Giving a new look to old styles

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Giving a new look to old styles

Walk the street near SungKyunKwan University in Seoul and you will see a four-story building nearly completely covered with pleated purple cloth. It is the headquarters of Jilkyungyee Co., a maker of hanbok, or traditional Korean costume.

But once inside, don't expect to see the classical, formal hanbok. Sometimes buttons replace the traditional string ties, or the cuts are more casual. The firm makes hanbok reimagined for practical use, called the casual "everyday hanbok." Go upstairs and you can see the creator of everyday hanbok and company president, Lee Ki-yeon, 45.

In contrast with the showroom, the upstairs offices are noisy. Staff members are busy telephoning, and ironing and adjusting clothes to be displayed. All the staff members are wearing casual hanbok, including Ms. Lee. She has her hair bound at the back, unlike other Korean women her age, and wears a light-blue coat, pants and accessories. "We are terribly busy with rush orders, since Chuseok is coming soon," Ms. Lee says. On the traditional harvest celebration holiday, many Koreans wear hanbok. "Now, more and more people wear the reformed hanbok rather than the classic hanbok on holidays, while they still prefer the classic hanbok for wedding ceremonies."

These days, various people wear casual hanbok, including government officials, housewives and traditional artists. But in the 1980s, when the everyday hanbok was introduced, student activists were its most common wearers, something Ms. Lee knows first-hand.

After majoring in sculpture at Hongik University in the 1980s, Ms. Lee was one of the leaders of the Korean art movement, pursuing political and social issues as well as the aesthetic. Yoo Hong-joon, a famous art critic and professor of art history at Myongji University, called Ms. Lee one of the 20 important figures of the new art of the 1980s. But she became skeptical about the relation between pure art and the public.

"Even if I put my soul into the canvas, it would be delivered to only a limited number of people through galleries," Ms. Lee says. "So I thought up the idea of painting on clothes. Then people would be walking galleries." She began to print T-shirts based on her paintings.

Ms. Lee began to make clothes, in particular the everyday hanbok, in 1984. "Until then, nobody thought of wearing hanbok as everyday attire," she says. "The hanbok was just for traditional holidays and parties." At first, she didn't set up a company, she only established a traditional culture research institute, and there she designed and made casual hanbok. She displayed and sold them through fashion shows every spring and fall. Her fashion shows were loved by college students and civic activists interested in Korea's own culture.

Ms. Lee's fashion shows were quite different from the usual. They included short plays and exhibitions, and no professional models. Instead, she showed off her clothes using college students and members of civic groups. "In the 1980s, miniskirts and military boots that reached the middle of the calf were in vogue, from the United States," she says. "You know, Korean women's knee lines aren't beautiful, generally. Regardless, most Korean young women wore the miniskirts and boots following the fashion. So I took pictures of such women on the street and showed them in my fashion show. The audience shouted with horror. And then I showed my hanbok and encouraged the visitors to try them at once."

A defiant artist, she had many difficulties under the military regime of the 1980s. The year 1986 was one of the hardest. Her husband was in prison for his actions against the government. Without a husband, she had to earn a living and to take care of two children. Making everyday hanbok was no help economically because she made so few of them.

Not until 1996 did she incorporate her business. "I did not want to incorporate. But I was required to do it when our research institute was designated by the government as a business to systemize traditional dyeing and flax-making methods, as part of its project to modernize traditional culture." So she established the firm Jilkyungyee. With 20 employees at the headquarters and annual sales of $2.7 million, the company is the leader of the casual hanbok market.

In 1999, Ms. Lee visited Germany with her products, looking to introduce them abroad. "I thought I couldn't sell the everyday hanbok to Europeans," Ms. Lee said. "Many buyers praised our product, but did not offer contracts. So I only believed those who praised our product with the intention of investing in us." Now the firm has showrooms in Munich and Paris.

Oh, about that purple-covered building in Seoul. When Jilkyungyee was about to move in, Ms. Lee, realizing how old and ugly the structure's exterior walls were, bought scrap cloth that a wholesaler was going to toss away. "Now," she says, "nobody forgets us."


A story's thread: Hanbok-lovers find the right fit in the battle of classic vs. casual

The hanbok, the Korean traditional costume, is known for its natural, elegant lines and colors. But its wide sleeves and hems and its long train and long breast-tie are not convenient for modern life. In addition, the way of wearing hanbok is complicated and comes with rigorous etiquette. So it's not surprising that hanbok became removed from people's everyday lives, just something for special occasions.

To make the hanbok something people could wear in their day-to-day lives, the clothing was reformed and redesigned in the 1980s. The new hanbok was called the "reformed hanbok" at that time, and today is called the "everyday hanbok."

But when they first appeared, the reformed hanbok received much scorn from conservative hanbok experts, who accused the reformed hanbok of destroying the nobility of the classic hanbok.

"The reformed hanbok in its initial stage failed to maintain hanbok's own peculiar beauty since it excessively focused on practical use," said Cho Hyo-soon, a professor of clothing and textiles at Myongji University. "But it contributed to hanbok culture by connecting hanbok with everyday life."

The reformed hanbok has gradually gained acceptance since then. And as its quality has improved, antipathy has decreased.

It was 1997 when the reformed hanbok market grew sharply. The government designated the year as "The Year of Hanbok Wearing," and conducted campaigns to encourage people to wear the hanbok in everyday life. Some schools and companies began to use the reformed hanbok as the staff uniform.

According to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, there were about 20 makers of the reformed hanbok at the end of 1996, and their yearly sales marked only 10 billion won ($8.2 million). But by the end of 1998, there were more than 300 reformed hanbok makers and their annual sales reached 200 billion won.

"Around 1997, many companies made the cheap and low-quality everyday hanbok without any knowledge of the classic hanbok," Ms. Cho said. "Since then, the border between those firms and the companies that make high-quality everyday hanbok with some philosophy have become clear."

Many of the worst manufacturers have since closed, Ms. Cho says, and those remaining have a better understanding of the principles behind the beauty of the hanbok.

by Moon So-young

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