Vivid palette of fashionConsider the Korea of a few decades ago, when the textile industry was the primary economic engine and black-and-white was the primary fashion sense. Now, splash rainbows over everything ― that’s the Korean fashion of today, and there’s no better place to see why than at the Rodin Gallery in downtown Seoul.
The Rodin’s exhibition, “She’s Like a Rainbow: Color and Fashion,” is the second major show featuring high fashion to be hosted by one of the country’s leading cultural institutes, a sign that mainstream culture is embracing fashion design as an art in its own right.
Organized by the Samsung Art and Design Institute (otherwise known as SADI) on the occasion of its 10th anniversary, the show is a collaboration with the Museum of Fashion Institute and Technology (a.k.a., FIT) in New York. FIT contributed 50 select pieces from its collection of 50,000. These works are on show next to an exhibition, titled “Obangsaek,” of 25 additional pieces by five Korean designers: Suh Jung-gi, Andy & Debb, Kim Dong-soon, Jung Ku-ho and Park Eun-kyung.
Emphasizing the importance of design as the core concern of this generation, the president of SADI, Won Dae-yun, pointed out that over the past decade, 473 students graduated, about half of whom went abroad for further study at Parsons the New School for Design, one of SADI’s network colleges, or to work in the field.
“Asian design, Korean fashion design in particular, is increasingly important in global fashion,” said Valerie Steele, director of the Museum of Fashion Institute and Technology. Speaking at a press conference, she said the collaboration between SADI and FIT could inspire not only fashion students and professionals, but also the general public. “The more they know, the more fully they can participate in fashion,” Ms. Steele added, saying she hoped to see fashion become increasingly diverse over the next ten years.
Inspired by the Rolling Stones’ song, “She’s a Rainbow,” the exhibition embodies hope and symbolizes the emotions associated with beautiful and rich colors, Ms. Steele said.
She said the 50 works FIT brought to Korea were selected based on their high aesthetic and historical values, with pieces dating as far back as 1830 and others as modern as 2003.
Even the feelings and symbolism of basic colors has changed over time, she explained. Blue, for instance, used to mean Imperial Blue, signifying royalty. But blue in fashion these days is most commonly associated with the more proletarian blue jeans, as in Roberto Cavalli’s pieces displayed in the exhibition, she pointed out.
Color and culture are also intricately linked: a Western person might associate white with marriage and virginity, while an Asian person could easily associate it with death and mourning. The color red, which connotes prosperity and fertility in Asia, has intimate, nearly sexual, connotations in Western cultures.
The exhibition combines the primary colors associated with rainbows in the West with Eastern philosophy: the yin-yang and the five color elements of the I-Ching (metal, wood, earth, water and fire). Koreans have traditionally divided colors into five primary hues, from which the show gets its namesake: cheong (blue), baek (white), jeok (red), heuk (black) and hwang (yellow). These are spaced between five “opposing forces”: hong (orange), ja (deep red), byeok (brown), nok (green) and yuhwang (golden yellow).
For this exhibition, the organizers agreed to combine the two cultural approaches to color and present the show in eight themes: white, red, blue, yellow, green, orange, purple and black. The show, however, goes beyond color to showcase important forms and trends in women’s clothing around the world.
There is, for example, the “Little Black Dress” ― Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s groundbreaking concept of day-to-evening wear, a version of which is now owned by every woman who considers herself stylish. Next to that is a stunning red dress by Chanel’s archrival, Elsa Schiaparelli. Also on display is a ruched dress which was de riguer on runways last year, by the designer Norma Kamali, who made her name back in the ’80s.
The basic thread of this vintage collection is that the undying spirit of couture by deceased designers like Cristobal Balenciaga lives on in new adaptations made by young-generation designers such as Nicolas Ghesquiere.
Vintage designs require tender care
The IHT-JoongAng Daily caught up with Valerie Steele, the director of the Museum of Fashion Institute and Technology, to talk about the museum’s vintage collection and the fashion business.
Q. What did the clothes have to go through before arriving here?
A. It took days for the committee consisting of both FIT and SADI staffers to decide what to bring to Korea. The selected 50 were pieces with historic and aesthetic value. We had three people on the conservation team work on the packing for days. The garments come from our storage, where we have a half-million-dollar system that keeps the collection in optimal condition. We make sure the insect-free storage maintains the right humidity and temperature for clothes and fabric, some of which are more than hundreds of years old. Once out of the storage, each piece of clothing is wrapped and secured in acid-free materials and placed inside a cardboard case. The [cardboard] case is then put into a wooden case, so it gets quite large. For the Korean exhibition, we had two conservators traveling with the cases inside the cargo plane with no [other] passengers in it. The maximum period of time for a piece is three to four months. Once the time is up, it goes back to the darkness.
How do you collect clothes for the museum?
We have a fund of $100,000, which is not enough, so we have fund-raising events. We also get donations from designers. Loris Azzaro’s current designer donated us the newly-designed dress worn by Diane Lane, star of the movie “Unfaithful.” I often go to Paris to buy vintage clothes and also buy at online auctions as well. Winning an auction isn’t easy, as the price sometimes shoots up. Last time, my maximum budget from the museum was $6,000 but the price passed way up to $20,000, so I lost the dress.
How familiar are you with Korean designers?
Not very. I know the ones in New York City, like Doori Chung and Eunice Lee. They are New York designers not Korean actually. During my first visit last time, Korean designers [who are working on this exhibition] gave me a whirlwind tour around Seoul to show me Korean designs and boutiques along the fashion streets, so I can get an idea [of Korean fashion], that’s all.
Korean designers are frustrated by their paucity of opportunities to go global.
I know that they’ve done some shows in Paris and New York. It’s not that they don’t have talent. What’s important is, designers need to build around an infrastructure that can help them be recognized in the industry. Building such a network in the fashion industry can be very difficult. It’s the same everywhere in the world: the [fashion] market tends to remain regional.
by Ines Cho
The Rodin Gallery is located on the first floor of the Samsung Life Insurance building on Taepyeong-ro near Namdaemun. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. except for Mondays. Admission is 5,000 won ($4.50) for adults, 3,000 won for students. The nearest subway station is City Hall station on line No. 1 or 2, exit 8. For more information, call the gallery at (02) 2259-7781-2 or visit the Web site, www.rodingallery.org.