Ten years ago, the thunder of Japanese fashion, with its great big black silhouettes, roared down Parisian runways, provoking a thirst for exotic aesthetics that has never quite been quenched. Though trends have evolved far from those rebellious looks of the mid-1980s, rag trade professionals continue to be titillated by designers who translate their cultural heritage into modern forms of western gear. Today the fashion world is witnessing another invasion, this time from Korea. Instead of rumbling down the catwalk with aggressive, anti-fashion modes of expression, three designers (all women of a certain age) are creating a quiet sensation with softer looks that for a young woman who’s worldly, yet fragile and vulnerable.
The hoopla over these three women had me wondering why the Koreans had waited until now to come forward with their design philosophy, particularly since all three have been involved in the clothing business for over two decades. “Up until recently, Korea hasn’t had a strong economy,” explains Lee Young-Hee. This South Korean has been generating excitement in Paris since she first appeared in 1993 with styles that successfully mix the exoticism of traditional costume with the sobriety of western lines. “Before, finding financial backing to launch your operations on an international scale was difficult. Now that we are experiencing an economic boom, designers are able to do what they want, which allows us to show off our contribution to fashion.”
Born in Taegu, the third largest city of South Korea, Lee traces her design roots to her mother, a dressmaker who made “hanboks,” ceremonial garments for the aristocracy. This art was passed down to Lee, who learned about the silhouettes and colors that traditionally defined the age and social status of the woman. But western fashion magazines found their way into her hands and she was not content to remain within the boundaries of tradition. She began experimenting by mixing designs of royal garments with those of western cultures. By 1976 she had opened a boutique in Seoul, featuring her own, more contemporary versions of the hanbok. In 1980 Lee took her collection around the world, yet she did not land in Paris with her hanboks until March 1993.
The long dresses pleated over the chest, with butterfly wings fluttering at the shoulders, caught the fancy of all in attendance, helping ignite curiosity about Pacific designers. Six months later, more traditional Korean garb – work garments and “jogak pojagi,” an ancestral patchwork – were borrowed from Lee’s background and worked into clothing for western tastes. For this season’s collection, Lee continues her trademark of marrying the Orient with the Occident. Long coats, knotted to one side, have pagoda-like architectural proportions and are cut in shimmering metallic brocades etched with subtle floral patterns. These are often tossed over little square jackets and straight-cut trousers for an overall silhouette that is clean and structured, with just the right helping of exotic spice.
Another designer profiting from her country’s economic boom is Jin Teok, who also arrived in Paris in 1993. No stranger to fashion, Jin is considered the pioneer of contemporary Korean fashion. As early as 1965, she created a more contemporary look for Korea’s emerging “new woman,” and in Seoul she opened her first boutique, which has since multiplied to a chain of 43. With a profound interest in helping put Korea on the fashion map, Jin founded the Seoul Fashion Designers Association to promote young talent, and she organized the first fashion week. Today the organization has 17 professionals and the event takes place over four days before 2,000 guests. “My designs are based on the essence of my culture: refinement, strictness, simplicity and attention to detail,” Jin explains. “I try to imagine a silhouette modeled around the traditional notions of femininity and fragility, yet capture the dynamic woman of today.”
Inspired by nature, animals and her cultural background, her clothes are often cut from natural fabrics in subtle, fascinating prints depicting landscapes cloaked in fog or quietly alive with flora and fauna in sober monochromes or 18th-century colors. Silhouettes range from simple shapes to intricate wrapping, pleating or draping that envelopes her woman’s tiny figure.
Long before the Korean “invasion” of 1993, a designer who calls herself Icinoo (a phonetic contraction of Lee Shin-Woo) was already a familiar name within certain fashion circles abroad. After studying painting, then design research, Icinoo launched a high-priced ready-to-wear line with a company called “Original Lee.” She first ventured onto western soil by participating in the women’s ready-to-wear fair in Paris. This collection was taken to New York, where it was presented to Macy’s, Lord & Taylor and Neiman Marcus. By 1983 she had created an American branch of her company and two years later was selling to Bloomingdale’s. Today Icinoo heads an empire that includes 80 boutiques and stretches from New York to Tokyo.
Icinoo’s debut on the Parisian fashion scene in 1993 had the international press adjusting to a new set of aesthetics, which seemed to be a cross between small relics of the Japanese gear of the ’80s, the waif looks of the impoverished ’90s and something new and different that felt right for 2000. “When you say Korea, people immediately think of counterfeit goods,” Icinoo sighs. “For many of us the future is more important than tradition.” The tiny South Korean with her Joan of Arc haircut is known for her futuristic viewpoint, innovative materials and styles for the young and restless. Her cybermod Lolitas love simple shapes in crinkled synthetics, frosted plastics and astral motorcycle accessories, a perfect look for the kind of girl into rendezvous rock on the Internet.
After the Japanese dominance of the ’80s and the Korean influence of the ’90s, one can’t help but speculate where the next fashion force is likely to come from. Hong Kong is revving up its fashion machine, with fashion week activities attracting the attention of young talent from as far away as Shanghai and Taiwan. In addition, design schools such as the Swire School of Design in Hong Kong and Parsons School of Design’s affiliates in Malaysia and Santa Domingo could point to the next exciting movement in clothing design.