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[Alumni Interview] Highlighting New Value in the Fashion Industry
[Alumni Interview] Highlighting New Value in the Fashion Industry

Sports Branding Expert, Jun Kwon Lee, CEO of Hilight Brands (Clothing and Textiles class of ’99)

Fashion is always intertwined with novelty. Amid evolving environments such as changing societies, lifestyles, and trends, every season of the year demands different appearances. Fashion is a widely admired field, yet many people find it challenging to take on because it is continuously innovating. For our alumnus Jun Kwon Lee, fashion is enjoyable because it opens opportunities to create insights and new values within its continuously changing environment. He has attracted attention in the fashion industry by setting a remarkable record of 200 billion won in sales in just 3 years after founding his business by leveraging insights into the rapidly changing fashion market.


What others don’t dare to challenge

When Jun Kwon Lee joined the Department of Clothing and Textiles 30 years ago, most fashion majors were women, and the field was not preferred by men. However, as he was interested in things that others did not, he entered the department, despite his parents’ expectations of him going to an engineering school.


“As my father was in the military, he was very conservative and strongly opposed my intentions to study fashion. My parents kept wanting me to study engineering, but I wasn’t really interested. I wanted to explore a different career path, and I happened to be interested in clothing. Everyone wears clothes, right? That’s why I became interested in fashion. It was a time when there wasn’t much access to information about fashion. So, when I heard from an acquaintance of that department at Yonsei University, I thought it would be exciting.”
Most people think of designers when it comes to fashion-related majors. However, Lee was different from others in this choice as well. He was more interested in the business aspect of fashion. Thus, he minored in business administration. Listening to field experiences from seniors at academic meetings greatly inspired him. That might explain his particular interest in the basic knowledge of distribution and textiles, and thanks to the knowledge and experience accumulated during this time, he received much support for his current business.

 As Jun Kwon Lee had curiosity and drive in areas of his interest, he kept busy with diverse and interesting experiences during his college years. Early on, he even tried selling clothes.
“I made and sold T-shirts during school festivals and realized how difficult it was to sell clothes (laughs). During my freshman year, for about a month or two, I even went to Dongdaemun to pick up trendy items for door-to-door selling. Through such experiences, I identified the items that people were interested in and gained some understanding of the market.”


 A career at a fashion company is an asset for overcoming difficulties.

After graduation, Jun Kwon Lee joined the largest fashion company in Korea at the time. He started working for E-Land’s casual business department and accumulated many years of experience in product planning in sports fashion, working with brands such as Puma, New Balance, and Descente. Having always liked sports, he was naturally drawn into sports fashion. It was a dream come true, as he wanted to work for a sports fashion company since his college years. The hard times experienced at E-Land’s casual business department became an even more valuable asset before transitioning to sports brands.
“Companies generally ask newcomers the department they prefer to work for. I just said I had no preference. They ended up assigning me to the casual business department. Thus, they indeed sent me anywhere (laughs). At that time, a brand from the casual business department was experiencing difficulties. We even had to close stores that were not performing well. I really had a hard time during the first year and a half. But in hindsight, that experience became a turning point and a great asset in my life. Looking back at the hardships I had to endure during that period, nothing else feels as difficult. Moreover, I learned that brands have their ups and downs. Even with a lot of investment and preparation, some things may fail. For me, the first brand that I ambitiously prepared didn’t go well. There were even businesses that we invested in but ended up having to close with a loss. Thanks to those experiences, I learned to remain calm during any crisis. I realized that even when I’m experiencing tough times, the experience itself is not necessarily negative.”

Prepared for changes in the fashion industry before anyone else

While working for approximately 20 years, Lee realized the world was going through tremendous changes. The fashion market was no exception. Amidst the changes, he decided to seek out for new opportunities. Pursuing new things excited him more than the stability provided by his established career. The mobile device revolution was at the heart of the upcoming changes.
“Frequent business trips and meeting many people abroad made me realize that the world was changing, and that was 5 to 6 years before starting my own business. When things change, opportunities arise most of the time. Accordingly, I wanted to act before substantial changes took place. It’s only been 10 years since the business structure of purchasing clothes through mobile devices started to grow. I quickly perceived that the existing distribution method would completely change and started studying. By applying the experience gained at the fashion company to the ongoing change, I thought I could create something new.”


His predictions and quick preparation proved him right. The acceleration of online shopping due to the pandemic turned out to be the perfect business opportunity. The biggest recent change in the fashion industry was the transformation in the distribution environment. Previously, the distribution costs were high because large companies would invest in making clothes and supply them to physical stores for sale. In contrast, there are almost no limitations to online markets and anyone can become an entrepreneur.
“Anyone can start an online business with the proper skills and will. All you need is an idea, and you can promote your business online. The concept of design has also evolved. When I was in school, drawing had to be done by hand. Nowadays, the creative work can even be supported by artificial intelligence. The initial investment has thus drastically reduced. In an era where even college students can start their own businesses, the rules of the traditional fashion industry have completely changed.”
CEO Jun Kwon Lee, who sensed the changes in the fashion industry earlier than almost anyone else, started his own business. In 2019, Hilight Brands, which he currently leads, was born.

