Something Old, Something New

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Something Old, Something New

The last week of October had a run of red-letter days on the local fashion scene as the 2002 spring/summer Seoul Collection rolled out. The latest version of the collection, the third since it was first put together last year, affirmed that the show depends on the ability of local designers to innovate. After all, the collection's ultimate goal is to break its way into the elite club of the major collections, now known as the Big Five: New York, Paris, Milan, London and Tokyo.

Fashion professionals and journalists from Korea and abroad gathered over four days at the COEX convention center in Samseong-dong, southern Seoul, to see what local trendsetters had up their sleeves. Fashion critics have became increasingly scrutinous of Korean works as they've gained more insight into what inspires Korean designs. Fashion cognoscenti from abroad came to discover new talent in a country that has yet to gain a reputation as a fount of fashion. Of the 34 designers in the collection, several managed to distinguish themselves from the rest with brilliant works and display potential to emerge as one of Asia's next marquee designers. The others? For the time being, they're stuck in the fashion-wannabe category.

Leading off the show was Lee Young-hee, whose hanbok (Korean traditional attire) creations have made her one of Korea's favorite designers. The veteran designer chose "Hana" or "One" as the theme of her show, which was reinforced by the intro music, a song expressing the wish that the two Koreas reunify. The song is familiar to and cherished by many Koreans. After setting the scene, Lee treated the audience to a beautiful series of her signature hanbok-inspired creations. The twist this time was her emphasis on dimensional contrast: flatness versus volume. She reinterpreted the shape of hanbok, which typically consists of a squarish blouse and a blossom-like skirt, by using a thick, flat leather strap against a full and voluminous chiffon skirt. Spicing up the traditional feel were appliques made of hanji, or rice paper. Despite the conservative materials she works with, Lee is never afraid to take chances, like pairing black leather hot pants with a floor-length red silk hanbok skirt. Lee also proved that while she puts modern spins on Korea's enduring attire, she is in synch with international trends, like the current romanticism vogue. So she marched out lots of gathers, frills and puffs, all the while maintaining her identity.

Works put together by a few up-and-coming Korean designers - Lee Jung-eun, One Ji-hae and Han Song - were noteworthy. Lee Jung-eun, known for using drag queens in her shows, themed her collection "Crazy Doll." Her line of gawky Raggedy-Anns decked out in frills and laces spoke of prohibited pleasures and sexual fantasies. One, popular with the Korean subculture for her gay and androgynous creations, stayed on the edge by creating a new brand, "Angel Punk," with an outrageous but street-smart look. The line, jolting with deconstructed school uniforms, striped knee-high socks and frazzled hair on sultry models, drew on her underlying creative philosophy that teens will one day rule the world. While both designers entertained with their wild street looks, some fashion gurus dismissed them as too derivative of Japan's Harazuku street look.

The local shock artist Han Song, as expected, kept to his Gothic tack. His presentation was the most theatrical, revolving around a tonsorial theme. Models strutted out with scissor appendages, a la the 1990 movie "Edward Scissorhands," and an extravagant hairstyling session was played out in silhouette against a white sheet while the soundtrack went "snip, snip, snip." The effects drew attention to the shreds, pleats, patchwork and other jagged intricacies spicing his creations. The ostentation peaked when a model came out in a dress with a clear plastic dome over the navel containing a fetus. Almost as bizarre was a model pushing a bottle of what looked like blood. People in the industry have come to expect such cryptic and disturbing images from Han, but this one made them scratch their heads even more.

On a classier note, Lee Jung-woo, the former chief designer for Lee Young-hee Collection, unveiled a new line that still draws on traditional Korean influences. Seeking to set herself apart from the pack, she succeeded at displaying creativity and maturity. She chose white as the only color of her collection, then contrasted classic simple suits with ultrafeminine dresses. With light and breezy gathers, ruffles, and white embroidery on white linen, she deftly showed that romanticism can still be practical.

Talent burst forth when the designer Hong Eun-zu introduced a palette of mixed colors and Oriental details. Her collection was mature, while it explored the heights of her creativity. She adroitly used charming Korean traditional quilts and origami to decorate her works, and showed designs with wide-ranging appeal.

The show reached a crescendo with the finale put on by Hong Mi-hwa. The designer already earned her industry stripes this year by being the first Korean designer to take part in the New York Collection. She kept her entire show red, which she considers the hue that best suits modern romanticism in modern New York. Sweet yet sexy, provocative yet naive, red never knew how versatile and alluring it could be until Hong came along. The originality of the show kept the audience alternately mesmerized and enchanted.

Recently, Korean designers have been broadening their worldviews - to succeed, they need to be able to read and anticipate global fashion currents and show their works in the world's design arenas. This is where the challenge lies: It's no easy feat satisfying fashion mavens from beyond the peninsula, who come here with a seen-that, been-there attitude. But with the local industry burgeoning and competition among local designers growing, the quality of the Seoul Collection may soon make the industry start calling the elite global club the Big Six.

by Inēs Cho

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