Custom-made clothing is back in style

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Custom-made clothing is back in style


Modern versions of women’s tailors are popping up here and there in Seoul. At Tailorable for Women in Hannam-dong, central Seoul, half of the store is occupied by a showroom for customers, while the other half is used as a workshop. [KIM KYUNG-ROK]

In an era where fast-fashion retailers line the streets, it’s difficult to spot a tailor shop among them. There are some tailors that custom-make suits for men in Seoul, but for women they’re rarer still.

From the 1950s to the early 1970s, there was a tailor for women called Yangjangjeom in Seoul. But as soon as off-the-rack clothes became widespread in the 1980s, the shop disappeared without a trace. Recently, however, modern versions of tailor shops for women have been opening their doors in Seoul, custom-making dresses, coats, jackets and blouses.


A custom-made dress from Aire de Jeu, right, was worn by actress Han Hyo-joo in the film “Beauty Inside” (2015), and a blouse and skirt from the dressmaker, left, walked down the catwalk at Milan Fashion Week last month. [KIM KYUNG-ROK]

Aire de Jeu, a Parisian playground

The dress worn by actress Han Hyo-joo in the recent film “Beauty Inside” (2015) grabbed the attention of many women. The gracefully designed dress looked perfect on her, making her look more elegant than ever. Ardent fashionistas began searching for the brand and soon found out it wasn’t a big-name luxury brand but a custom-made dress from a small tailor called Aire de Jeu.

Located along the narrow alleyway next to Cheil Worldwide in Hannam-dong, central Seoul, Aire de Jeu displays a small quantity of simple and classic-looking women’s clothes in the windows. When this reporter visited the shop recently and asked if she could try on the dress hanging by the window, the owner said, “The dress is only on display to refer to the design,” adding, “If you decide to make the purchase, we’ll take the sizes and tailor it for you.” Unlike usual clothing stores that have various sizes in stock, Aire de Jeu tailors the clothes you want to perfectly fit your body.

The store is run by couple Kim Jin-hwa and Park Ji-hye, who both studied in Paris. Park designs the clothes while her husband is the modeliste, who turns his wife’s drawings into real products. The store is about 50 square meters (540 square feet) in size, and the couple uses half as a showroom and the other half as their workshop. There are only about 20 garments on the rack, all designed by Park, mostly dresses, blouses and coats.

Customers at Aire de Jeu pick out a design they like and have their measurements taken. Kim will then make new patterns according to the sizes. According to Kim, making a new pattern for one customer takes a whole day. As the whole process of making the clothes to order is handled by just two people, the couple says they can’t accept a large number of orders. But the couple says this is their “philosophy on fashion and what we’ve learned and studied about clothes” and insists on maintaining such a system.

After finishing college in Korea, Kim and Park went to Paris to study fashion together. They also accumulated some field experience in Paris and came back to Korea in 2011. Park worked as a designer at famous fashion brands like Balmain and Martine Sitbon for three years. Kim graduated from renowned fashion school L’Academie Internationale de Coupe de Paris. After returning to their home country, the two opened Aire de Jeu in 2012.

“We wanted to make clothes we want to make and work like we are playing, and create a brand that represents this,” Kim said. “That’s why we named it ‘Aire de Jeu,’ which means ‘playground’ in French.”

Most people who visit the store are passersby who are drawn inside by the clothes hanging by the windows, or those who have seen the couple’s designs on their website. It takes about 10 days for the clothes to be completed. A dress from Aire de Jeu costs around 800,000 won ($687), while coats are priced at around 1.7 million won.

Personal designs at Tailorable for Women

Further down the so-called Hangangjin alleyway where Aire de Jeu is located, there are a few more tailors for women. The store Tailorable for Women designs suits for ladies and wedding dresses, but most of the customers order custom-made overcoats. In fact, the store is a women’s version of the Tailorable for Men shop down the street, which makes customized men’s suits. Its director, Gwak Ho-bin, decided to open a shop for women last March after many of his customers’ female partners inquired about it.

“Clothes exist to share memories,” Gwak said. “I believe clothes that are custom-made are closer to their essence. Unlike clothes from fast-fashion brands that get worn one season and thrown out or forgotten the next, clothes should be something that you should be able to wear for a long time.”

Just as he still wears a watch his father handed down to him, Gwak says he still wears a suit he tailor-made eight years ago, with just some alterations when necessary. According to Gwak, there are two types of customers at Tailorable for Women. One type is those who are not fond of luxury brands, and the other is those who can’t find a coat or a jacket they like from ready-made brands. The latter type can discuss the design they have in mind with a designer at the store.

“Usually, the consultation starts off with a question such as, ‘What can I do if I want to custom-make a basic winter coat?’” said manager Kim Seul-ki. “But soon, all the customers give you a detailed explanation of a design they have in their heads.”

When the design is finished and fabric has been selected, sizes have to be taken. To tailor-make a coat, for example, 40 different measurements must be taken. Then, it takes two to three days to make the pattern according to the sizes. Another seven to 10 days are required before the first fitting. For this, the customer must visit to try on the garment to make sure it fits perfectly.

“To make one piece of clothing, a lot of effort has been put into it,” Gwak said. “Therefore, it’s crucial for the customer to come in for the fitting to make it perfect.”

