Designer melds fashion with lifestyle options
Kang Hee-sook, the proprietor of the complex and designer of her own fashion brand, orders a bowl of mango sherbet and freshly peeled pink grapefruit and describes it as if she’s offering a hidden jewel. “You won’t believe how delicious this is ― it’s made with simple things but a wonderful recipe,” she whispers. When a lady customer nearby asks for cream for her coffee, it quickly arrived served warm in a tiny glass jug ― so as not to cool the perfect temperature of the coffee. The customer, dressed in Ungaro, seems deeply impressed at the sophisticated service.
“Foreigners are shocked to find such an elegant establishment in a country like Korea,” Ms. Kang says, “When I try to import clothes for our boutique, they imagine we’re a small-time vendor ― until they come here and see us.”
Designed by French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte and award-winning Korean interior designer Bae Dae-yong, the complex houses three restaurants (Moroccan-French, Japanese and Italian), a cafe and bakery, a beauty salon and two womenswear boutiques.
Ms. Kang is known to dress some hugely popular Korean actresses. Front-rowers at her semi-annual Seoul Collection show usually include leading hallyu (Korean wave) stars. At the Seoul Collection earlier this year, the press went wild over the simultaneous appearance of the “big three” actresses ― Choi Ji-woo, Kim Hee-ae and Kim Hye-soo, causing the fashion show to be delayed for more than half an hour. In Japan especially, the brand Kang Hee Sook is recognized as a premier Korean label, as the popularity of actress Choi Ji-woo, who Ms. Kang dressed in the hit TV drama “Winter Sonata,” has soared. But, the designer finds going global isn’t simple and so takes cautious steps.
The IHT-JoongAng Daily spoke with Ms. Kang, whose career has grown from that of a small tailor to the leading icon of the Korean fashion industry:
Q. What was the beginning of your career as a fashion designer?
A. When I first opened my boutique in front of Ewha Womans University in 1976, it was a small custom tailors. The customers were young college students, their sisters and mothers. Soon after that, I moved to Washington State because my husband went there to study and work. Where I lived was such a suburb and I couldn’t stand the life there, so I came back to Korea shortly after. In 1979, I opened the Kang Hee Sook boutique where the former building stood, in by-then Cheongdam-dong’s fashion avenue.
The land [in Cheongdam-dong] was affordable, much cheaper then. Back then, fashion designers collectively planned to start a fashion street in Korea. Bak Hang-chi of the Okdong brand was the first designer to open a boutique there, and I was the second. The boutique was built upon a new concept of headquarters, or a fashion house, which houses an atelier, a fitting room, an office, and so on, the way French fashion houses existed in Paris.
And then in 1985, I got to open my first store inside Hyundai Department Store in Apgujeong-dong. Since then, it’s been 20 years.
In March, 2005, the present Table2025 was opened. My old boutique and the Italian restaurant, Buon Posto, needed major refurbishing, and I thought the times had changed and wanted to reflect on changes in trends, as fashion should reflect changing trends. So, instead of revamping the places, I decided to move to a new location. Over 450-pyeong (1,485 square meters) of land behind the main street, we built two five-story buildings ― actually to create a cozy atrium inside. Also, restaurants and cafes work better inside a block.
I have all the fashion people come to me and say how much they appreciate such a space in Seoul. These people have traveled around the world and envied memorably chic places in every city, and they tell me this place makes them feel proud as Koreans ― we have a place just like in Paris or New York.
What’s keeping you busy these days?
Years ago, [the fashion designer] Troa Cho went to New York City to meet with the Fashion Group, and she came back to start the Korean branch. Right now, there are about 30 female designers who represent the Korean Fashion Group. I was president in 2000; right now, the designer Choi Yeon-ok is the president. We hold shows, meet with U.S. representatives, and help out more than 1,000 visually and acoustically impaired children by organizing bazaars at department stores.
I also attend the Asian Fashion Federation, which consists of various fashion industry professionals engaged in textile, accessories and fashion design, as well as teaching in universities. We hold annual meetings to discuss trends in Asia and we collaborate among interested professionals. I have offers from Chinese department stores, but we’re in the process of seeking partners.
Through the federation, I’ve been to Japan to stage fashion shows. At the Lee Young-hee fashion show, the theme song was the soundtrack from the TV drama, “Winter Sonata.” Because I was introduced as “the designer who dressed Choi Ji-woo,” I was treated like a movie star ― giving out autographs!
I realized that the hallyu phenomenon [in Japan] doesn’t necessarily translate to actual sales of clothes. The sales work like this: If a passer-by sees an item and likes it, then she buys it. In reality, it’s not the fans who will actually buy the clothes. It was rather surprising that some TV shopping programs in Japan sold my clothes, even though the price was quite steep. Unlike Korea, where a vendor can choose to work with more than one partner, the Japanese commercial system is strict ― you only work with one partner for life. So the partnership in Japan didn’t work out.
We’ve also been to Beijing, and are deliberating on our options there. We prefer to meet partners who do buying rather than consignment sales, to make our business simpler.
Your company is no longer one fashion boutique but a big company.
People in Cheongdam-dong say we work like the mafia! In the company, I now have my two sisters and their five children, all of whom studied abroad and have returned home to oversee the management. They each are in charge of the boutique’s management, PR, finance, design and cafe operations.
What would you want to do in the future?
My sisters and I were thinking that maybe it might be a good idea to build an elegant establishment in a place like Misari, on the outskirts of Seoul, even if it doesn’t bring in money. It’s a very nice area, close to Seoul, but it’s a pity to see it full of tacky cafes and motels. It’s hard to change [the area] right away, but once someone starts something very pretty, then everyone will follow.
If I am responsible for something in Korea as a designer, it’s to offer lifestyle and culture options.
by Ines Cho