Grand Designs to Dress (And Own) the World

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Grand Designs to Dress (And Own) the World

When the designer Lee Young-hee's creations were presented at a recent fashion show, several spectators were spotted with their jaws hanging open. Ms. Lee is used to this sort of reaction, for her version of the Korean traditional costume, the hanbok, regularly leaves viewers speechless. It's not that her clothing is so daring or head-turning or far out. It's that her clothing is beautiful.

Lee Young-hee, who is one of the most celebrated fashion designers in Korea, makes clothes that are, well, soulfully Korean.

Ms. Lee opened a small boutique in Seogyo-dong in 1977 when she was already in her late 30s. Before that, she'd been a housewife. In Seogyo-dong, she sold custom-made hanbok and ibul (Korean-style futons), and early on started experimenting with traditional colors and materials. The experiments were a big hit, and Ms. Lee soon made a name for herself. She created headlines in the mid-'80s when she introduced the gaeryang hanbok, a kind of modernized practical version of hanbok that can be worn during the day. Her ideas were sensational and provocative for their time.

These days, she's considered the "national designer" of Korea. To wear a Lee Yong-hee hanbok is to wear a Korean flag.

Outspoken, egotistical, vain and unconcerned what others think, Lee Yong-hee is, depending who you talk to, either an apolitical artist or a typical older Korean woman.

Lee Young-hee was more than ready for the interview, which was held at her Apgujeong-dong building. Her appearance was immaculate: Not a single black hair out of place. Her lavender eye shadow and pink lipstick perfectly matched her deep-purple linen jacket. Ms. Lee was wearing a large, prominent jade ring that bore a tiger carving.

Holding up the ring for all the world to see, she announced, "This kind of design doesn't exist in Korean antiquity. It must have come from Tibet or somewhere. It's a gift." Despite her femininity, Ms. Lee looked distinctly business-like. She spoke as if she were lecturing a college class, accompanied by dynamic hand gestures.

Just before a camera clicked, Ms. Lee looked up and smiled, as if on cue. In front of her were stage costumes for the opening performance of the coming World Ceramic Exposition 2001 Korea. She had to come up with a design for the going to be held soon, when the heat is still torrid, she chose mosi (traditional Korean linen) as the principal material. She was impressed with the colors, khaki and violet, she had personally dyed. Pausing for a moment, she exclaimed in admiration, "Isn't THAT beautiful?" No one in the room could disagree - or wanted to.

Ms. Lee's favorite color is jjokbit - royal blue. Jjokbit is a pure Korean word, and to Koreans, it means more than just a color. To get that special hue, she travels to Haeinsa, one of Korea's most celebrated Buddhist temples in the south. There she treats the linen fibers taken from plants in the area. She extracts the natural pigments from the fibers and dyes the fabric.

"You know, NHK ran several specials about me and my natural dyes. The Japanese really know how to appreciate important cultural heritages. I have a video clip, and you MUST see them."

She often uses the word jeontong (tradition) to emphasize the significance of her creations and her dedication to them. Ms. Lee well knows that the secret of her success is deeply rooted in rediscovering Korean tradition. The more she knows, the better her creations are. To draw knowledge about hanbok, she became an avid collector of Korean antiques and researched how traditions could be applied to modern living.

Inside the four-story office building she owns in the middle of Apgujeong-dong, four work spaces are used. The first floor is a showroom. On the second floor, Ms. Lee puts together her design concepts. The third floor is dedicated to her modern line, Maison de Lee Young Hee, which is exported to France. The basement is used as part of her factory, where about a dozen seamstresses work on making hanbok and ibul. She lives on the top floor. Tight-lipped about her personal life, she declines to talk about her husband, who is believed to be living abroad. She won't reveal her age, which reportedly is around 65.

Ms. Lee worries about supplying a strong, lasting vision to her design company, and hopes one of her two sons, both currently lawyers, might join her. "But not my daughter," she said. "She is out there on her own." Lee's strong personality drove her daughter, Lee Jung-woo, to become an independent and respected fashion designer who is pursuing her own style under the brand name "Sa Fille." Neither mother nor daughter will comment about the other's work.

Among her many accomplishments, Ms. Lee is particularly proud of two major events: a fashion show held in North Korea in June and another show held in Carnegie Hall in New York City last year. Both shows were the first of their kind. "No one dared to do such a great thing, but I did," she said.

The North Korean fashion show was organized by a special committee to commemorate the historic summit between the two Koreas last year. To make it work, Ms. Lee had to carry eight tons of cargo to be donated to the North, including 10 boilers, 20 bikes, cloth, stationery goods and medicine, along with an entourage of 51, which included nine committee members and 16 models.

Her week-long stay in Pyongyang brought many surprises. "Look at these models and their shoes!" she said, showing the interviewer photographs. "The models from Seoul wore the lovely sandals we took with us, but the North Korean models refused to wear shoes that weren't theirs. Look how corny they are."

Still, she was deeply touched by the way North Korea's high ranking officials came up to her, shook hands and commented on her clothes. "They knew so much about Korean fashion, more than anyone you could imagine in South Korea. Actually I have never met any Korean high ranking officials who were so knowledgeable in fashion. I predicted that North Korean society might have been backward, so I prepared a collection made of hanbok I had made in the '80s, instead of the ultra-modern version I would present in Seoul and Paris. My fashion show really struck the chord in the Korean heart or jeong. I saw them weep profusely while watching the beautiful hanbok on the stage. I knew then we were all the same Koreans with one heart. The result of the event was more than ten times more satisfying than I could have ever imagined."

The Carnegie Hall show was nearly as exciting for Ms. Lee. However, she thought the famed hall itself was a terrible place to show fashion designs. "The rules were too strict, and we had very little time nor space to rehearse. I did it there because they said that holding a fashion show at Carnegie Hall would help build a good reputation internationally. Now I don't care how I do in Korea; I want to go to New York."

Since Ms. Lee presented her first Paris pret-a-porter collection in 1993, she has worked in both Paris and Seoul. She believes working in Paris is too expensive because of complex international taxation regulations. She is planning to move her store in Paris to New York and to start factories in southeastern Asian countries to lower production costs.

The "New York Project" is a major part of her thinking these days. She envisions a total fashion center there, with everything from clothes to cosmetics, to a museum and cafe. The building will, she said, be erected in the center of Manhattan, and will stand seven stories. "On the top," she said, "will be a sign that reads, 'Lee Young Hee'!"

by Inēs Cho

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