To custom-make a suit at Tailorable for Women, it costs between 1.3 million won and 2.5 million won. A coat costs around 1.5 million won, but if cashmere is used the price jumps up to more than 3 million won.

If you can’t buy it, make it at Buri

Designer Cho Eun-hye of the brand Buri doesn’t have a store in Korea. She only has her workshop and a showroom on the second floor of a residential building near Garosu-gil in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul. After studying composition at Ewha Woman’s University, she didn’t begin writing music but rather started designing clothes as she couldn’t resist her love for fashion. After establishing her own brand, she began selling clothes to foreign buyers through the Seoul Fashion Week trade show.

“At first, I used to have a store,” Cho said. “I hung my clothes on the rack, but not many people came to see them. So I participated in Seoul Fashion Week and then I began to get visits from foreign buyers who came to see my show.”

At first, she didn’t design clothes for the general public. But after her show at fashion week, celebrity stylists and fashion magazine reporters began paying attention to her clothes, followed by regular customers.

Her workshop is only about 66 square meters in size. Two-thirds of it is occupied by her workspace while the rest is used as a showroom. Most of her customers are those who refuse to wear ordinary clothes. They come to Buri because they like Cho’s avant-garde designs that are both unique and comfortable, she says.

Cho doesn’t have any ready-made clothes in stock. She has only a few sizes and sells them to customers if they fit, but if not, she makes them according to their size. If the customer wants to place a new order, reservations can be made by phone. To order a custom-made coat, it costs around 1 million won, while a jacket costs between 400,000 won and 800,000 won. The price for dresses, meanwhile, ranges from 700,000 won to 1.3 million won.


From top to bottom: Park Ji-hye, left, and Kim Jin-hwa, owners of Aire de Jeu; designer Cho Eun-hye of Buri; and Gwak Ho-bin, director of Tailorable for Women. All three stores make women’s clothes to order. [KIM KYUNG-ROK]

Finding individuality in this ‘sterile era’

In 1950s and ’60s, there were many tailors for women in the so-called fashion districts such as in front of Ewha Woman’s University as well as the Myeong-dong area of central Seoul. The shops not only served as a place to order custom-made clothes but also a place to drink tea and chit-chat.

But with the arrival in 1974 of LF Fashion, then called Bando Fashion, ready-made brands began to pop up here and there, transforming the country’s women’s clothing scene. And in the 1980s, Korea hosted the Asian Games and Olympic Games, sparking a boom of foreign, ready-to-wear brands. Those women’s tailors throughout Seoul were pushed out as the big fashion brands moved in. People began to shop for clothes at large department stores or shopping malls rather than at tailor shops.

When the Asian financial crisis hit Korea in the 1990s, the fashion industry experienced dramatic polarization. The market was divided in two - the cheap “Dongdaemun fashion” clothes that were sold at shops like Jeil Pyeonghwa Market, Migliore and Doota in the Dongdaemun shopping district of central Seoul, and the expensive luxury fashion market comprising foreign brands. In the 2000s, fast-fashion brands such as Zara and Uniqlo entered Korea, and women’s style across the country started to become more similar each day.

But recently, more Korean women are growing eager to find their own style, refusing to wear mass-produced clothes.

“I used to buy a lot of clothes from fast-fashion brands, but when I go out, I see so many people wearing the same clothes as me,” said Lee Seo-jin, 42, who lives in Seoul. “I now wear those as innerwear and try look for more unique outerwear.”

Seo Mi-ja, 62, who says she has experienced both the tailor shops of the 1950s and ready-to-wear clothes of today, insists that she hasn’t experienced one instance of bumping into another woman on the street wearing the same skirt or jacket when she used to get custom-made clothes during her college years.

“Although they may have looked similar, they were different,” Seo said. “Nowadays, I buy clothes from home-shopping channels because they are quite cheap, but I quite often see someone across the table at a restaurant or cafe wearing the same thing. I feel embarrassed and quickly leave the place.”

“I miss the tailor shop times,” said Prof. Kim Dong-soo of Dongduk Women’s University’s department of modeling, adding that she remembers “ordering a dark blue flower-print dress that came down to my knees at a tailor shop in my neighborhood.”

“Thinking of that dress still makes me feel good because it’s a dress that was created the way I wanted for me,” she said. “I really liked it - I even packed it first thing when I was moving to America.”

Industry insiders say this is a small but increasing trend that the fashion industry should pay attention to.

“Fashion in Korea has entered the maturity phase,” said Gan Ho-seob, professor of fashion design at Hongik University. “Japan, which is ahead of us in fashion, has already experienced this trend, and such modern versions of tailors have opened up in the back alleys of Tokyo’s Daikanyama and Aoyama [areas]. Korea will also see an increase in customers looking for custom-made clothes. Fashion will also see an end to the sterile era and the beginning of strong individuality.”

Trend analyst Kim Yong-seob, who is the author of “Life Trend 2016,” explained that such a change is a “movement of people seeking their own value and taste,” meaning that the satisfaction they felt from possessing products from popular fashion brands is no longer being felt; now, the satisfaction is only felt when they use products that indicate their personal value.

“Those who create their own taste in style by looking for clothes that can express their individuality or unique items that fit perfectly are increasing,” he said.

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