Hanbok rides the Hallyu wave with modern reinterpretations
BTS’s performance of its 2018 hit “IDOL” at the 2018 Melon Music Awards is considered one of the boy band's finest by both fans and critics. Fusing the best of Korean tradition with the rhythm of pop music, BTS members flaunted their dance moves that were a reinterpretation of traditional Korean fan and drum dance, each clad in modern hanbok, or traditional Korean dress.
When hanbok designer Hwang Leesle, the head of brand Leesle, was requested by BTS's agency to choose an outfit for Jimin to wear onstage, the most important factor she had to consider was, “Which outfit would be comfortable enough for him to pull off the tough choreography?”
“I looked through my collection and found one that would suit him and would also be comfortable enough for him to dance in,” Hwang told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “Hanbok trousers actually have a long crotch width and wide dimensions along the thighs and I was told that he performed feeling very comfortable in the outfit.”
Hwang is known to give a contemporary touch to hanbok attire, conserving the essence of the traditional clothing while making it desirable to the modern eye. Her brand Leesle is run with the philosophy of “giving happiness to people wearing hanbok.” She has pulled off multiple collaborations with fashion brands and K-pop stars, including BTS’s Jimin and four-member mixed-gender group KARD.
“With KARD, we worked together with the members of the band from the beginning of the design process,” said Hwang. “KARD has a concept where each of the members symbolizes the four trump cards from a deck — the king, the queen, the jack and the ace — and we worked from there to think of hanbok features that suit a king, queen, aristocrat and soldier. The color red was picked from the band’s theme for [their 2020 EP] ‘Red Moon.’”
Now on display at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) in central Seoul are 25 outfits created by Korean designers that have been worn by K-pop artists over the years in their music videos, on stage and in commercials. Costumes worn by K-pop acts Ateez, BTS, Chungha, Golden Child, KARD, Momoland, Oh My Girl and Zico are on display. Designer brands C-Zann E, Danha, Guiroe, Hyeon, Leesle, Rieul and Tchai Kim contributed pieces to the exhibition, “K-pop X Hanbok” which will run until April 25.
The exhibition is part of a collaboration between the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Hanbok Advancement Center for the 2021 Spring Hanbok Culture Week that took place from April 9 to 18. Hanbok exhibitions and related programs were held in seven cities including Seoul and 10 hanbok creators will be chosen to receive funding from the culture ministry to collaborate with Hallyu (Korean wave) artists and create new work.
Avid K-pop fans may already know which outfits were worn for which event, but for those less familiar with the industry, it is best to read up on the outfits on display to get a proper understanding of the pieces.
Tchai Kim’s hanbok dress for singer Chungha was used for Vogue magazine’s December issue, which the designer says was based on the costumes of Namsadang, or a troupe of wandering artists who do acrobatic movements in time to entertaining music. The colorful flower-patterned dresses worn by members of Oh My Girl were designed by Kim Danha of Danha for their performance of “Nonstop” (2020) at the 35th Golden Disc Awards. The costumes were themed on the patterns of traditional cloth used for wrapping and paintings.
A must-see are the suits worn by Suga and J-Hope of BTS during their special performance series on NBC's "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" held in September last year. The program showcased performances by the band every night for a week, including live performances, comedy routines and virtual interviews. The two members wore suits designed by Kim Rieul of Rieul with fabrics commonly used to make hanbok for the performance of “IDOL,” which took place in front of Gyeongbok Palace’s Geunjeongjeon Hall.
“Over 100,000 people watched BTS’s performance at Gyeongbok Palace, which means that many people saw Korea’s traditional palace and dress,” said Kim. “I saw that a lot of the comments on the videos were actually asking, ‘What is this place?’ or ‘What are they wearing?’ K-pop has been gaining international attention and having them wear hanbok-inspired clothing definitely helps people learn more about it.”
In fact, global awareness can be credited with changing the image on contemporary hanbok within Korea. In a bid to raise awareness about the clothing, Kim started designing hanbok suits for celebrities and influential figures to wear for free six years ago. He has designed more than 300 suits and prides himself as having created an outfit “for almost every celebrity people know,” he says.
“When I first started designing my clothes, I was criticized by a lot of people. They asked questions like, ‘How is this hanbok?’ But now that more and more artists are wearing such outfits and they're being loved by international fans, those questions don’t get asked anymore.”
Hwang of Leesle agreed. She has collaborated with a variety of people throughout her career, but has seen an increase in offers from artists, as well as feedback from audiences. In the case of KARD, when the members wore Hwang’s work at the annual K-culture festival KCON this year, fans asked where the costumes were from, evidence that hanbok is just as worthy a Hallyu content as K-pop.
“When a K-pop band wears hanbok, some fans focus on what they’re wearing and that becomes a subject of talk among them. That actually leads to people looking back on the performance when the band wore the outfits and it’s a healthy cycle,” said Hwang.
Due to Covid-19, visitors must make online reservations for the 50 spots that are available every hour. Admission is free, but reservations must be made through Naver.
“We thank the hanbok designers, celebrities and their companies who helped this ‘K-pop X Hanbok’ exhibition take place,” said the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. “Hanbok has risen as a desirable attire worn by Hallyu celebrities, thanks to K-pop’s rising popularity. We hope that this exhibition is a chance for people to see the modern beauty of hanbok and the potential that it has as a Hallyu industry.”
BY YOON SO-YEON [firstname.lastname@example.org]