Korean fashion at the forefront

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Korean fashion at the forefront

Korea's designers are filled with passion. But one thing they're lacking, these days, is sleep. The final crunch before the Seoul Collection can jar the steadiest of nerves.

Whether their designs have been paraded in Paris or New York, or they're being premiered here in Seoul, the countdown to tomorrow is excruciating.

The designers feel their 20-minute show epitomizes their creativity. It expresses their identity and is their best opportunity to be seen in Korea and abroad.

For decades, Korean designers have had a common goal: to realize their dream as an artist who speaks for Korea in the world of fashion.

Korean designers are dogged. They don't give up. Their desire to create and be recognized as an artisan ?a Korean artisan ?is pushing Korean fashion to the forefront.

What drives them?

The JoongAng Daily interviewed four of Korea's leading designers who are showing their fashions at the biggest shows overseas and who will take part in this week's Seoul Collection. Their spirit is undeniable.



Han Hae-ja

When Korean designer Han Hae-ja spied a poster in Paris for a retrospective of Yohji Yamamoto's fashion, she knew she had to see the show.

When she arrived, she stared at photos of the legendary Japanese designer surrounded by racks of clothes, the floor strewn with shoes and Evian bottles. Ms. Han was deeply moved: "I could totally relate to Yamamoto's ordeal, trying to succeed outside his country."

Ms. Han has been trying to do exactly that for the past three years with her Haneza brand in New York.

Not that she needs to sell fashion in Manhattan. Ms. Han -- along with Jinteok, Sul Yun-hyoung and Bakangchi -- belongs to the first generation of Korean fashion designers. From her boutique in Cheongdam-dong, she commands an empire of 15 Italiana brand stores that cater to Korea's society dames.

Why can't Korean designers be satisfied with their native land? "Because we designers have a dream; we want our work be loved throughout the world," Ms. Han says, "like the designs of Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake."

She recalls a buyer asking the wholesale price of her leather jackets at the New York exhibition a few years ago. When she said $600, he brazenly quipped, "You think you're Jean Paul Gaultier? His jackets cost $600!" -- as though a Korean designer's work somehow couldn't match an industry icon.

Ms. Han has added elegant day wear to her line to meet the demand for practical clothes. But, her Haneza brand is best known for refined evening wear. Her ivory evening gown is hand-draped and hand-stitched with a sheet of laser-cut filigree on superbly fine silk organza. Her leather jackets are hand-tailored using Italian lambskin that feels like butter.

Ms. Han, 58, believes superior-quality clothes are forever in demand in a competitive market like New York, and that they can change people's perception of Korean fashion and Korea as a nation.

"Ever since Rei Kawabuko made a sensational all-black show in Paris, the world has perceived Japan as avant garde," she says. "The perception goes beyond one designer. It's all designers. It's a nation."

She says that Korea's time will come: "If my generation doesn't make it, then maybe the next generation's designers -- like Jiwon Park -- will. We need to be brave."



Hong Mi-wha

Miwha Hong's adolescent models are like nymphs prancing in the woods. Each season, draped in white gauze, they tread new paths, exuding innocence and imagination.

Korean artists and designers have long followed Ms. Hong's creations and are fans of her designs' flowing silhouettes. They love her light, creased cotton skirts with thin strings binding the body in sensual spots -- a bare back or an exposed flank. They appreciate those romantic frills overlapping Indian crochet, over intricate lace -- over the shoulders.

"I don't see my clothes as something graphic -- but organic," Ms. Hong says. "They're lyrical. They have no shape. They capture feelings." In essence, she transfers her spirit to cloth.

Her clothes are popular in Korea, and department stores have been asking her to open new outlets. But that isn't what she wants.

Ms. Hong set up a her collection and showroom in Paris in 1993 but returned home after a few seasons. Since last year, her recent designs have been featured in the Pret-a-Porter Paris Collection. "Paris is where the world's design creativity is concentrated," she says.

