It's not easy being Korean in the fashion design world"My life as a designer is 99 percent despair, and do you know what the other 1 percent is? Hope," says Kim Ji-haye, the first Korean fashion designer to have a haute couture collection premiere in Paris.
Kim, who's better known by her brand Ji Haye, has capitalized on hope, and is being heralded in some circles as the most promising designer in fashion today.
Sipping wine at an Insa-dong restaurant during a brief trip home, Ji Haye somehow seems smaller than her larger-than-life creations -- especially when sitting next to her French business partner, Felix Boukobza, who stands 188 centimeters.
Soft-spoken and a bit self-conscious, Ji Haye doesn't project the image of a haute couture designer in her oversized black T-shirt. "Everyone tells me that I should dress better," she says. "But my job is to dress others, not myself."
No matter how she dresses, Ji Haye is on the cutting edge.
The Paris-based designer made headlines earlier this year by presenting evening gowns with a World Cup theme. This was a revelation for the Korean press, which only recently discovered that Ji Haye had broken into France's closely knit world of haute couture. Ji Haye has dazzled French fashion critics since 1990. They consistently praise her creativity, talent and originality.
The fashion powerhouse LVMH has called Ji Haye "the fashion designer to lead the next generation," and has eyed her as a potential successor to Donna Karan as the world's No. 1 designer. Marie Foucart of the French national TV network TF1 says Ji Haye's fashion is "like a philosophy," exuding both her Korean and Confucian spirit.
Ji Haye's 2002-2003 fall/winter collection, presented at the Inter-Continental Hotel in Paris last month, shocked fashion mavens with a superbly tailored, long evening jacket that came with an additional leg protruding from a side slit. Buyers from American stores, including Barney's, Henri Bendel and Neiman Marcus, immediately rang her up, praising her work.
Ji Haye's inspiration comes from ancient Buddhist temples, murals and wildflowers. She conveys in her designs the age-old mysticism of the Orient in the most sensible, contemporary ways. Some of her ethereally light dresses incorporate the traditional Korean stitching process known as kkekki, which hides every trace of needles and threads. The results are designs that bring to mind the Confucian ideal of "heavenly garments," the seamless clothes worn by the heavenly body.
"My inspiration comes directly from my Korean roots," Ji Haye says. "I use naturally dyed Korean fabric and incorporate traditional embroidery in my designs, while drawing from my life in the West."
The cultural fusion seen in Ji Haye's designs were developed over the course of her 40 years. The young Ji Haye of the 1980s wanted to be a professor of literature, so she studied at the prestigious Seoul National University.
Her life took a dramatic turn when her father died when she was 20. Only a handful of guests came to the funeral, and she was deeply pained and shocked. "My father was a selfless doctor who saved many lives," she says. "Suddenly I realized what kind of society I lived in. I felt the coldness and cruelty of the world." Disillusionment compelled her to seek independence from her old value system, but her future seemed grim: She was a single Korean woman without a father figure in her home.
Discarding the traditional dream of getting married, she moved to Japan in 1987 to study and work. After two years, she was accepted at Tokyo's Waseda University as a Japanese literature major. Then her life took another dramatic turn.
"I remember a Japanese boy in my school wearing torn-up pants pulled together by countless safety pins. He wore heavy boots in the hot summer. He had his blue hair spiked up," she recalls. "But no one pointed at him, and I'll never forget his outfit."
It was at that moment that Ji Haye realized the function of clothes went beyond covering the body -- clothes no longer reflected social norms and rules. "I discovered that clothes could liberate you," she explains. "They could be become a means of personal creativity and expression. I wanted to make clothes that could break everything that put pressure on me and my life."
Ji Haye quit Japanese literature studies and in 1989 entered the Bunka Fashion Institute, where a number of leading Japanese fashion designers, including Yoji Yamamoto and Kenzo, had trained.
A few months later, she had her first glimpse of hope. "The vice president told me 'Ji Haye, your clothes have a life of their own. Your clothes make the person, not the other way around'."
In 1991, she moved to Paris, the center of haute couture fashion. But the industry's prejudices were daunting. "I never thought that being Korean would be such an impediment to my career," she says. Even after the release of her first collection -- to rave reviews -- she felt that some Parisian designers judged her as second-rate because of her nationality.
