Lee Young-hee: “I have a vision of setting hanbok as one of the world’s top luxury choices.”
Lee Do-eun

Staff Reporter
The JoongAng Ilbo

It must be admitted. Hanbok seldom receives attention in the Korean local press. It is only during the most important traditional holidays such as the Lunar New Year or Chuseok, Korean Thanksgiving, when Korean fashion reporters turn to traditional Korean dresses and their designers. Overall, the traditional dress is not too closely affiliated to the modern daily life of Koreans anymore.
However, Lee Young-hee, 74, one of the most celebrated hanbok designers, remains steadfast in stature. Since her successful debut in the 1993 Pret-a-Porter Paris, she has established herself as the nation’s pioneering traditional style dress designer, organizing more than 400 overseas fashion shows. Her unwavering passion for the Korean traditional costume, which once had been simply regarded as “Korean kimono,” helped the hanbok find a unique place in global fashion. As part of her passionate efforts, Lee opened the Lee Young Hee Museum in Manhattan, New York, in 2004, which boasts a fine exhibition of her exquisite works. She also donated her designer dress sets to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History to promote Korea’s cultural heritage.
Now Lee is opting for her next project, which is to raise global awareness of the artistic and pragmatic values of Korean fine ramie fabrics (or mosi in Korean). In July 2010, she launched her first customer-tailored haute couture fashion show in Paris with extensive use of the native Korean textile, which traditionally has been used for summer clothes. In an interview conducted at Maison de Lee Young Hee in the posh Shinsa-dong in southern Seoul, she talked about her life achievement as the nation’s leading fashion designer, as well as about her latest mosi project.
Now the Evangelist of Mosi Fabrics
Lee’s fashion hallmark is a graceful wraparound long skirt (chima) in duo with exquisitely embroidered strapless bodice. In New York, this modernized version of Korean national dress earned her designs such accolades as “the clothes of the wind." As she simplified the conventional set of the multi-piece Korean costume by separating the jacket (jeogori), her dress gained a modern character so it is appropriate as an evening gown. The modern twist was an “egg of Columbus,” indeed. Sixteen years after the critical New York catwalk, Lee is currently working on her next Columbi project ― the mosi fabrics.
Q. You have turned into a mosi missionary.
A. Mosi fabrics have been the most fascinating textile throughout my fashion career. I was amazed with its unique texture and the rejuvenating character. When put on, the fiber seems to become easily frayed. But once washed and starched, it simply regains the original textural beauty. Especially, I noted that Korean mosi fabrics are of exceptionally high quality. While I have long been dreaming of expanding my aesthetic focus from tradition-inspired dress designs to traditional textiles, the South Chungcheong provincial government asked me last April to weave hanbok sets using the region’s native “Hansan Mosi” as part of its international mosi festival. I was glad to be selected as lead designer for the significant fashion project, over the nation’s famous western-style designers such as Andre Kim and Lee Sang-bong. They picked me in recognition of my expertise in traditional dress.
Q. In promoting Korean ramie fabrics, are there reasons for your choice of haute couture shows instead of pret-a-porter releases?
A. I insisted on showcasing my designs on high-fashion client-tailored haute couture, in consideration of the fabrics’ upscale features. For the highly exclusive upmarket reach, I have created 36 sets of hanbok dress using Korean traditional ramie fabrics on the theme of “pine, bamboo, plum and orchid” (“song, juk, mae, ran,” which are the four important symbolic plants in traditional East Asian aesthetic pursuits). It was an arduous procedure, entailing extensive and laborious works of dyeing, painting, calligraphy and embroidery. The audience response was enthusiastic, spurring me to prepare for another showcase next year.
Q. Don’t you see any limitation in using the traditional fabric as it has been conventionally regarded as summer textile?
A. Not at all. If you wrap a ramie scarp around the neck in winter, it gives you enormous warmth. Some complain that this fabric is too stiff and rough but it can be very wearable when woven with silk yarn or sufficiently smoothed by being hit with a wooden roller. On top of that, if natural dyeing techniques are applied, it is completely transformed into a perfect high class textile, like cashmere.
Lee’s VIP Clientele Include Celebrity Designers and First Ladies 
In May, Lee was put into the media spotlight, with the public recognizing her brand as “Ko So-young Hanbok,” named after the popular actress who just married the much admired movie star Jang Dong-gun. Before the wedding, the superstar couple visited Lee’s boutique to place a string of orders. “It was not because of any celebrity marketing tactics on my part. I did not have any personal contact with Ms. Ko before her visit,” Lee said. “They paid in full for the orders made for their relatives, while I presented the couple’s own tailored dresses as a wedding gift in gratitude for their choice of my clothes.” She was also proud to say that Miuccia Prada and Giorgio Armani visited her boutique during their stays in Seoul.
Lee’s most exclusive list of clients includes Korea’s first ladies. Most, if not all, of them have worn her dresses, Lee said. Half the traditional Korean wardrobes of Mrs. Chun Doo-hwan (Lady Lee Soon-ja) carried Lee’s brand name, while Mrs. Roh Tae-woo (Lady Kim Ok-sook) would put on only Lee’s handmade works. The incumbent Mrs. Lee Myung-bak (Lady Kim Yoon-ok) also put on Lee’s dress set consisting of light green overcoat (durumagi) and golden-hued long skirt when attending her husband’s inauguration in February 2008.
