Skirting the Issue

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Skirting the Issue

Almost everyone in the Korean fashion industry knows the young designer Ha Sang-baek. And almost everyone calls him by his affectionate nickname, Hasangbegi. Waif-like and androgynous, Ha, 25, is not only a fashion designer; he takes whatever art comes his way, be it art directing, photography, modeling, illustrating and fashion journalism. He is a walking visual image of his own creation. Fashion is the overriding passion of his life. Readers of Korean fashion magazines often stumble upon pages either about or penned by Ha - but now the reports come from London.

Ha got his break in fashion in 1995 when he became the youngest designer to join Korea's fashion week, the forerunner of the Seoul Collection. After deciding that he had exhausted his options on the peninsula, he left for London last June to get new stimulation. When he returned to Seoul recently to show his new spring/summer 2003 collection, the Korean press rushed to the scene - Ssamzie Space near Hongik University in northern Seoul. A music club at the facility, Club Sori, was packed for the event. Eager fans of Ha called him Sangbegi, and the term stuck as his de facto brand name.

Below the stage, a five-meter runway had been set up, covered by a swath of black and silver fake fur. Under the title "Rollin' and/or Roll-in," Ha's show began with an intro based on the "rolling" concept: video footage of short interviews in which young Britons joked about what rolling meant to them. Along with the fashion show was a photo exhibition Ha put together titled "Narcism."

Ha's designs never fail to surprise industry professionals. The new collection featured many elements involving twists and knots or other methods to effect more volume. Instead of his usual woven fabric, various types of materials were utilized. Savage furs, tattered jerseys and knits were thrown over more constructive pieces like jackets, which Ha typically focuses on. The reed-thin designer himself wore a jacket whose sleeves were cut off to reveal the inner layers of lining.

The designer, known for his boldly innovative ideas, explained how he aimed for more fullness in this show by rotating patterns while sewing. "Even with flat patterns, by turning the pattern around, I create volume, or the illusion of depth."

His deconstructive style maintained a functional connection; whether the piece was woven, sheer, tweed, fur or sweater, each was a sensible part of his constructive art, and beautiful contrasts were created through skillful tailoring. Decadence prevailed, but the final message was about being glamorous - in an underground sort of way.

"I learned to appreciate the importance of high-quality materials because they are so expensive in London," Ha explained. "In Korea, people call it pure wool even when it is mixed with 15-20 percent acrylic. So for my own collection, I dared to use the most expensive materials, such as cashmere, Merino wool, shearling and fox furs."

In the age of draping and three-dimensional pattern making, Ha invariably adheres to flat patterns. "Flat patterns are sturdy and versatile," he said. "For example, parts of clothes can, when put on a flat surface, be extended or converted to different shapes, whereas nothing can be done on draped clothes - once it's cut, it's over."

A native of Masan in South Gyeongsang province, and a graduate of Konkuk University with a degree in fashion design, Ha was considered a sort of Peter Pan by industry insiders. The Korean press, weary of conventions, found his precocious energy refreshing, and his airy yet earnest passion admirable. And with his adolescent face he looked the part that magazines seek for modeling jobs.

Such side projects he takes on are aimed at supporting the massive costs to keep him creative and productive. "I'd rather have my shows than have nicer things to eat," said the designer, whose long eyelashes fluttered with a rush of emotions. "There were a few bad times when I really wanted to quit fashion. I felt that holding fashion shows in Korea is like masturbation, you know? It's one hell of an expensive show off, when there are no buyers and no love calls, no matter how good the reviews are you get from the press."

Vogue Korea's fashion editor Jeon Mie-kyung is familiar with Ha's works. She said, "The press is always interested in his works because they are unusual and experimental. But apparel companies are reluctant to invest in young designers like him."

Ha's biggest achievement is probably having represented Korea at the Japan Fashion Festival in March 1999. In his spring/summer 2001 fashion show titled "The Pant Experiment: Grey Planaria Taught Me, [expletive]," he was particularly inspired by the versatility of pants. He made pants into a skirt, a shirt, and even dresses for both men and women. He said he got the idea after reading two dictionary definitions: one for pants, and how they are made of tubes that link at the crotch, and one for worms, which when cut in half regenerate into two whole worms.

He said that in fashion's evolution, the objective in the first stage was to create the perfect form. Couturiers worked piece by piece to fit the clothes as close as possible to the body. The second and current stage came with industrialization. Designers suggest the look for the times and consumers buy corresponding ready-to-wears. The next stage should be that people create looks for themselves, he said. "I want to make clothes that make up just 80 percent or less of the outfit. It will be up to the person who wears them to make up the rest according to his personal style."

That accords with the illusion he created at his latest show; the audience thought he was presenting hundreds of outfits when he was actually using only 16.

While Ha's clothes are certainly different, some critics dismiss them as unwearable. But he doesn't care: "True, only an audacious or creative person can wear my clothes."

What makes Ha different from most Korean designers is his serious interest in pattern-making. He understands that cutting the fabric using original patterns is key. Likewise, the background of many important international designers is pattern-making. Like the celebrated master of fashion Madeleine Vionet, Ha aspires to become a master of scissors.

A show Ha held in September 1999 was perhaps his most notable because he had his models change outfits on stage. "I was proud that everyone acknowledged that I was first to have models do that," he said. But a few months later, the well-regarded Japanese designer Yoji Yamamoto did the same thing during the Tokyo Collection, and some people mistakenly accused Ha of copying the Japanese designer. "That's when I realized that whatever ground I broke in Korea didn't really matter to anyone," he said. "Being in Korea is like being the big frog in the little pond; I felt that Korea was excluded from the world." Caught between the schism of the press, which seeks new sensations, and the industry, which seeks profits, he had to find a different route.

Cheon Ho-gyun, the CEO of Ssamzie, a popular fashion brand in Korea thinks the young Ha needs diverse experiences to become a full-fledged designer, this time from abroad. "I believe his time will come; eventually Korean consumers will prefer Ha's distinct clothes to big brand names."

Drawing on the savings he built up over the past few years, he took off last year for Tokyo, Paris and then London, where he decided to stay. "London is a city of contrasts, deep history and vision, a perfect harmony of the glorious past and the future," he said. "It juxtaposes ancient mystique and the high-tech. It's where kings and beggars coexist." If Paris is a strong perfume, he went on, London is a drug, and there's something addictive about living there. In September he decided to reside in London permanently - or as close to that concept as he gets.

Perpetually in competition with time, Ha wants to beat his counterparts to new ideas, but he doesn't want to lose the reputation he worked so hard for in Korea. Though he sometimes feels like he's in a one-man fight against the public, he knows that the thing that keeps him connected is people.

So what did the young designer learn over the past few months, besides a new language? "Korea is still a naive country, devoid of drugs, sex and guns," he said. "Being able to compete in the tougher environment is another challenge at another level. And I have to learn English - fast. I have no time to waste."

Ha must soon make a career-shaping decision. He could apply for Saint Martin's, London's prestigious fashion academy, or pad his commercial experiences, a painfully slow - and risky - procedure. "Everyone knows me in Korea, but I'm no one in London," Ha said. "But I love the new city I've found for myself. I feel free just walking down Liverpool Street. I already miss waking up in my London loft."

Is that what he will do, keep sleeping and walking around for inspiration? "No, I'm going to hold an exhibition in the Field Gallery on Liverpool Street and prepare for the London fashion week. I will show the year 2003 collection, the one I did in Seoul."

When asked why he continues to hold fashion shows, Ha made a dramatic gesture and said, "I just want to feel that I exist - that I'm alive."

by Inēs Cho

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