The value of discovering and nurturing brands that are like hidden gems
The fashion industry often reminds people of the glamorous life of building creative brands. However, after starting his business, Jun Kwon Lee had a different strategy. Rather than focusing on launching new brands, he set up a new business model by discovering existing brands that could go beyond their industries and get integrated into fashion with a high growth potential. Then, he acquired their rights for Korea to develop fashion collections. Key brands under Hilight include Kodak Apparel, Malbon Golf, and Diadora. This strategy stemmed from his insights into the fashion market.
“In fact, a new brand can be created every day. The hard thing is bringing it to life. No matter if we claim “it’s a good brand,” the consumers need to feel it. It’s also challenging to come up with creative ideas. Brands like Kodak, which are imported, require a lower initial investment. If a brand is already known, marketing costs can be reduced, and if the brand has awareness, it attracts interest. In fact, Kodak has a very warm brand image. I felt confident it would succeed because there seemed to be many ways to unravel this image.”

Thanks to this business strategy, Kodak Apparel launched in 2020 and quickly gained huge popularity. At the beginning, there were mixed opinions within the company because Kodak is a manufacturer of analog film cameras. However, Lee believed that the film camera would bring nostalgia to those in their 40s and 50s as well as a sense of novelty to those in their teens and 20s, who are less familiar with the brand.
“Some people were questioning whether we would succeed with a brand that doesn’t attract attention. But honestly, who would give a well-known brand to a company that’s just starting off? We thought our competency relies on discovering hidden gems and nurturing them. That’s why our company is called Hilight Brands. Finding brands that have potential like undiscovered jewels and growing them into successful lines of business was what we considered our main capability and value. Kodak Apparel, in that sense, represents a proud, enjoyable, and meaningful brand to us. We have found those brands and are continuously looking for new ones.”

Starting with Kodak Apparel, Lee successfully launched other brands such as Malbon Golf and Diadora. In particular, Malbon Golf is a brand that prides itself on creating golf gear and apparel, a new niche market.


“There’s almost no other country where people dress up and play golf as much as in Korea. Usually, people play golf in their everyday outfit. Since golf is often used as a business tool in Korea, it is natural that the golf apparel market has grown. Korea accounts for approximately 40–50% of the global golf apparel market. For this market, Malbon Golf was intended to create a culture of comfortable and relaxed golf clothes. At first, we even had to hear complaints from our customers due to the loose fitting of our golf clothes (laughs). Rather than simply making money or attracting famous brands, the fact that Malbon Golf led a new trend of enjoying golf comfortably is an added value.”
After just 3 years of starting operation, Hilight Brands has reached 200 billion won in sales, and recently received the industrial award at the 51st Commerce and Industry Day ceremony. There is even a brand being prepared for launch in the second half of 2024. It is DOD Apparel, a global lifestyle camping brand, which after many contacts and persuasion, Lee was finally able to bring in.


Overseas market expansion and discovery of new designers to grow the K-fashion industry

 Jun Kwon Lee is not only focusing on discovering valuable brands, but he is also willingly engaging in sharing his experience on investing, nurturing new young designers’ novel brands, and transmitting his knowledge to entrepreneurs.
“Hilight Brands also invests in young designers’ brands, such as Kirsh and Vivastudio, supporting them to unleash their creativity and ideas. Brands such as Kirsh are being greatly accepted in the Japanese market. There are many juniors from Yonsei and young entrepreneurs. I try my best to make time to meet them, talk about the trials and errors I have experienced and answer any questions they might have. That’s probably the most rewarding activity for me these days. In June, we’re opening a flagship store, featuring our brands in front of the Hongdae area, which many foreigners visit. We plan to set up a showroom on the first floor to display young entrepreneurs’ brands that are good but haven’t had the opportunity to showcase. I want to create opportunities for them and contribute to society by fostering a virtuous cycle of growth and expansion of K-fashion.” 

Nurturing novelty with his support is not just a matter of social contribution. In fact, it is intertwined with the development of the fashion industry and one’s own growth. By interacting with young entrepreneurs, Lee not only gains inspiration, but he also believes that investing in good ideas can foster a virtuous cycle that would allow Korean brands to grow into global fashion brands. In addition to supporting novel brands, Hilight Brands’ overseas expansion is becoming increasingly visible. Starting with Kodak Apparel, which is gaining acceptance among Chinese consumers due to its vivid colors and warm image, Hilight Brands is also widely promoting K-fashion.
To Jun Kwon Lee, fashion is all about value creation. This is why fashion is the most enjoyable, suitable, and meaningful field to him. There’s always a lot of work to be done and at times it turns very stressful because you should be sensitive to change and prepare for the future a step ahead of everyone else. Yet, creating new value through fashion brands is very fulfilling.
“The same clothes can be worth a few tens of thousands won while some a few millions. That is the value of a brand. Creating such value is always fun and appealing.”
Creating brands from concepts that never existed before, changing the lifestyle and culture of contemporary people, and creating value by shaping new markets is what the fashion industry is all about. Thus, this industry will likely remain a great blue ocean. With the gradually expanding K-fashion by creating value through the insights gained from the long experience in the fashion industry, we look forward to following the next steps of our alumnus Jun Kwon Lee.

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