Korean designer helps keep fashion treasures intact

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Korean designer helps keep fashion treasures intact

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Dress “Celadon”, Choi Kyung-Ja, 1962. A piece submitted in the first international fashion show held in Korea in 1962. Building on the design concept of hanbok rainbow skirts, the wavy lines of the Goryeo celadon are accentuated. The crane was painted by artist Lee Se-duk.

Choi Kyung-ja is a legendary figure in Korean fashion. In 1937 she established Eun Jwa Ok, the first Korean couture house, and in the following year, the Hamheung Professional Dressmaking Institute. This is when her eldest daughter, Shin Hei-soon, was born. Choi also launched the first Korean charm school and fashion magazine, “Costume.”

Shin, 72, director of the Kookje Fashion School, was the first Korean student to enter the Fashion Institute of Technology, a prestigious school affiliated with the State University of New York college of art and design. When she returned to Korea in 1971, she began to win acclaim as a designer.

Following in her mother’s footsteps, Shin has devoted herself to fostering a new generation of young designers.

Although Shin’s mother beat her to being the “first” in almost every fashion-related area, the exception is Shin’s creation of the Korea Museum of Modern Costume.

“I practically lived in fashion museums when I was a student at FIT,” Shin said. “They receive donations from brands like Chanel, Versace, Dior and Nina Ricci once every five years. This made me certain that Korea, too, was in need of a costume museum. It has been said that many pieces created by Korean designers are copies. But there’s no alternative when one hasn’t seen the designs created in the past. Looking at the history of fashion helps to inspire creativity.”

Shin’s mother managed to preserve a number of items of clothing, and these were the first to be installed into the collection of the Korea Museum of Modern Costume, which opened in Namsan-dong on Dec. 24, 1993.

Shin also received donations from her first student, Lee Sang-bong, and numerous other designers such as Shin Jang-kyoung, Lee Chul-woo and Ahn Yoon-jung.

The museum also contains clothes that are emblematic of Korea’s fashion design history. These include a miniskirt worn by Yoon Bok-hee in 1968 (designed by Choi Kyung-ja), the dress donned by Miss Korea Oh Hyun-joo in the 1959 Miss Universe competition (by Nora Noh), and the dress created by Lee Sang-bong in 2007.

The outfits of previous first ladies also form an integral part of the main collection. Some of the clothes hold historical significance, such as the gray suit worn by Francesca Donner, the wife of Korea’s first president, Syngman Rhee, and the azalea-colored suit First Lady Kwon Yang-suk wore when she visited North Korea with former President Roh Moo-hyun.

“It takes from six months to five years to get donations from former first ladies,” sighed Shin. “Lee Hee-ho sent a message that her donations were ready in just one week. Her clothes were packed in a hanji [Korean traditional paper] box, so that they would get enough air. There were even pictures of her wearing the clothes to show she actually wore them,” she said.

Kim Yong-hee, Shin’s eldest daughter, who is currently studying in Paris, sent her a collection of old European costumes.

With the combined efforts of the three generations of women, Shin collected 2,000 pieces.

It is no mean feat to store these articles of clothing. Shin makes use of the storage room in her in-laws’ house in Yesan, South Chungcheong. She talked about one heart-stopping moment when her new housekeeper swept the relics into a black garbage bag.

“If they were paintings, no one would think about throwing them away. But most people don’t hesitate to throw out tatty clothes,” Shin said.

Despite the wealth of carefully stored materials, the museum shut down for about five years. It had grown increasingly difficult to manage the facility due to the economic recession.

But thinking about the generosity of her friends and relatives, Shin could not simply give up. The museum’s collection was displayed in an exhibition showcasing 100 years of Korean fashion at Kyungwoon Museum at Kyunggi Girls’ High School in 2008, and Lotte Avenuel in 2009. Having survived ups and downs, the museum is scheduled to reopen on the 15th in Chungsin-dong, Jongno in central Seoul. On the day of the interview, director Shin was wearing work gloves and organizing items in the gallery.

“It’s impossible to abandon the museum because there are so many people who gave donations,” Shin said. “This museum was created with the help of my forward-thinking mother and countless designers. The entire fashion industry should step forward to aid the next generation of fashion designers.”


By Lee Kyong-Hee [estyle@joongang.co.kr]
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이경희 기자의 수집가 이야기 - 한국현대의상박물관 신혜순 관장


어머니 최경자(99) 여사는 한국 패션의 살아 있는 전설이다. 1937년 한국 최초 양장점 ‘은좌옥’을 열고, 이듬해 ‘함흥양재전문학원’을 설립했다. 64년 최초의 차밍스쿨(모델학교)을 열었고, 68년엔 최초의 패션잡지 ‘의상’을 창간했다. 한국인 최초로 양재학원을 설립하던 해, 맏딸 신혜순(72·국제패션디자인학원장)씨가 태어났다. 어린 혜순은 어머니가 가르치는 재단 밑에서 떨어진 천 조각을 주워 인형 옷을 만들며 자랐다.

신씨는 뉴욕의 세계적 패션 명문 뉴욕 주립대 부설 FIT를 다닌 최초의 한국 학생이었다. 71년 한국에 돌아와 디자이너로서 이름을 떨쳤고, 어머니의 뒤를 이어 후진을 양성하는 일에 뛰어들었다. 어머니가 거의 모든 ‘최초’를 이미 휩쓸어버린 후였다. 단 하나, ‘한국현대의상박물관’만은 예외였다.

“FIT에서 공부를 할 때 패션박물관에 살다시피 했어요. 박물관은 샤넬·베르사체·디올·니나리찌 등의 작품을 초창기부터 5년에 하나씩은 기증받아 갖추고 있었죠. 한국에도 의상 박물관은 꼭 있어야겠다고 생각했어요. 우리에겐 양장 박물관이 없었잖아요. 한국 디자이너들의 작품에 카피가 많다는데, 기존에 어떤 디자인이 있었는지 직접 보지 못하면 카피를 뜰 수밖에 없어요. 패션의 역사를 알면 자연스레 창의적인 작품이 나오죠.”


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