I’m wrong. According to the Korean street fashion experts at Styleupk.com, the explanation is simple: nostalgia. Anyone 25 or older has warm memories of point-and-shoot photo sessions at family gatherings way back in the good old days of the ‘90s. For them, “Kodak moments” and childhood are inexorably intertwined. 

For a truly retro fashion statement, however, it might be better to head to eBay, where plenty of real vintage Kodak gear, including a pretty fantastic official 1988 Seoul Olympics Kodak press center polo shirt (US$40), was recently available. If you’re one of the few people who can wear yellow, maybe it’s the right look for you. 

Another good example is National Geographic. To me, the magazine, to which I subscribe, doesn’t exactly scream fashion, and yet in Asia, the brand has collaborated with names like The North Face and Element to market logo-heavy streetwear and technical outerwear, some of which, admirably, is at least partially made from upcycled materials.

While I might expect to see a National Geographic-branded backpack in the hands of my uncle on a camping trip in Wyoming, it’s actually more likely I’d spot one in Orchard, Omotesando, or Myeon-dong. 

Oddly enough, the National Geographic brand actually competes in Asia with yet another American adventure-related media brand: Discovery. Korea-based Discovery Expedition fashion is a rather big deal as has even wrangled Korean actor and (demi-god) Gong Yoo as its leading model. When I see the logo, I think of boring cable TV documentaries about volcanos or penguins, but when Koreans see it, they think of… Gong Yoo, which I must admit is a definite improvement. 

It’s fun to guess which Western brand will be next in line to catch the eye of Asian style forecasters. Now that I think of it, maybe Chevrolet would work well. My uncle drives one.

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