Taking its name from a combination of new and retro, “Newtro” is the pop culture trend taking South Korea by storm.
Inspired by hugely popular period dramas, such as Mr. Sunshine, Koreans in their teens and 20s are revisiting vintage clothing, design styles, and food, giving them a contemporary twist in the process. Here, we take an in-depth look at the Newtro trend, from exploring how it began to how the trend manifests in design and culture across South Korea.
- Read about our prediction that early futurism would be revisited in design in 2019, a trend we termed as “Yesterday’s Tomorrow.”
What is Newtro?
Newtro describes a popular youth culture trend sweeping across South Korea, defined by a reinterpretation of vintage and retro design styles. Seen across fashion, interiors and food, Newtro could be interpreted as Korea’s own version of “hipster” culture, though it is distinctly Korean in origin and interpretation.
A range of historical eras are referenced through Newtro culture, from the more recent 1990s, back to the 19th century. Through their parents’ and country’s memories and history, Korean youth are rediscovering and reinterpreting a vintage-tinted lifestyle.
How Did Newtro Originate?
Young Koreans who were born in the 1980s and 1990s have developed a nostalgic attachment to the design styles that were prevalent in the periods when they were born. A new generation discovered the design styles, leisure activities, fashion, and food that were popular during these decades.
A desire for authenticity, simplicity, and nostalgic experiences amongst a younger generation drives the growth of Newtro, but the ability to share Newtro-inspired experiences via social media has also given the movement a thoroughly modern mood.
Similar to the revival in interest in early 20th century clothing and design styles in the UK following the huge success of TV show Peaky Blinders, Korea’s Newtro trend can also credit some of its origins to television. Mr. Sunshine, an emotional period drama set in 19th century Hanseong (the original name of Seoul), led to a rise in popularity of wearing period costumes and visiting city districts which retain traditional architectural styles, such as the Bukchon Hanok Village in Seoul.
How Does Newtro Manifest in Korean Culture?
Newtro is a “total” trend, meaning that it influences a broad range of features in Korean culture. Fashion, interiors, graphics, gaming and cafe culture are all experiencing a revival in vintage styles.
Following the success of Mr. Sunshine, television and film is experiencing a renewed interest in period dramas. The trend is also impacting wider industries in Korea, including tourism, with more young Koreans looking to replicate “authentic” vintage experiences by visiting old villages and historic urban districts.
Fashion is one of the most obvious areas that the Newtro trend can be seen in action. Inspired by the costumes donned by characters in Mr. Sunshine, many young Koreans buy, rent, or make period-inspired clothing. Young Koreans are adopting a mixture of periods, from the 19th century through to the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, creating a contemporary version of vintage style.
Costume rental shops are now one of the coolest places to hang out, with young Koreans taking their friends along to try on and photograph themselves in a range of period outfits. Twin vloggers Qwon and Qjin, of channel Q2HAN, try on a range of Mr. Sunshine-inspired outfits in this Youtube video.
Large fashion houses are also starting to pay attention to the Newtro trend, and many have realized that a taste for retro gaming is an effective way to attract and hold the attention of Korean millennials.
Luxury brands Gucci and Louis Vuitton launched retro-inspired games this year in an attempt to woo a Newtro-focussed audience. Gucci Ace is a 1980s-inspired table tennis game that draws awareness to the house’s flagship product, the Gucci Ace Sneakers.
The beauty sector is also following suit. Chanel launched a pop-up arcade called Coco Game Center, and Yves Saint Laurent Beauty opened a vintage casino-inspired “Beauty Hotel” in the Korean capital.
The Newtro trend is likewise making an impact in interior design. It’s not uncommon for cafes and retail spaces to decorate with antique furniture, with dark wooden tables and chairs, cosy brick walls, vintage-inspired bookshelves, and retro pictures, radios, and vases. Traditional tea and desserts are served in these vintage-influenced stores, but always with a contemporary twist. The tea might be traditional, but the unusual glass it is served in is certainly not.
What began as a home-grown trend amongst Korean youth has quickly become an avenue into a highly lucrative market for savvy brands.
The Newtro trend has become so prevalent in South Korea that the annual Seoul Design Festival oriented their 2018 event around it, with a theme of “Young Retro: Design Reversing Back to the Future.”
Graphic design agencies, interior designers, and craft brands showcased their interpretation of Newtro. Creative studio Oimu, whose company tagline is “Old is the New Hip!,” presented contemporary interpretations of traditional items, such as matchboxes, erasers, and pencils, while graphic design agency Ordinary People made the unassuming paper calendar a prominent feature of their exhibition.
The Future of Newtro
While Newtro is uniquely Korean in its style and origins, the revisitation of historic design styles and culture is not exclusive to this region. The enthusiasm for all things retro in South Korea echoes global cultural trends amongst millennial consumers.
Across the world, a young generation are rediscovering past decades in a quest to find an antidote to fast-paced, digitally-dominated modern life. However, while the authenticity, romanticism, and tradition of the past are being rediscovered, they are still being channelled and reshaped through a millennial lens. This fusion of technology and history has led to a completely new cultural phenomenon, which in Korea is seeing no sign of slowing down anytime soon.
Cover image by contributor 2p2play.
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