The fashion stylist ― an anonymous artist
After weeks of hard work, however, the designers get to take a bow on stage and give interviews. When pages of splendid images heralding the new in fashion reach readers, the photographer’s name can be found in bold letters under the headline. But the often forgotten but always needed technical experts behind the fireworks of fashion parades are stylists, like Sue, who are nearly anonymous.
The job of a fashion stylist is truly broad ― borrowing clothes from stores, dressing rich and famous clientele or defining cutting-edge trends for the world to follow. For the past 16 years, since she first started to dress models for Korea’s first fashion magazine, Meot (now defunct), Sue has pioneered the career of fashion stylists in Korea. After graduating from Konkuk University and its Graduate School in 1983, she first worked as a women’s wear designer at Kolon for three years.
Nancy Pilcher, vice president of Conde Nast Publications Asia Pacific, who was in charge of editorial development for Vogue Asia at the time, noticed Sue’s unique images in 2000, when the stylist worked on fashion editorials for the Korean edition. Support from Vogue gave wings to Sue’s personal imagination and allowed her creativity to flourish. Her spectacular fashion magazine visuals ― whether a goddess trapped inside the dark interior of the National Theater, an ancient Korean princess striking a pose or a Fendi bag hung on an antique Korean cabinet ― are the results of weeks of research and brainstorming with her staff. The images are memorable for their strikingly modern, yet deeply Korean sentiment, each defining a moment in Korean fashion history.
But, although Sue’s work features regularly in mainstream publications, including Vogue Korea and Style H, and she advises fashion companies and teaches at Konkuk University Graduate School, few outside the industry have heard her name.
The IHT-JoongAng Daily caught up with Sue during the Seoul Collection to talk about her career in fashion:
A. I’ve never really regretted working hard in the industry. But, last year when the designer Jinteok’s fashion book was published, there wasn’t much acknowledgement and nobody wanted to interview me. My assistants complained about my anonymity on the project, and it prompted them to think about their futures as stylists. They knew that I had worked for two years, from devising the concept to overseeing the actual production of images, to the publication. My staff have urged me to change my title to creative director or something, but that is not so familiar to me. There are some stylists who’ve gone commercial, working on publicity and celebrity, but I’m not really into that kind of thing. Some stylists get sponsorship from major fashion brands and work with big-name models, but all they do is promote the brands. For me, my job as stylist is putting together a personal vision of style.
We stylists are minor leaguers. When it comes to the actual implementation of a project, it’s the photographers who become the major leaguers. For me, choosing a photographer who’s just right for the subject is most important. I have a pool of about 20 Korean photographers I choose from, each time a project is given to me. For Korean subjects, I often work with older photographers, such as Kim Yong-ho, Han Hong-il and Koo Bon-chang, who can understand the culture. I also work with younger photographers, such as Woo Chang-won and Frank Lee.
Have you thought of quitting at some point?
It’s been 16 years since I started this work. Older-generation designers often complain how they cannot deal with young people, but I think that’s nonsense. Being older doesn’t necessarily mean better in the quality of work. Every day I feel the pressure to do something exceptionally well while competing against the younger and talented people that join the industry. It’s embarrassing to even tell my husband what I go through ― how much I suffer trying to borrow clothes and how I endure humiliation from sales staff who complain about staining borrowed clothes.
I was into my fifth or sixth year when I wanted to quit, thinking such hard work wasn’t going anywhere ― because working as a stylist wasn’t about getting famous or rich. But one sunny afternoon while I was driving, someone in my car told me, “Don’t quit. Just stay on.” From that moment, the thought of quitting somehow left me.
Tell us about your family.
My husband works for a Korean automobile company. I really like the fact that he has nothing to do with fashion. He doesn’t even know what Gucci or Prada is, nor does he know how much they cost. It’s a breeze for me when I go home. I don’t even like speaking or hanging out with fashion industry people who have a habit of sizing people up and down.
I have two children, who are 18 and 16. They are studying in the U.S., so now I really cannot [afford to] quit working!
Have you worked with photographers from abroad?
The reason I don’t work with foreign photographers is that to me, understanding the delicate sentiment involved in making images is critical.
Have you thought of working outside Korea?
Once I wanted to work [as a stylist] in Paris, but when I saw only two pieces of clothing hanging in the pressroom, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I have to start all over again from scratch.’ So I decided not to go.
I’m especially fond of the images in which I incorporated nostalgic food that I used to eat when growing up. I was surprised to see the images of old-day snacks, such as wild corns and potatoes, could go so well with fine jewelry. Did you know that Korean women picked pumpkin leaves to use as sponges to wash dishes near the well? I saw them do that when I was young. So I have the images of pumpkin leaves and vintage bowls piled up together. I also like the images I made at the old Buddhist temple, Hwaeomsa.
My most memorable project was part of the Jinteok fashion book. We went to Africa, and the photographer Kim Joong-man and I roamed around the desert trying to capture an image of a native woman draped in red.
What’s your job as a stylist in fashion shows?
You’re involved from the very inception of settling on an idea through putting together a collection of images to finally overseeing the entire process of execution.
This year is the first time Korean designers have asked to me work together with them, since they saw in the Paris Collections how French designers collaborated with stylists from the very beginning. For the Jinteok show, I offered advice on make-up and hair. For Haneza and Park Choon-moo, I was involved at every stage, for about four weeks, from coming up with a concept through fitting and styling to selecting 40-something outfits that could work for the show. Because a show comes with three or four themes, clothes have be selected carefully so as not to bore the audience.
Why do you adhere to Korean images?
That’s something I do best. The fashion we wear today comes from Western civilization. Since we don’t wear hanbok, there’s an overall sense of unfamiliarity, yet we absent-mindedly follow fashion trends. A global fashion brand, Gucci, for example, is worn by everyone nowadays. But, I want to show how Gucci can be worn by Koreans. In my images, Gucci doesn’t wear Korean women, Korean women wear Gucci, and the principle applies to all other fashion brands.
How does the Korean element work in fashion?
The Korean element can be quite global. With the Korean element, anything with great design can look better. I once placed a Gucci bag on top of a yeontan [coal briquette]. I know a yeontan is a trivial thing, but Koreans own a lot of things that have aesthetic value. They say Chinese beauty is grand and Japanese beauty is said to be colorful and elaborate, so they can easily attract the eye. Korean elements, on the other hand, can be easily overlooked. Korean furniture and architecture are so minimal and condensed. Things like a humble wooden chest and simple roof tiles may not stand out, but they are so well-proportioned. The more you look into these things, the more you appreciate their quiet aesthetic.
by Ines Cho