A young lady in her early twenties had deft hands and a discerning eye. She could make whatever she wished out of paper with just a pair of scissors, without the help of patterns, without rulers or pencils. Her ability to make replicas of the costumes in comic books or on TV was outstanding. When she was still in her freshman year at university, she made an exact replica of the Hanbok designs featured in a TV show and became the star of a campus festival. After the festival, she put the costume up for sale in a second hand market and it sold immediately. This was her first encounter with Hanbok designs.
Hwang Yi-seul, 28, also known as Dew Hwang, is the heroine of this story, a woman who had never left Jeonju, Jeollabuk-do, the southern city of tradition, before the age of 20. Earlier in life, she was aiming to join the public service, majoring in forest resources, but she recently received her master's degree in design with a thesis of "Aesthetics in Goguryeo Costume." Starting her own clothing line during her freshman year, Sonjjang Design Hanbok, she has spent the last eight years dedicated to supplying Hanbok for everyday life.
She also started a new chapter in her life, making everyday clothes with Hanbok details. Her new label, Leesle, came from the idea of enabling people to wear Hanbok as normally as they would a pair of denim jeans. Unanswered questions, such as, "Why does one always wear Western clothing to work," and, "Can no Hanbok equivalent replace it," still linger in her mind.
Constantly thinking, dreaming and making Hanbok, when asleep and awake, while standing or sitting, Korea.net met with Hwang to listen to her confessions about her love for Hanbok.
How did you first fall in love with Hanbok?
Simply said, it's pretty. I was first inspired by the comic book 'Goong.' As I started making and selling Hanbok myself, I gradually learned more about them. Designing, choosing the fabric, picking up on the basic functions, discovering the intricate and exquisite techniques involved, and also meeting people while working on this, have all made me grow fonder of the traditional attire. Since my parents had been running a curtain and blanket wholesale outlet, I had seen my mother using the sewing machine on a daily basis. This environment helped me as well.
The 'Goong' comic book series is by Park So Hee.
What are the charms and positive aspects of Hanbok?
The most charming thing is the color. No other clothing can be as diverse as Hanbok. Especially the color pairing of tops and bottoms, the levels of chroma and the layering of different fabrics can change the whole feeling of the clothes. Color takes up about 50 percent of the design. Matching yellow tops with red skirts and lavender tops with green skirts can be awkward in Western clothing, yet possible in Hanbok. Another aspect is the variety of design factors of Hanbok. The collar, the ties, the composition, the shape and the length of the top can all be altered to make a beautiful silhouette.
What is a fusion Hanbok and how is it different from a traditional one?
A fusion Hanbok has different materials and an altered design. It's a modern interpretation of the traditional Hanbok. Party dresses, wedding dresses made using the skirts of a Hanbok, using materials other than traditional silk, adding sparkles, using sheer fabric and fringes inspired by curtain designs, all help to improve the details in a Hanbok.
How can a Hanbok become everyday wear?
Traditional designs can be less amenable to modern life. For example, the long skirts can be of sweeping lengths, collecting dirt from the streets. As a solution to these practical issues, Hanbok has been altered for everyday wear. It's not a matter of "upgrading" aspects of the existing Hanbok, but it is finding appropriate traditional features to replace existing features, like using a toggle knot to replace string ties, or goreum in Korean. Adjusting the hem length and circumference of the skirt, narrowing the sleeves and replacing the cumbersome long and ever-becoming-undone string ties with toggle knots, ensures freedom of movement for the wearer. Fabrics like cotton, linen, hemp and denim are easy to wash and store, making upkeep easier. Modern details like wappens, patterns, checks, stripes, dots and prints have replaced the labor intensive gold print patterns and embroidery, while adding pockets, zippers, buttons and elastic bands added ease to everyday wear.
Your line of everyday wear seems to be the result of a complete change of view, where do you look for new inspiration?
It comes from everyday life. I look for aspects of general clothes and trends that can be applied to Hanbok. I constantly think of ways to interact with young people when looking at clothes.
Why do you think young people need to wear Hanbok?
It's because they don't even have a basic understanding of the beauty of Hanbok. Many people just don't even care. I hope to be able to showcase the various sides of Hanbok and, ultimately, catch their attention.
How are Hanbok sold and who buys them?
Online shopping, commonly used by the younger generation, is the main channel of sales; 95-98 percent of total sales happen there. Half of that happens on English sites -- and 80 percent of that comes from the U.S. -- while the rest is from Australia, Singapore and the Philippines.
How do the customers use their Hanbok?
The domestic market consists of fusion Hanbok rather than traditional designs, clothes worn once for special occasions, like recital gowns, wedding wear and doljanchi celebrations on a child's first birthday. International sales mainly come from Koreans studying or living abroad, but sometimes we get questions or requests in regard to traditional costumes from non-Korean customers and that's always a little surprising.
How are non-Korean customers different from ethnic Korean customers?
They usually look for authentic traditional costumes as seen in saguks, which are TV series inspired by history. The royal dresses, like the dangeui and daeryebok, are especially popular items. Many prefer normal, traditional and basic designs. Many gain knowledge from saguks. One customer even requested a Joseon era outer garment, called a cheolik, having found the romanized spelling via a Google search. A Belgian lady asked about the costumes from the TV series "Queen Seondeok" (2009), via Kakao Talk, more than five times, and promised to visit the store next year during her future visit to Korea.
What are your future goals and what does Hanbok mean to you?
My goal is to conquer the world with Hanbok. Facebook and Instagram have surprisingly allowed me to talk freely with non-Koreans who have an interest in Korea and in Hanbok.
To me, Hanbok are my daily bread and dreams. All ordinary experiences lead to Hanbok. Even when I gaze at men's formal shirts, I imagine using the fabric to embody the lines of Hanbok and even go further by making it a reality.
By Wi Tack-whan, Paik Hyun
Korea.net Staff Writers