Hanbok get modern makeover before hitting the catwalks of Milan
Hanbok, or Korean traditional clothing, made a statement on the runway at Milan Fashion Week Spring/Summer (S/S) 2023, which was held in late September.
Two local fashion brands, BlueTamburin and Leesle, successfully flaunted their respective new collections.
BlueTamburin, Korea’s first and only fashion brand that’s been invited to all of the four major fashion weeks (New York, London, Milan and Paris), presented classic Western-style dresses that were made from traditional hanbok fabric while Leesle, a local hanbok brand, reinterpreted hanbok with a modern and casual twist.
Before heading over to the Milan show, however, designer Bomin Kim of BlueTamburin was faced with a challenge.
Kim initially thought that showing off her collections to the international audience was enough to tacitly represent her home country. But as time passed, she started wondering, “what exactly is ‘K-fashion’?”
“Everyone’s asking me what it is, and what better example is there than hanbok?” Kim said in an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily last week. “But when you try to find the starting and end point to tradition, that’s when it starts becoming very vague.”
Kim realized that it bore great significance to introduce hanbok especially from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), to international audiences, and their beauty, as much as she could. She decided to add some spice to the garments: Her new collection would be centered on Western-style dresses made from traditional hanbok fabric and dyed using natural techniques.
For the Milan show, she also wanted to bring along another brand that had already established a reputation in promoting Korean fashion, which is how Leesle came into the picture.
Leesle Hwang, CEO and designer of the brand, specializes in modern hanbok. Leesle has offline stores in Jeonju in North Jeolla, and Hongdae in western Seoul, and also manages an online store. The brand is a celebrity favorite — BTS’s Jimin wore hanbok slacks from the brand during the Melon Music Awards in 2018, and other K-pop acts like KARD and Mamamoo have stunned its looks on stage, all since Leesle launched in 2014.
Kim and Hwang met through a metaverse-related fashion project by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy earlier this year.
“Her hanbok designs were just so beautiful,” Kim said. “I knew that she had to come to Milan — even if it meant dividing my own show. And like I had anticipated, the people at Milan Fashion Week loved Leesle’s designs and finally invited her to the show.”
“Hanbok is such a fascinating piece of clothing, but it always stops there,” Hwang said. “There is no doubt that everyone knows that hanbok is beautiful, but no one ever wants to wear it. It was important for me to find a way to turn hanbok into something that people can wear casually.”
Although it was Leesle’s first fashion week show in Milan, the brand had previously been introduced at other overseas fairs.
“We saw miserable results,” Hwang recalled. “I had made the hanbok pieces too ‘Korean,’ so they did not appeal enough to foreigners. Commercially, they did not sell well.”
“It’s inevitable that we design them in a way that relates to the international audience,” Kim agreed. “It cannot be only about taking pride in our culture; it’s about knowing what the world wants first, and then expressing it Korean-style.”
In recent years, with Korean culture permeating its way into the hearts of fans all over the world, hanbok has also been seeing impressive publicity. The modernized hanbok outfits worn by K-pop acts like BTS in its music video for the track “Idol” (2018) and Blackpink in its “How You Like That” (2020) music video caused quite a stir among fans. And Netflix’s “Squid Game” (2021) star Hoyeon stunned overseas media when she wore Louis Vuitton with a traditional Korean hair ribbon, or daenggi, at the Screen Actors Guild Awards back in March.
Likewise, both BlueTamburin and Leesle’s hanbok-inspired collection for Milan saw heaps of positive reactions from both the guests and buyers who attended the show.
“I went around asking fashion insiders for some feedback and insight about my collection, and a lot of them strongly recommended that I sell my pieces in Europe,” Hwang said. “Some even asked for the prices and bought them right on the spot!”
However, fusing modern elements into hanbok can lead to mixed reactions from the general public at times, as “when something is labeled as hanbok, then it becomes subject to criticism very easily,” Hwang said, “especially when the final product deviates from the traditional hanbok format that people tend to think is the only correct answer.”
BlueTamburin’s “Constellation Myth” collection is made “100 percent from silk, and not just any, it’s silk used in hanbok — the weaving and width are different,” Kim said. The show kicked off with a long, cream-colored dress that had large frills on its collar and Venus from Italian artist Sandro Botticelli’s masterpiece “The Birth of Venus” (c. 1484-86) painted conspicuously on its lower right side.
“My teenage daughter, Lia, wants to be an artist,” Kim explained. “So she drew Venus on the dress. I wanted to give her a chance to follow her dreams, so she has been painting on my previous collections as well.”
While BlueTamburin aimed for classic, 19th-century European silhouettes featuring flowers, large bonnets and corsets (think French artist Georges Seurat’s masterpiece “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” (1884-86)), Leesle strived for wearable street casual.
The first outfit featured highly distressed jeans matched with a cropped sleeveless hanbok top. Other pieces sported norigae, a traditional tassel accessory, and jeogori, the jacket part of hanbok, that was stylized as a modernized suit jacket.
“It was difficult to balance out the proportions of hanbok and casualwear,” Hwang said. “So I decided to just present the entire spectrum: Some pieces adhered to the traditional look, and some others were drastically modified to the point that it doesn’t look anything at all like hanbok. The jeans are in the same context — I’ve always wanted to recreate jeans with a hanbok style and show that hanbok doesn’t necessarily always need to be a formal mood.”
“I thought that it represented ‘hip Korea,’” Kim added. “Hanbok encompasses all generations, but it can also be for people who want to be trendy.”
BY SHIN MIN-HEE [firstname.lastname@example.org]