A Rebel With GauzeHong Mi-wha jokingly describes her studio-cum-office on the top floor of a building in Shindang-dong as her "Harlem Office." The office, located in the heart of Seoul's fashion district, is in a five-story walk-up. To get to the office, one must ascend a dark, dingy staircase under flickering florescent bulbs until reaching a cream-colored door with a company logo featuring a pair of angelic wings.
Inside, it is hard to find the designer － her diminutive figure is buried among bolts of fabrics and a gaggle of assistants as she stoops to do a fitting. Soft-spoken, she expresses mild dismay that her show is only two weeks away and no clothes have been made.
Hong sits on a small wire chair amid a pile of off-white cotton samples. A pure cotton jacket, covered in hand-stitched frills, is on the table. She picks up the jacket and feels its texture. "I like the way cotton feels on the skin," she says. "When I choose a fabric, I rub it on my skin. The softest fabric I've ever come across is gauze. It's true, because newborn babies are wrapped in it. So gauze is an essential part of my collection."
She learned to appreciate soft fabric against her skin as a child. Her parents made her underclothes. Once, when she put on a lacy corset over her jacket, she was told not to do so because the corset was an undergarment. This would become a pivotal moment for the young designer. "Why can't I wear underwear outside?" Hong asked herself. "The soft, flimsy material used for underwear was so beautiful to me. I guess that's where part of my concept comes from." And she also delights in the confusion some of her creations bring out in people. "No one can tell whether the clothes are supposed to be worn inside or outside," she says. "When I first presented that idea, people were confused, but who cares? I just like what I like, that's all."
Hong considers herself something of a rebel in the fashion world － constantly challenging conventional ways of thinking. She also considers herself a pioneer of fashion as she attempt to destroy the stereotype of "avant garde."
"Why does anything avant garde have to be cold, bizarre and grotesque?" she asks. "Avant garde can exist in a pure and pretty form. I also disagree with the popular notion of minimalism. People think anything that appears to be simple is minimal, and I think not. Minimal means minimal in its presentation only. It is a creative energy in a condensed form, like a powerfully beautiful poem. There are so many other things that I hate, one of which is conventional thinking and value systems. I am out to break the rules. When you can say 'I hate it,' there is so much more than just words. By declaring your opinion loud and clear, you've already formed a close relationship with that object. It's empathy. This means you have not only passion but also your own set of values. Ever since I was young, I've always known what I hate, what I love because I really love myself and what I love. You know, I'm hopelessly narcissistic."
In other words, Hong likes what she likes and hates what she hates, and if you like what she hates, then you probably won't like her collection. Her creations are timeless － taking their inspiration from the past, present and future.
As an admirer of rococo, a style of decorative art, the designer incorporates ruffles and other frills in her creations. "It is rococo because I'm romantic, barbaric. Because it's natural and instinctive, and Korean like me," says Hong, a graduate of Bunka Fashion Institute in Japan.
Ruffles, the element de rigeur of fashion, have made a huge comeback this year. But it is not surprising that the origin of her ruffles is anything but European. It dates back to Korean dancers who decorated their costumes with ruffled paper flowers.
Instead of having buttons and zippers where you might expect them, cuts and openings reflect the natural contours of the body. "I love the way the barbarians used to live," says Hong. "They just went ahead and did what came naturally. Having the zipper on the back is so calculating, too ordinary. When you put on a skirt, all you have to do is wrap a wide piece of cloth around your waist and tie it with a string any way you want it. It's shocking at first but once you get used to it, it's very comfortable. People say my skirts look like old-time Korean dresses."
Hong admits that even when she did not know it, her Korean identity was showing through in her creations. "I grew up watching traditional Korean dancers celebrating local festivities," she says. "I remember the vivid colors of the dancers' costumes."
She notes that self-love has helped her find her identity and has informed her creative thinking. "Look at Coco Chanel. Do you think her designs are French? No. She designed what she really loved and her personal concept became French design. Creativity is very personal."
For Hong, "personal" can be explained best by the memory of a film she saw as a child that featured young girls in cotton dresses frolicking on a prairie, picking wild flowers. No wonder women of all ages are Hong Mi-wha fanatics. They relate to the image of a sweet young girl who loves herself too much.