Traditional Korean garments inspire a designer's homecoming

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Traditional Korean garments inspire a designer's homecoming
A handout photo shows Christina Kim’s hanging installation of jeogori, the top layer of traditional Korean clothing known as habok, in a show at the Arumjigi Culture Keepers Foundation in Seoul. Below it is a screen showing 1960s footage of a surviving court dancer from the Joseon dynasty, whose reign ended in 1910. (Arumjigi Foundation/Guru Visual/Jongkeun Lee via The New York Times)

by Andrew Russeth



SEOUL.- One recent rainy afternoon, Los Angeles-based fashion designer Christina Kim was standing in a traditional-style Korean house and excitedly pointing out details on elegant white garments that were floating around her, perched on hangers attached to black bamboo rails near the wood ceiling.

They were examples of the jeogori — the sleeved top layer of the hanbok, the term for traditional Korean clothing — made by copying pieces from throughout the first half of the 20th century, as its form changed with the times.

“I thought it’d be really wonderful to kind of see the progression,” said Kim, who conceived slight alterations for some of them. Around 1920, a Western influence became apparent, she said, motioning to a garment with a round neckline, whose body she had lengthened. “This looks like a Chanel jacket!” she said with a laugh.

The display suggests both a fashion showroom and an art installation, and it is part of a show called “Blurring Boundaries: Hanbok Revisited” that Kim is opening Saturday at the Arumjigi Culture Keepers Foundation. A multifarious nonprofit, the foundation was started in 2001 to safeguard and spread traditional Korean culture after periods of neglect and suppression, such as during Japan’s brutal colonization.

The show is a sort of homecoming for Kim, who was born in Seoul in 1957 and left at 15 for the United States to be with her mother, Vivian, in Los Angeles. She went to the University of Washington, where she was mentored by painter Jacob Lawrence. He encouraged her to study fresco painting in Italy, she said, and from there she found her way into fashion.

In 1984, she established a label with her mother. They named it Dosa (Kim’s mother’s nickname, meaning “sage” in Korean). She hunted down natural materials and artisans to collaborate with around the world and focused on sustainability, saving scraps for future projects (some became scarves at Arumjigi) or turning them into compact amulets. The opposite of fast fashion, Dosa has an ardent following.

Kim has been back to South Korea at various moments, but this is her first solo show in the country, and she was thinking as “somebody who’s spent 50 years away,” she said. “What do you share with your countrymen?” Her response is imbued with her personal history, and Korean history, and it includes dozens of new pieces that take inspiration from traditional garments.

One is an ensemble with a luminous mint robe that, she said, is “for my grandmother,” who was from Jeju Island, south of the Korean Peninsula.

“I love the color of the wave when it breaks in Seogwipo,” she said. “That’s where my family is from. It has a lot of algae, some kind of seaweed color.” A white slip beneath the robe is based on a design for undergarments that her grandmother made, she said. “I copied it exactly.”

Arumjigi was set up to host precisely this type of affair. Founded by philanthropist Yun Gyun S. Hong, the organization’s chair, it commissions designers to offer new takes on the past, and it organizes an annual exhibition about Korean clothing, living spaces or food, at its sleek four-story headquarters just outside the stone walls of Gyeongbokgung, the largest of Seoul’s five royal palaces.

The traditional home, a tiled-roof hanok, now housing some of Kim’s show is perched on the second floor of the contemporary building, an example of Arumjigi’s efforts to bring tradition into the present. (Arumjigi translates its name as “people who preserve and nurture our beautiful culture.”)

Its early efforts included cleaning palaces in Seoul and renovating traditional homes in the city and in the countryside. “Twenty years ago, everybody wanted to demolish the hanok,” said Ji Hye Shin, Arumjigi’s director. The foundation instead “wanted to show people how to use hanok more practically,” by installing some modern touches. Such residences have become increasingly popular tourist attractions in the intervening years, amid a renewed interest in Korea’s past.

Arumjigi also consults on a variety of heritage projects, and in 2017 co-organized a show of Korean fashion at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum.




Beyond certain special occasions, the hanbok is not regularly worn today, but Arumjigi’s chief curator, Soyeun Kim, said she wanted people to see that the attire “is not a hard thing.”

“It’s an easy thing to wear, everywhere, anytime, whenever we want.”

To create some of her new pieces, Kim worked with artisans at Arumjigi’s sister organization, Onjium (“creating in the right way”), a research institute that also focuses on traditional Korean clothing, housing and food, studying how they were crafted in the past and making new products. (The institute also runs a restaurant by the same name with one Michelin star.)

“I don’t have the skill set to make in the traditional way,” she said. Kim and the artisans worked together on the hanging jeogori.

For buttons, Kim went to ceramist Inchin Lee, who has shown at Arumjigi; he also contributed porcelains whose tranquil whites echo the fabrics in some of her garments. “Korea, it’s very strong in crafts, because of tradition, thanks to our ancestors,” Lee said in a phone interview. “I think it’s almost impossible to make the same quality of work, but I think that we can do something beyond the tradition.” Arumjigi, he said, “kept what is important for us.”

In South Korea, scholarship on historical dress at universities has been “very much declining for the past 30 years,” said Minjee Kim, an independent scholar of Korean textiles and fashion in the San Francisco Bay Area. In “some aspects,” Kim said, “Arumjigi is filling in that gap,” but she said that its focus had largely remained technical and that it should take a more interdisciplinary approach.

“Blurring Boundaries” contains hints of the many threats that Korea’s heritage has endured. Black-and-white footage that Robert Garfias, an ethnomusicologist, shot in the 1960s shows a surviving court dancer of the Joseon dynasty, whose 500-year reign ended in 1910 with Japan’s colonization, which itself ended because of World War II. In a nearby room, there is a slideshow of photographs by Han Youngsoo of daily life in Seoul beginning in the 1950s, as it recovered from the Korean War.

Watching those slides, Christina Kim explained that the way Korean women lift and hold part of their skirt as they walk quickly led her to make her wraparound “Eungie” skirt. It is named for Eungie Joo, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s curator and head of contemporary art, who had a Miao skirt from China with a shape that led her to its design. Kim has built a column out of a number of them in Arumjigi’s stairwell, a wild spiral of textures and colors that she likened to the minaret at the Great Mosque of Samarra in Iraq.

Joo was a Dosa client before meeting Kim, and in an interview said the designer was “a colleague, older sister, creative thinker and this great role model.” When she organized a major public art show in Anyang, south of Seoul, in 2016, she tapped Kim to create an installation of pillows, as well as vests for docents. She was “ecologically thinking about scraps and recycling since before anybody else,” Joo said.

After growing up in Seoul when she did, Kim said she had a sense of being part of “a culture that was born out of not having much.” She lived in a hanok with an earthen floor and got water with her grandmother in a nearby park.

“What I learned was how to do things with leftovers, right? In every form of life,” she said. “And then traveling around the world, that’s what I love more than anything else, is really looking at resources, and how do you maximize the resources?”

As she wandered her show, Kim shared stories about how she had found different materials, speaking of marigold flowers and dried pomegranate shells that provided color; fabrics she developed in Cambodia, Myanmar and India; and paper made from agave in Oaxaca, Mexico — an exhibition as memoir.

How did it feel to now be back in South Korea? Kim thought for a moment and recalled what an industrial designer who worked on the show, Jongbuhm Kim, had told her. “I am like a salmon,” she said. “I was born in the river, I swam to the ocean, and I’m coming back.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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