For years, the French fashion industry thought Asian meant Japanese; the Japanese designer Hanae Mori was the first and only Asian to have a haute couture collection until Ji Haye came along.
Ji Haye says she didn't get much help from her compatriots. She felt bitter, but not despondent, when the Korean editors of the local edition of Madam Figaro deleted her name from the magazine's coverage of the Paris shows. She felt used, but not angry, when she discovered that a young Korean intern, who had begged to work for her, was actually a spy from a well-known Korean designer.
But she was indignant when she heard that another Korean designer had contacted her promotion manager and demanded that she become as big as Ji Haye.
"The sad thing is that Korean designers come to Paris thinking they can make it overnight," she says. Designers need to command a vast body of knowledge and be experts in materials and methods, she insists.
Designers also need solid business connections, so their creative ideas can be seen and brought to market. "Finding any sponsor who can finance up to five years is easy, but finding the right sponsor takes time," Ji Haye asserts. When she put her soccer-ball dresses on the runway, it was the French brand Celine that picked up her idea and cashed in with a ready-to-wear line sold through its retailers worldwide.
Ji Haye notes that the number of people who wear haute couture has been declining, making the world of ready-to-wear clothing all the more important. She says there are currently about 1,000 people who buy haute couture regularly; 30 are her clients.
To meet her customers' demands and to continue her biannual shows, Ji Haye says she works as many as 20 hours a day. Some days, when she is too exhausted, Ji Haye wonders how long she will be able to keep up the pace. "But this is the way I exist. I will die hemming a skirt with a needle in my hand."
A creative alliance via a chance meeting
During a recent visit to Korea, Ji Haye's business partner Felix Boukobza spoke with the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition about working with the designer:
Q : How did you meet Ji Haye and what was your impression?
A : I met Ji Haye in 1991 through a friend at a party in Paris. She was representing a Japanese fashion company, and she looked rigid and formal like a typical Japanese businesswoman, all dressed in black. Ji Haye barely spoke a word of English or French, so communication was difficult. But she learned French fast.
One day, I saw her drawings and discovered that she had astonishing talent. She drew details with such artistic touches that modelists and pattern makers could easily understand what she wanted. Her drawings showed exactly how the final product should look.
Every designer has a different talent. Ji Haye knows how to draw.
The curators I know at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City were so impressed that they told me to save Ji Haye's drawings even after she threw them away, so that they could have them for their collection. That's how good she was.
What have you learned from her?
Ji Haye showed me what generosity meant. I hate the word compassion, because it has been abused by religious and political groups for ostentatious and hollow causes. But I felt that Ji Haye had genuine compassion in her heart. When she helps you, she holds your hand until she's done helping you. She will be there for you ?all the way to the end.
An earlier visit to Korea was the start of your partnership with Ji Haye. Can you explain what happened?
Three years ago, Ji Haye invited me to Korea. I was supposed to stay in Korea for 10 days, but ended up staying for three months.
Ji Haye took me to a Buddhist temple and I stayed there. I took pictures and wrote a journal. I brought so many images back to Paris that I held a photo exhibition. I sold everything. I gave most of the money to Ji Haye so she could make her clothes.
She drew and sewed for three months and came up with her first collection.
I helped her hold her first fashion show at a posh Paris nightclub, Bandouche. A journalist from Women's Wear Daily gave it rave reviews, which led to a second show, at the St. James Hotel. It was packed with journalists, VIPs and French aristocrats. After that show, the biggest TV station in France, TF1, called Ji Haye and asked for an interview. LCI, the largest cable news channel, featured her in a show. Ever since, we've had endless calls from the media.
What is your role as Ji Haye's partner?
I've managed and directed Ji Haye's seven very successful collections. I've worked as her art director, and I've done just about everything to arrange business for her.
I set the price for her works. A jacket like that [the blue jacket Ji Haye is wearing in the upper-left photograph] costs about $5,000 (6 million won). For haute couture, the client selects the fabric, color and design. Ji Haye can make that jacket look great on the client, who expects to look like a runway model. A slightly different version of a pret-a-porter costs less, about 4 million won.
How would you describe Ji Haye and her work?
Ji Haye has a high regard for the construction of her designs and a good feel for natural, noble materials, such as silk, wool, cashmere, ostrich leather, mink and fox fur. She makes clothes that are modern, elegant and contemporary. More importantly, she has her own recognizable identity, which is rare among new, up-and-coming designers.
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