She sees the Paris Collection as the ultimate stage where talent is discovered, nurtured and supported. "There are two ways for designers to market themselves in Paris: John Galliano-style, by being creative and following with commercial applications; or Dries van Noten-style, by making commercial products and later introducing high-concept designs."

She's confident about her collections, but laments that Korean designers rarely make it on the Paris Collection's lineup. She says most Korean designers lack industry connections in France, so they're subject to the whims of agents, who often try to control the designer's creative direction.

"Originality in international collections is the key element to success," Ms. Hong says. "For me, I'm not sure when my day will come," she adds. "But I'll continue to design and see what happens."



Park Ji-won

After watching Jiwon Park's fashion show in Seoul last year, Danny Sekibo, a buyer from London, beamed with excitement: "Her clothes are sexy, exciting, on-the-dot, trendy and, wow, full of energy!"

Ms. Park's shows have long been blockbuster events here. With her rock-star good looks, Ms. Park, a second-generation designer in her 30s, has reached celebrity status in Korea's fashion circles.

Local fashion editors lavish praise on her provocative mini-dresses, but she can't help but feel frustrated as dowdy shoppers poke around her Seoul boutique and ask, "So, what kind of women wear your clothes?"

If she were to answer that question, she might say: real women. "A woman wants to slip into something sexy and sensual and be loved by her man," she says.

Fed up with the local sentiment, she closed her shop last year and looked for a new home. New York seemed a logical choice. Ms. Park says she thought the move would give her a balanced life, the freedom to travel between East and West, or perhaps a new exposure of her brand in a much bigger yet versatile market. Instead, the move led to endless hours of work. But Ms. Park says she has gained a greater understanding of what she's doing.

"Seeing my staff designers working day and night, as if they were making their own clothes, I came to appreciate what a 'company' means. And I realize that our work somehow represents our country." She says she now feels a sense of pride as a Korean designer.

These days, Ms. Park is torn between Seoul, which again is her home base, and New York where buyers from Barney's, Fred Siegal and Showroom 7 have begun promoting her work. To better understand the international market, Ms. Park says she's also considering building on her design experience, perhaps in Italy.

Wherever she lands, she says she wants to make what real women want to wear. Nothing too complicated or intelligent, but easy and simple to bring out the woman's feminine side -- like her trademark short skirts that expose long legs or generously-cut blouses that bear soft shoulders. "Name brands are no longer appealing," she says. "People look at how each piece is put together, and that's where a new designer's skill is appreciated."



Sarah Sim

Sarah Sim's fashion philosophy starts with a single fiber.

Since 1990 when she established her own brand, Beraka, Ms. Sim has devoted herself to not only designing clothes but also developing new textiles as the basis of her design work.

"Many designers tend to skip some of the most important steps in designing their collections," Ms. Sim says. "If the designer picks up new but commercially available fabric, then he or she may lose their competitive edge from the start."

As an established designer who used to work at the corporate level, Ms. Sim says, "I can continue to sell mass-produced clothes through familiar distribution channels, but that's not what I want to do for my future as a designer. A designer has only one thing to do -- to continually create."

By making natural and versatile fabrics that can be applied to not one or two garments but an entire collection, Ms. Sim feels she can create high-quality clothes in basic colors that can be worn for years to come.

Her last two Paris showings introduced new fabrics that blended natural fibers like cotton, linen, wool and silk with man-made fibers like rayon, spandex and polyester in creative ways. The results have been surprisingly light, comfortable and readily adaptable textiles.

Her new fabrics share these qualities. The skirts and long coats are light and crease-free. They flow naturally with the body's movements. "I want be more than ready -- everything from the way each piece moves to every stitch in the lining should be perfect -- when I'm finally 'discovered'," says Ms. Sim, who's in her 40s.

That day may come soon. Ms. Sim is the brains behind a partnership with Korean home shopping giant CJMall.com that was formed to promote five globe-trotting designers -- Park Choon Moo, Woo Young Mi, Miwha Hong, Lee Jung-woo and Ms. Sim -- over a five-year period.

"We've got a total of 10 collections in Paris to make it or break it," Ms. Sim says.

by Ines Cho
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