Praised in Paris, snubbed in SeoulFashion boasts just a few creative geniuses each generation ― and one of the current prodigies is the Korean-born designer Kim Ji-haye.
Ms. Kim, who’s better known by her brand Ji Haye, is one of the fashion industry’s most innovative designers. Since joining the French haute couture collection in 1999, Ji Haye has proved to be such a tour de force that the fashion powerhouse LVMH has called her “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.
Although Ji Haye is regularly listed on the French Federation of Couture’s calendar and celebrated by the French media and followers of European haute couture, the 41-year-old designer is virtually unknown in the land of her birth.
Perhaps her one-of-a-kind pieces are too elitist for Korean tastes. Perhaps they’re too daring. But local fashion professionals and journalists have been skeptical about her talent and status in Paris.
Ji Haye set out to change that earlier this month when she staged the “Ji Haye Fashion Show” at the Shilla hotel in central Seoul.
The invitation-only show for 500 guests during French culture festival, “Rendez-vous de Seoul,” featured the cumulative work of Ji Haye’s last eight seasons in Paris. It was, for all intents and purposes, the Paris-based designer’s coming out party in Korea.
Ji Haye was raised in Korea, the daughter of a respected doctor. After graduating from Seoul National University, she moved to Tokyo in 1987 to study and work. She planned to become a professor of Japanese literature when she was accepted at Waseda University. But fate intervened.
“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 and had his blue hair spiked,” she recalled in an interview with the JoongAng Daily last year.
It was then that she realized “that clothes can liberate you and become a means of creativity and expression.” She decided that she “wanted to make clothes that could break everything that put pressure on me and my life.”
She quit her literature studies and in 1989 entered the Bunka Fashion Institute, where several of Japan’s top designers, including Kenzo and Yohji Yamamoto, had trained.
Two years later, she moved to Paris and launched her haute couture quest.
A Frenchman, Felix Boukobza, first recognized the untapped creativity within Ji Haye’s tiny frame. Mr. Boukobza ― himself an accomplished artist, medical doctor and opera singer ― provided Ji Haye with seed money to begin what later became a collaborative venture.
With an indefatigable spirit and passion for style, Mr. Boukobza became Ji Haye’s mentor, critic and business associate.
Today, Ji Haye says, “Without Felix, I don’t think I would have come this far. He works on everything, allowing me to keep myself simple and just concentrate on making clothes.”
When planning “Rendez-vous de Seoul,” the director of the French Cultural Center in Korea, Andre Jover, wanted Ji Haye for his festival.
“Ji Haye was a perfect bridge in the exchange of culture between France and Korea,” Mr. Jover said. “We French people were very impressed with her World Cup fashion, and we thought her success in France would encourage Koreans.”
It seemed a perfect choice, with the undeniable Korean inspiration for her designs combined with the true French haute couture style.
Yet local organizers had a tough time getting local support for the costly production. Most Koreans simply don’t know who she is. Even if they’ve heard of her, they seem to sneer, as if she deserted her home country to succeed overseas.
Local companies, who are usually generous in sponsoring such events, flatly refused to back Ji Haye’s show; they said it wouldn’t help them promote Korean products in the domestic market.
A few days before the event, Ji Haye received an anonymous phone call from a stranger threatening to “destroy the show.”
But Ji Haye proved indestructible.
She flew to Seoul with Mr. Boukobza and four assistants and began altering her show’s garments to fit the slim frames of her 27 Asian models. Normally, 20 assistants would cram into Ji Haye’s tiny Rue La Bruyere studio to sew 16 to 20 pieces for a show. In Seoul, the team slept as little as three hours a night to prepare the 78 outfits from Ji Haye’s eight seasons in Paris.
The program at the Shilla hotel kept guests shocked and awed throughout. For nearly an hour, the VIPs saw exuberant, soulful creations that celebrated European luxury and Korea’s heritage.
Ji Haye’s signature fabric was recognized by every Korean present. Vegetable-dyed mosi, or hand-woven Korean linen, was pleated, tucked, slipped and piled, as if it had been swept by the wind and the sea to dress exquisite French courtesans.
An oriental theme featuring lotus blossoms and vibrant fish scales was evident, yet the pieces were vivaciously matched with black patent-leather thigh-high boots and metallic-pin heels adorning Korean macrame.
A fully shirred skirt was worn as a cape, a broad band revealing shoulders. There was fine floral embroidery on simple coat-dresses. Jackets featured motifs, details and proportions borrowed from the hanbok, the traditional Korean costume.
Slim pants were quilted like nubi, or Korean traditional quilts, and romantic blouses were pin-tucked as if painstakingly handcrafted for a royal bride in some ancient Korean dynasty ―but a bride with a distinctively French flair.
Immaculate suits tailored by Ji Haye are compared with those by Yves Saint Laurent, France’s legendary tailor-couturier. “Shoulders are everything in suits,” Ji Haye asserts. “And to get that right silhouette, I cut the fabric in so many pieces no one else could figure out how to put them back together.”
For delicate Korean-style embroidery, she worked with France’s best craftsmen, such as Francois Lesage, the celebrated embroiderer whose recent work in Chanel’s collection created a sensation.
The Bulgarian-French artist Irise, who regularly collaborates with John Galliano, hand painted dreamy sea creatures on ostrich-skin dresses that were matched with billowing waves of ruffles.
Ji Haye’s versatility can freely exhibit a tantalizing contrast between a razor-sharp suit made of airy linen and a soft feminine dress made of ostrich skin.
A soccer ball, an object thought to have no place in fashion, turned up as soft and voluminous puffs ― complete with sporty hexagons as handcrafted details using Swarovski crystals. Ji Haye came up with the idea in time for the World Cup in 2002, and her designs subsequently motivated leading fashion houses to incorporate sports as fashionable motifs.
Her dynamically rearranged proportions ― a cropped top over a long silhouette ― has given birth to a new term in fashion, nouvelle couture. Whether it is an impeccably tailored jacket, a simple romantic dress or an ornate ball gown, Ji Haye knows how to create a spectacle.
The designer’s show at the Shilla hotel was a success and it earned her grudging respect in her home country. Korea’s two major television networks briefly gave her favorable mentions in their prime-time news broadcasts. Sponsor-savvy Korean fashion magazines, which have treated Ji Haye as a minor figure, are planning to write about her recent show.
But Ji Haye still has a long way to go to win fans in her homeland. Reporters from three local newspapers said they didn’t know what to write after seeing her designs. No Korea-based fashion designers were in attendance at her show.
And Korean apparel companies, which spend millions of dollars importing foreign fashion brands, adopted a wait-and-see attitude, choosing to keep watching how this fashion forerunner from Korea performs in the international market before placing their own orders.
Ji Haye returned to Paris exhausted ― and energized.
Back on the Rue la Bruyere, she, Mr. Boukobza and their assistants are again working around the clock to prepare for their next big show, the Haute Couture Fall/ Winter 2003-2004 on July 8.
by Ines Cho