We had a chance to speak with the legendary fashion designer Lee Young-hee before her death at the age of 82 in 2018. She drew on ancient Korean tradition and influenced some of the most prominent designers of our time. It’s this kind of wisdom, infused into contemporary life, that we hope to keep alive as we share Young-hee’s story with you.
Seoul in autumn speaks to one’s spirit, with the refreshing beauty of its gentle sun-kissed shades married with the golden hues of fallen leaves. It’s no wonder the world’s most famous Korean designer draws inspiration from her surroundings.
Lee Young-hee, the trendy traditional designer influencing the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, says her ancestors took traditional Korean clothing (hanbok) as true art, with natural colours as their signature brush strokes. Wearing one of her own magenta-hued hanbok dresses, Young-hee approaches me, as apologetic as energetic. She thinks she’s kept me waiting too long, but watching this spirited 80-year-old wrap up her 40th-anniversary hanbok exhibition was a gift in itself.
After tea and talking, I saw a source of inspiration reaching beyond entrepreneurial or even creative.
“I not only run a business of fashion, but of my good intentions,” she says. A pure heart is not only driving her to revive a lost art, it’s what’s enabling her to do so. Her hanbok exhibits at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, her own Lee Young Hee Korean Museum of Culture in Manhattan, and her celebrity hanbok aficionados (such as South Korean presidents, first ladies and Giorgio Armani) prove her belief that authentic Korean culture is universal and should be enjoyed around the globe.
If the Japanese kimono is a household term, Korea’s traditional hanbok is soon to follow, thanks to Young-hee’s hard work. This artform is hallmarked by the full, high skirt (chima), petticoat (mujigi) and long-sleeved top (jeogori) adorned with long ties (goreum). A traditional headpiece (binyeo) and embroidered footwear round out a Korean gentle lady’s attire, each piece measured and made to order.
Hanbok’s roots date back to the Three Kingdoms of Korea (57 BC – 668 AD), drawing inspiration from Buddhism and China’s golden age, the Tang Dynasty. Mainly made of silk, cotton or ramie fabric, the colours of sleeves or ribbons signified social class or season.
At the age of 40, fearless and determined, the seamstress Young-hee decided to open a hanbok shop, moved by the words of South Korea’s forefather, Kim Koo:
“Our forces are those of culture, which will give us happiness and more. I really hope that our nation will not imitate the fruits of other nations, but that it becomes the source, the goal and the model of elegance, innovative culture and realizing peace for the world.”
Though filled with idealism and devotion to her heritage, Young-hee wasn’t prepared for the hurdles that lay ahead.
No loss, no gain
Before Young-hee could even begin to revive and reinvent hanbok, she wrestled with the most basic piece of the puzzle — the fabric. Typically, in countries with a thriving fashion industry, a wide range of textiles would be available. But four decades ago, when she started, South Korea’s fashion boom was yet to come, making sophisticated fabrics a scarcity for Young-hee.
A problem-solving entrepreneur at heart, Young-hee found solutions in ancient Korean tradecraft that had been all but forgotten. Old-world weaving techniques, exquisite paintings applied directly to the cloth, layered embroidery and brilliant sheen dyeing were among the ways she beautified the fabrics.
Intertwined with the revival of her lost heritage was the reawakening of the quintessential Korean spirit behind the design — regal elegance, virtuous grace, harmonizing beauty. But the visionary still beckoned for more — a better fabric.
Her search led her to organza, a thin, translucent fabric made from silk, usually used for bridal and evening wear. Adding two layers of lining inside the organza and dyeing each layer of fabric a different colour conjured a unique multidimensional richness when overlapped.
But with organza’s delicate nature and loosely woven fibers, the sewing stitch was too easily loosened. Again, Young-hee saw opportunity in opposition. In her research, she discovered a traditional Korean sewing method, stitching the edges three times. The extra craftwork added hours to each dress and ballooned the cost.
While to some, art and economics become a balancing act, Young-hee stayed true to traditions by remembering what the ancients would have done.
Realizing that beauty is an endless pursuit of perfection, she ignored the higher price tag. But just when she thought she’d found a fabric that would enable her creativity to take form, her marketers revealed another flaw — due to its light weight, it could only be seasonal.
It’s true; centuries ago, organza wouldn’t have been suitable. But with the advent of air conditioners and heaters, Young-hee ignored these worries and trusted her intuition. She never looked back, and neither did the fashion industry, which embraced her ornate hanbok clothing.
Despite the sweat and toil she put into her works of art, as Young-hee’s hanbok dresses popped up in boutiques around the country, her efforts were still unrecognized. Her mother’s words often encouraged her, “You must lead your life faithfully, without taking the words and actions of others to heart; one day the truth will be revealed.”
In her 1993 official international debut at Prêt-à-Porter Paris, she introduced her line “Clothes of Wind,” a reinvention of classic hanbok.
A slightly slimmed dressline, classical high waistline, shimmering fairy-like fabrics and rich colours that make you look like aristocracy were among the characteristics of Young-hee’s modern hanbok, which enamored the world’s most critical fashion critics.
“As time and lifestyles change, people think hanboks are no longer suitable to wear in daily life,” says Young-hee. “Some changes must be made to have the beauty of hanboks passed down.”
Like her mother once told her, by being true to herself, the world would one day take notice. It has. It surely has.