Couture Korea: From Far East to West Coast

I was surprised and proud to see my name on the wall of an exhibition in San Francisco. When I saw that the words were about Korean designer Jin Teok, I recalled instantly the layers of thin, white fabric, like wispy clouds, that the celebrated designer had shown me in her Seoul boutique – and what she had told me about her reverence of, and reference to, her country’s past. I also vividly remembered the trail, as fine as thread, that she had traced through her family’s origins and native culture over the last half-century.

“Jin Teok’s clothes are like a poem. They speak from her soul, sometimes as a whisper, occasionally with a shout, always with grace,” I wrote in 2015 when I was preparing for the second Condé Nast International Luxury Conference in South Korea.

Until I saw the newly opened “Couture Korea” at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco (until 4 February 2018) I had not realised the steadfast history – from the 13th to the 19th century – that had defined how the nation dressed. In Seoul, I was charmed by the sight of young women returning to the colourful Hanbok (mostly to take selfies, according to the curator, Hyonjeong Kim Han). But the Californian museum gave me an infinitely wider vision than my memories of K-Pop, G-Dragon, Gangnam Style and Seoul Fashion Week, where the shows seemed to fuse male and female clothing in a modern way.

My ideas about that gender-neutral dress sense were challenged when I saw the extraordinarily detailed his’n’hers clothing traditionally worn by boy and girl babies to this day. The baby boy’s colourful outfit, each piece symbolising luck and hope, had a tiger hat to protect him from evil spirits; while the baby girl’s bonnet was decorated with chrysanthemum-shaped knots, symbolising the sun and perfection.

Hyonjeong Kim Han has provided a lesson in Korean culture through this display of exquisitely delicate dress, although the curator reconstructed most of the historic clothes to reveal how the garments were made, as well as their sophistication, choice of materials and social purpose. The final rooms of the exhibition show the work of two designers using 21st-century fabrics and vision. For example, Im Seonoc’s fashion brand, PartspARTs, is made entirely from Neoprene, specially constructed to prevent waste; while Jung Misun has re-imagined the delicate traditional fabrics in sturdier materials such as jersey, wool and cotton.

“Couture Korea” is an inspirational title from the curator, for the long history of the Hanbok is entirely of handwork. Each historic article, noble or delicate, was made to order, mostly, of course, for the high end of society.

Alongside Jin Teok’s outfits, which she showed during Paris Fashion Week in the 1990s, is the Korean-inspired collection from Chanel Cruise in 2016.

According to Hyonjeong Kim Han, at the time Karl Lagerfeld felt that Korean art was still unknown to the international fashion community and hoped that his work would inspire future fashion generations. The Chanel collection included a silk organza dress inspired by mother of pearl, and another recreating traditional Korean fabric with a Korean alphabet pattern that Karl described as being “like Cubism”.

Lagerfeld also gave credit to one of his right-hand women, Kim Young-Seong, Fabric Director of Chanel, and her ability to find inspiration in ancient creations as well as today’s K-Pop world.

Between the rooms showing the extraordinary historical pieces and the space devoted to Jin Teok and Chanel, is a film that reveals the lightness of the garments in motion, capturing them wafting across the screen.

Hyonjeong Kim Han says that this exhibition is the first in the entire length and breadth of the United States to look at Asian clothing. Perhaps the flow of people from the Far East to the West Coast – and the overall focus of the museum – has made San Francisco an obvious destination for the subject. But the Asian Art Museum seems to be particularly dynamic, with an expansion plan imminent and a new pavilion to be built next year.

“Couture Korea” proves that in the often choked-up calendar of museum fashion exhibitions, there are still fascinating new subjects to explore that are fresh and full of feeling.

“Couture Korea” is at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco until 4th February 2018 (