A fashion pioneer’s colorful career

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A fashion pioneer’s colorful career


Sul Yun Hyoung was selected as the featured designer at a special exhibition being held during the 2020 Spring/Summer Seoul Fashion Week. The 75-year-old designer is known for incorporating traditional Korean elements into her style. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Every fall, while local fashion brands show off their Spring/Summer collections for the upcoming year, Seoul Fashion Week simultaneously hosts an archival exhibition honoring Korean designers who were active in the industry for over 20 years.

This season’s star is Sul Yun Hyoung, one of the designers responsible for laying the foundation of Seoul Fashion Week along with the likes of Lie Sang Bong and Gee Choon-hee of Miss Gee Collection.

Selected creations from Sul’s 50-year-old fashion career are on display at “Hyeonghyeong-saeksaek,” or “The Varicolored World of Sul Yun Hyoung,” now open through Nov. 7 at the Design Pathway at Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) in central Seoul.

Elements of “Koreanism,” a term commonly used to describe Sul’s designs, pervade throughout the collection, enriched with bright colors and an extensive range of unique materials and intricate techniques. Examples include silk embroidery, Korean folk paintings, entwined strips of mulberry paper and colored threads made in the form of sangmo, or hats worn by musicians from the Joseon era (1392-1910).

Sul’s fascination with colors dates back to her childhood, when she used to collect scraps of cloth thrown out by a hanbok (Korean traditional clothing) shop in her neighborhood.

“It’s what I grew up with,” Sul told the Korea JoongAng Daily during an interview ahead of the exhibition’s launch on Monday. “I felt a longing for those times. Everyone wore hanbok when I was a child.”

In many ways, Sul is living history. It was thanks to the determination of Sul and a few others that Korea was able to establish its own Fashion Week.

“A couple of designers and I really wanted to organize fashion shows like other countries in the world,” Sul explained. “Around 10 of us formed the Seoul Fashion Artist Association and held our first collection at a hotel in 1990. We were almost in tears. We invited famous critics from Japan and used our personal funds to cover expenses. It was really challenging, but gradually we started attracting sponsors like Hyundai Department Store. I can’t forget the excitement from that time.”

The transformation of Fashion Week continues to amaze Sul, who’s impressed with the “tremendous role” that the DDP plays and the unique styles of its attendees.

Although she’s happy with how the domestic fashion scene has evolved, there’s one thing about the industry today that bothers Sul.

“I think this applies to everywhere, but there aren’t master craftsmen anymore. People don’t want to do anything difficult. In the past there would be hand embroiderers who stayed up all night finishing our orders, but now we can only find embroiderers from Vietnam, China or North Korea.”

These days, Sul doesn’t regularly launch new collections. While the designer says she wouldn’t mind holding fashion shows again, she thinks it’s time to “give opportunities to young designers.”

Sul commented, “It’s our job to see their shows. I try to attend all of the shows I receive tickets for.”

One young designer that Sul supports is her daughter Lee Ju-young, who’s dressed the likes of Lady Gaga and Marilyn Manson. Because of the hardships she faced in her own fashion career, Sul was initially against Ju-young becoming a designer.

“She studied the cello and was so talented with it,” Sul recalled, still with a hint of wistfulness. “But I had to let her live her own life. Now, I’ll ask her opinions to get input on young people’s tastes.”

One project that Sul is still busy working on is the “Korea Top Fashion Designer Bazaar for Mission,” an annual charity event held at her church.

For almost 30 years, Sul and designers like PARTsPARTs, Caruso and Demoo have joined forces to sell some of their clothing for unbelievable prices, like 5,000 or 10,000 won ($4.50 to $8.50). All profits go to underprivileged communities in Korea and abroad.

“Some designers have donated 1,000 pieces a time if they had enough in stock. I’m really thankful,” Sul said. “We’re people who have succeeded, and the money needs to circulate. It is not enough if we’re the only ones who are well-off.”

BY KIM EUN-JIN [kim.eunjin1@joongang.co.kr]

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