The Korean language as a fashion statement“People laugh when I say that Louis Vuitton is my rival brand, but is there any reason it shouldn’t be?” asked Lee Gun Maan, head designer and CEO of Lee Gun Maan AnF, a handbag and accessories brand.
The corporate headquarters and design studio of the firm, located in Hyoja-dong, near the Blue House, in northern Seoul, many be unimpressive, with discolored wallpaper and worn linoleum floors, but the people working there have a liveliness and pride that seem to overlook the surroundings.
A textile designer and professor at Hongik University, Mr. Lee creates accessories using silks whose patterns are based on Korean characters.
“A lot of traditional Korean culture was influenced by China, although much of it was adopted and altered. It is the same for Japanese culture,” he said. “When you look at modern design, it is mostly influenced by the West. So there is very little that we can say is 100 percent Korean.
“The Korean alphabet, however, is perhaps one of the few things that are ‘purely’ Korean in terms of design,” he added.
Created in 1446, during King Sejong’s reign, the Korean alphabet, or Hangeul, is considered one of the most efficient in the world, garnering praise from language experts for its scientific design. Before it was developed, Koreans used Chinese characters for writing purposes, which made education difficult for the common people, due to the complexity of the Chinese script.
The Korean alphabet originally had 28 letters, but only 24 are in use today, with 10 vowels and 14 consonants. Vowels were based on the shapes of the sky, land and man, while consonants were based on the shape of a person’s lips when a particular sound was pronounced.
“Most alphabets are written either horizontally or vertically, but Korean can be written both ways, and the combination patterns of consonants and vowels are very intriguing when seen from a design perspective,” Mr. Lee said.
His fashion accessory brand includes handbags, wallets, neckties, scarves, and other smaller accessories such as picture frames and key chains. All of the products have a link to design motifs inspired by the Korean alphabet or architecture.
For instance, what may seem like a pattern of circles and small lines is, upon closer inspection, actually a collection of Korean vowels. Some of the bags are shaped like famous architectural landmarks. One leather bag resembles Cheomseongdae, a stone observation tower from the Silla dynasty located in Gyeongju. Another bag is closed by inserting a stick into a ring that is attached to a leather strap
While he bases his designs on Korean motifs, Mr. Lee said that he doesn’t want that to become the basis for his success.
“I want people to buy our products because they look nice. Then one day, maybe they will notice that the print is composed of Korean characters, or that the design is based on parts of Korean architecture,” Mr. Lee said.
He said that the Korean textile and fashion industry is currently in a difficult position and that specialization is the only way to survive. “We’re no longer a labor intensive market because of higher labor costs and we’re not considered the creative or artistic market that Europe is.”
Mr. Lee explained that in the past, when only a few famous brands were imported to Korea, Korean companies based designs on copies of foreign brands, but offered them at affordable prices. Now, however, most well-known brands are directly imported, even those at the lower end of the market.
These market circumstances only strengthen the positioning of his brand.
“I don’t want to be a second choice, or a lower-end substitute for a luxury brand,” he said. “I don’t want to buy a Volvo because I can’t afford a Mercedes. I want people to buy my products because of their uniqueness, not because they are cheaper than other luxury brands.”
For Mr. Lee, uniqueness comes at a high price, with product development that begins with the textile design.
“A lot of companies take cloth developed by other companies, and then slightly alter the pattern, but we do our textile designs from scratch. We then hand over the designs to a special silk factory in Jinju,” he said.
“All silk items are very dense ― which makes the fabric thicker and more durable. You find that with a lot of neckties, they tend to get out of shape after you’ve worn them a few times,” he added.
Mr. Lee said that his vision to develop a global brand struck him during an unexpected experience.
“I once saw a television program about a doctor who was one of the best heart surgeons in the world and was very inspired because he said that he made an effort to be the best.”
He explained that before he saw that program, he had not thought of competing on a global level, even though he studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and Philadelphia College of Textile and Science.
“I think I was obsessed about coming back to Korea and teaching what I learned to my juniors,” he said. “In sports, Korean athletes aim for medals at the Olympics and dream of competing on an international level. I think more Koreans in other fields should aim for higher goals as well. Having a high goal changes your perspective on things.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to make a mark within global design circles, but I hope I can be the stepping stone for my juniors,” he added.
Meanwhile, Mr. Lee is preparing a bed linen line and considering forming an alliance with a furniture company. He said he also has to find the right balance between being a businessman and an artist.
“I’m a designer and I’m still not familiar with concepts like public relations and marketing, which are essential in building up a brand. But then, I don’t want to lower the quality of the products by compromising to make short-term profits,” he said.
He added that he is sometimes surprised when he meets people who have actually bought his products.
“The chairman of a big group once told me that he buys our products to give as gifts when he meets foreigners for business. He said that it earns him about 20 minutes of easy conversation about Korean culture, which is more natural and interesting than talking about the weather. That kind of story makes me feel proud about what I’m doing,” Mr. Lee said.
The company’s products are available on the Internet (www.leegunmaan.com) and at a flagship store in Insa-dong. Select products are also sold at some department stores and museum gift shops.
by Wohn Dong-hee