Jinteok's legacy: 3 generations talk fashionTo define fashion and luxury in Korea today, the IHT-JoongAng Daily spoke with Jinteok, a leading fashion designer who pioneered the country’s burgeoning fashion industry as early as the 1960s. Formerly the inaugural president of the Seoul Fashion Artists Association, which celebrated its 30-year anniversary in 2005, she has been a leading light of major fashion collections, while actively promoting Korean fashion domestically and abroad. In 1998, “The Fashion Book” by the British publisher Phaidon named the Korean designer as one of the 500 most inventive designers of the 20th century. Her self-published art book, “Beyond Nature,” captures the panoramic images and concepts of her 40 years in Korean fashion.
Jinteok was joined in the interview by her daughter, Ro Sungun, also a fashion designer, and Ro Gee-woo, the 13-year-old daughter of Jinteok’s son, Victor, who owns Te Home, a lifestyle store in Apgujeong-dong.
Q. More and more fashion brands are trying to make their names on the red carpet. What do you think about that?
Jinteok: That’s a matter of the designer’s personality and business style. That a designer is actively engaged in sales is not about right or wrong but a personal choice. Back in the 60s, I used to make clothes for big-name actresses, such as Mun Hee, Um Aeng-ran, Nam Jeong-im. In those days, designers made custom-tailored clothes, and they looked me up, and I would do outfits for an entire movie. And some of the actresses became personally close. These days, I have a few actresses with whom I feel I share the same “code.” I’m personally close to Kim Mi-sook and Yun Seok-hwa ― we meet and share our time. They are not ones that I intend to sell to. I’ve always felt bad selling my clothes to people I feel personally close to. But fashion isn’t art, and business is important. And, I’ve seen designers whose friends become their marketing or advertising tools, and we have to count the fact that there are customers out there who think the appearance of actresses matters, which is a pity.
Ro Sungun: Because of the way I was brought up, I too feel awkward dealing with money with those I like personally. I feel uncomfortable when my friends show up in my store, but they often insist I be there to let them know how to wear the clothes. Then I cannot think of selling clothes and offer them a large discount.
[To Ro Gee-woo] You have several design-related professionals in your family. Whose work do you admire most?
Out of all my family members, I’m most interested in my Grandma’s work. When I saw her red Korean-style evening dress, I was very impressed. The dress had elaborate Korean embroidery but it also had a Western style. I thought the combination of East-meets-West was very interesting, and thought that when I became a designer, I would do something elaborate and fancy. But for myself, I like to wear clothes that are casual, simple and basic ― in black.
Then how do you want to pursue fashion design?
I think that the Korean fashion market doesn’t offer decent clothes for our age group. Anything that looks good doesn’t fit us because we don’t fit into adult’s nor children’s sizes. A local brand called Vanilla B. targets girls our age but when I look at the clothes, they are too frilly and decorative, which doesn’t fit our lifestyles. It looks as if the Vanilla B. designer never got to wear fancy clothes when she was young, so she realized her fantasy through her brand, not thinking about the actual needs of the market. To buy clothes, we go to Dongdaemun market because it’s the only place where we can buy something that can fit and that we can afford. A jacket costs 20,000 won there. A good friend of mine and I talk about how we as partners can design clothes that our peers can identify with and want to wear. If my Dad allows me, I’d like to study fashion abroad and come back and design for Koreans.
Ro Sungun: It is true there are no labels targeting teens. The fashion industry around the world has never been keen on developing the market for teens. The cost of fabric and manufacturing is the same as for adults, so the price can’t be low. Also, teens grow fast and so mothers don’t want to spend a lot of money.
Why do you think you should live abroad?
Ro Gee-woo: Life in Korea is different from that outside. In my school, about half the students have studied or lived in America so they speak about their experiences there. I heard that in American school, kids our age go to dance parties and that they work on a big project for the whole year and turn it in at the end of the semester. We compare different lifestyles in the world, and that kind of thing looks interesting to me. I hope to be able to live and study fashion abroad, in America, and come back and design for the Korean market. I’d also like to go to Japan, Hong Kong and Europe. I’m not really interested in China.
[To Ro Sungun] Your fashion collection is showing more of Jinteok’s influence. Do you agree?
