The collaboration spotlighting South Korea's under-recognised LGBTQ+ community

Fashion label AJOBYAJO and LGBTQ+ collective Neon Milk have teamed up for a collaboration, the first of its kind in the country.

by Elaine YJ Lee
07 May 2020, 6:31am

While South Korea has been enjoying the spotlight on the global stage, thanks to everything from the country’s viral K-pop exports to its swift and successful COVID-19 containment, the nation may be hailed as culturally and technologically innovative but there remains hurdles to overcome — particularly for its LGBTQ+ community.

In a 2017 OECD study of global LGBTQ+ inclusiveness, the country ranked as the third least LGBTQ+ accepting country in the world, a few years later both rights and representation in the country remains limited. Korea’s queer community suffers from an unaccommodating political climate (marriage equality is illegal) and conservative traditional social codes. In general, it remains difficult for individuals to be openly LGBTQ+ in South Korea.

Challenging the status quo are two local collectives who have come together to make a change through collaboration. Fashion brand AJOBYAJO and Neon Milk, a LGBTQ+ and drag culture collective, have joined forces for a clothing collaboration, small in scale but big in message.

AJOBYAJO (read as “ajo-by-ajo”) is one of the few — if not only — fashion labels in Korea that openly promotes LGBTQ+ identity. “We want to introduce LGBTQ+ culture to a larger audience. Maybe it’s too ambitious to try to educate consumers, but we can at least show that this culture can be shared,” says Ajo Kim, who founded the label in 2016. “We wanted to work with Neon Milk because they are the only group of drag performers in Korea who work systematically as a team.”

Neon Milk is a drag show production team of four core members — featuring queens Bambi, Nana YoungRong Kim, Kuciia Diamant and Vita Mikju.

“Not many Koreans know about drag culture because it’s fairly new here,” says Bambi, who established Neon Milk one year after AJOBYAJO. “Here, you can only see or experience drag at gay clubs at night, which are mainly for adult men. We want to branch out of that. The advantage of working as a team is that we can show the diverse range of styles that exist in drag, and we try to share this in various ways where more people can actually participate and learn instead of just watch.”

The AJOBYAJO x Neon Milk collaboration is an extension of their efforts to foster awareness and positive exposure around Korea’s LGBTQ+ community. The collaboration consists of two t-shirts, with shared proceeds between Ajo Studio and Neon Milk. Neon Milk have already determined that their share will go towards sponsoring Seoul’s next pride parade.

In addition to producing and performing drag shows, Neon Milk also hosts exhibitions, voguing and pole dancing classes, and publishes a magazine. Their YouTube channel documents everything from their daily lives to beauty how-to’s and love story vlogs, sharing their message with anyone who wants to find a community online.

As a fashion label AJOBYAJO’s mission extends beyond promoting LGBTQ+ initiatives, and places importance on inclusivity and bringing together “outsiders” of society at large. Their most recent lookbook for example starred members of Dancing Waist, a dancing and acting group of women with disabilities “I personally root for individuals who have their own character, story and style,” Kim tells us. “I think that’s why I’m naturally drawn to art and other subcultures, where so many creatives do their own thing.”

Kim employs a diverse range of other unique individuals as models for AJOBYAJO too. They aren’t just traditionally beautiful fashion models but span a range of streetcast individuals, from tattooists and filmmakers to musicians and designers — which is uncommon in South Korea. By embracing diversity, especially among groups of young creatives who might struggle to navigate their own identities, AJOBYAJO has become a support community for many local minority groups.

“A few years ago, I would have said that Korean society was pretty closed-minded when it comes to accepting queerness,” Bambi from Neon Milk says. “I don’t represent the entire gay population in Korea so I might be wrong — but these days, I think people are starting to become more open and accepting.”

South Korea
i-D Asia