Briefly, this job gets him almost under your skin -- almost

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Briefly, this job gets him almost under your skin -- almost

Imagine a man who spends his day flipping through magazines full of half-naked women, and then sketching lingerie designs. Such work might arouse your suspicions. But to Byun Jeong-won, 30, staring at images of women in underwear all day is all part of the job.

"Lingerie has the merits of being really tiny and cute," says the 30 year-old designer of women's underwear and men's underpants at Vivien, the oldest and largest underwear company in Korea.

When he joined Vivien in the fall of 1998, Mr. Byun became the first designer of men's underwear and women's lingerie in Korea. After majoring in fashion design at Konkuk University, he taught at a design academy while earning a master's degree.

How he became a lingerie designer, as opposed to working in outerwear like most of his colleagues, was pure intuition. "I read somewhere that as a country becomes more prosperous, bathing and underwear culture will develop and bloom," Mr. Byun says. "Then it just hit me that I wanted to go into the underwear business." When applying at Viven, Mr. Byun never asked to design panties specifically, but the department was looking for a new designer, so he started there.

A soft-spoken man with a gentle demeanor, Mr. Byun says there's a reason he wears a goatee. "I am surrounded by female co-workers and feminine objects, so I decided to grow a beard in order to establish a masculine identity," Mr. Byun says laughing.

At first, buddies teased him incessantly, while his conservative relatives frowned upon his chosen career path. His female friends only wanted one thing: free lingerie. None of this really bothered Mr. Byun. "It's really fun working on lingerie designs because underwear is the first clothing that touches the skin. Therefore, it's vital to human comfort. It has to be pleasant and also sensual." Mr. Byun tries on his men's designs and makes adjustments as he goes along. "To me, designing underwear is like putting together pieces of a puzzle. You create, then wear to get the feel, and continue to make adjustments," he says. "You'd be surprised how many people are aware of subtle changes."

Indeed, Mr. Byun believes that comfort is the foremost principle in designing underclothes, while aesthetics and function are secondary. Mr. Byun, who is single, finds inspiration for his women's lingerie designs from his everyday surroundings: on the streets, in movies and from window shopping.

What has changed in the four years since becoming a lingerie designer? Mr. Byun says he now knows what women want. "I work with many married women who talk about their spouses. I learn from them what to do and what not to do. I have learned to connect with women."

According to Mr. Byun, the advantage that a male designer of women's panties has over women is that he knows what men like to see. "I like underwear. My dream is to one day launch my own designer label of underwear couture."

by Choi Jie-ho
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