My collection started off with edgy avant garde style, and I learned my trade, how to make clothes, from mother. The more I make clothes ― especially how the details are made, how a jacket is constructed, how the interior supports the shape, the more I think about what she has taught me all my life.
Jinteok: Watching her collection in Paris in 1995, European journalists observed that my daughter carried a Jinteok in her and that she was undeniably Jinteok’s daughter. Her clothes might use different shapes, forms and expressions but underneath the facade is Jinteok metastasized.
What is it to make a Jinteok?
Jinteok: I make clothes to be worn on the body but for the spirit. The long history of fashion since Vionnet is marked into divisions by a few significant designs by Chanel, Japanese designers and Galliano. Between these generations are so many designers who try their best to represent the contemporary philosophy and what works best in that generation of style. Young designers are stressed about how to survive and how to lead, but having reached my age, I can let things go. Why should a skirt be a skirt? Why should a pair of pants be a pair of pants? You can hike up a skirt to wear it as a dress. A piece of cloth can be thrown over the body and cinched with a belt ― that’s an outfit right there. There were times when I destroyed all the elements in clothes because I wanted to free myself from them. But, now I feel liberated from fashion. So liberated that I can go back to the formal shape of clothes and redefine my fashion again, but make it unique. A short while ago, I had a vision that gave me a chilling vibe in my body. My fall and winter collection is all about that thrill. You will see.
[To Ro Sungun] Does fashion liberate you?
No, no, not yet. I feel quite restrained in fact. To feel the way she does, I’ve got a long way to go.
Jinteok: She’s trying too hard to design fashion.
Your granddaughter is impressed with the Korean-ness in your fashion. Will your daughter inherit that?
Jinteok: My daughter, the next generation, has spent many years abroad, so her design inevitably contains multinational global elements. Korean-ness should be natural the way a Korean person is. Just because you use a pointed beoseon [traditional Korean socks] as a headdress and decorate clothes with weird hanbok elements, it doesn’t make it Korean. Even if it’s a classic jacket, there can be a uniquely Korean element. That’s what it means to be Korean in the increasingly complex and diversifying world of today.
Ro Sungun: I don’t have to pronounce that I’m Korean because I am. I grew up in a very conservative atmosphere in my family. When a blond boy asked me to go to the prom, I turned him down on the spot, thinking I must not do such a thing. That’s how Korean I was. More than 30 years ago, when we moved into a Korean-style apartment, Mother tore the entire place down to turn it into what looked like a hanok [traditional Korean house] inside. Back then, interior design to Koreans was if you had a cabinet. When American-style bathrooms were all pink, our bathroom was dark brown, and very dark. She taught me that fashion should be an element in a lifestyle. So a home has to reflect the owner’s lifestyle and personality. It has to be clean. While traveling, most Koreans would stay in cheap hotels and spend their money on shopping. She made us stay in deluxe hotels, saying that she was making an investment in her children who were to learn about how to live. What I’ve learned from my family, I suggest as lifestyle cues to my clients who ask for tips. For those who go on vacation to a resort, I suggest to them to wear a slinky jersey dress and jewelery for an evening get-together. That kind of dressing and attitude makes the person look and feel special.
Korean fashion today is all about going extreme in big-name brand names though.
Jinteok: I recently found a book titled “Extravagance and Overspending,” which discusses consumption in Korean society, and I’m so interested in that issue. The Korean fashion and luxury industry is so saturated right now. Those who make up the spending culture are in their 30s and 40s, who grew up with baby boom-generation parents who tumbled through their life building the country. Their offspring, who didn’t inherit much from their busy parents, place value on prices, which is what has happened in Korea.
Ro Sungun: In about 10 years, when Gee-woo becomes 25 and the current 25-year-olds become 35, they will be the country’s economic powers. Maybe the market will diversify, so wiser consumers can choose what they really want, regardless of price or brand names.
Jinteok: I don’t know what exactly happened, but the Hwang Woo-suk incident says a lot about Korean society. Korean society has many big stars made by PR and marketing gimmicks. The Korean fashion industry too has had a star that was made by PR and marketing, and he’s been in the spotlight for about 10 years. Ten years is a long time for anyone to learn. I see and hear that he has begun to feel serious about his social responsibilities as a fashion designer. But, we’ll see. At the moment, Korea is right on the verge of change. Like my daughter says, it will stabilize. Or, it might get a lot worse.
by Ines Cho