Q. You have maintained strong ties with the first ladies throughout your career.
A. I was very lucky. Mrs. Roh Tae-woo is my high school senior and I also studied with Mrs. Lee Myung-bak at Ewha Womans University’s Graduate School. I had known Mrs. Chun Doo-hwan long before her husband entered the Blue House (presidential mansion Cheong Wa Dae) as both of our spouses were serving for the military. But I met Mrs. Kim Young-sam (Lady Sohn Myung-soon) and Mrs. Kim Dae-jung (Lady Lee Hee-ho) for the first time at the Blue House. I get calls from the presidential office to make dresses for the first ladies. Then, either the ladies visit my boutique or I visit their residence to take their measurements.
Q. Do you stay in touch with the first ladies after they leave the presidential mansion?
A. Mrs. Chun visited me to place orders for her husband’s 80th birthday. I have not met Mrs. Roh lately as she always stays close to her husband, who is ailing. She would always visit my shop whenever she had an important occasion, such as overseas courtesy calls. She was very kind to introduce me to her relatives, who wanted to purchase my dresses as wedding gifts.
Q. Personally, which of the first ladies do you think looked most beautiful in a traditional dress?
A. I think Mrs. Roh was the perfect fit for Korean dress. She has a delicate oval face, graceful neck silhouette and narrow shoulders. She beamed with graceful aura when she put on a Korean dress in harmonious, elegant light colors. Her husband’s presidency may be politically controversial but she was the VIP who highlighted the elegance of my clothes.
Q. What do you remember about other first ladies?
A. Mrs. Chun preferred glamorous looks, while Mrs. Kim Young-sam used to choose low-chroma fabrics adorned with vivid-tint embroidery. I wished that Mrs. Kim Dae-jung and Mrs. Roh Moo-hyun (Lady Kwon Yang-sook) had worn traditional dresses more often during their overseas visits or other official occasions. I also hope the incumbent first lady would wear Korean traditional dresses more frequently. I find that her looks are greatly enhanced when she is wearing a Korean dress rather than western-style clothes.
Promoting Hanbok Up to the Fame of Luxuries
“Louis Vuitton bags are the must-haves for the fashion-minded public and a Chanel piece is sold every few seconds around the world. I have a vision of setting hanbok as one of the world’s top luxury choices,” Lee said. She is determined to develop the Korean traditional dress at home and abroad through accelerated investments. Her daughter and designer Lee Jung-woo is working in both European and Korean fashion businesses, succeeding her mother’s dream.
Q. What are the strategies to promote hanbok as luxury wear?
A. I see the groundwork for its global ascent to fame has been laid. What I would hope for is the government’s strategic support to lift public awareness in the global arena. Designers will need to operate boutiques in the heart of high fashion megapolises such as New York and Paris.
Lee closed her two flagship stores in those cities during the 1997-98 Asian currency crisis while managing to keep afloat the Lee Young Hee Museum in Manhattan, thanks mainly to the financial support by the Korean-American community.
Q. What is your interpretation of hanbok in the modern context?
A. We should not be obsessed with the formal tradition. Foreigners would find it difficult and uncomfortable to put on Korean dress when it is attached with all those traditional intricate ornaments and formalities such as the white collar (dongjeong) and the tie ribbon coat-strings (goreum). Hanbok should be wearable and desirable for the wide public. While keeping the tradition of superb fabrics and gracious silhouettes, hanbok needs to establish itself as a wearable design costume such as Chanel and Prada. As we understand that it may not be a popular, convenient choice for modern daily life, we should find a niche at developing its voluminous design into evening gowns and other more formal robes.
Q. Some argue that the potential for globalization of the traditional Korean dress is quite limited for various reasons.
A. I would like to ask them if they have ever studied the aesthetic values and the versatility of the Korean traditional garments in earnest. What they think of hanbok is only the fabricated coarse textiles they use for mass production. They should really get to know from the very basics such as delicate fabrics and the subtlety in coloring.
Q. The government’s efforts to globalize Korean traditional culinary culture are widely known. Why do you think the traditional dress falls behind in the nation’s strategic cultural priority?
A. I feel sorry that the government and the press often focus solely on the culinary part of Korean traditional living culture. I think the synergy effect should be remarkable when the cultural aspects of food and clothing are combined. About four years ago, the Korean Cultural Center New York organized a press event, inviting more than 100 U.S. journalists to a Korean traditional formal dinner. I suggested they present a hanbok fashion show alongside. Foreigners expressed keen interests in the catwalk, which complemented and even perfected the extravagant event. Such efforts to promote traditional culture should involve both food and fashion.
Q. What do you want to say to the younger designers who want to capitalize on Korea’s traditional fashion heritage?
A. They should acquire the relevant expertise in the global fashion and luxury trends. The world of fashion also requires the designers to understand the global economy, including the changing consumer demands and environmental evolutions. For example, my idea to promote mosi fabrics is in line with the climate change. As the planet is gradually heated up, light-weight textiles and lining-less designs are in vogue now.
<Lee’s Mini Memoirs>
“Hanbok is Not Kimono Coreen”
 Kim Jun-sul
Staff Reporter
The JoongAng Ilbo
Her First Overseas Show
In July 1983, U.S. cabinet secretaries, senators and their spouses posed as models to showcase Lee Young-hee’s dresses in Washington, D.C. Men were dressed in dopo, or the Korean overcoat traditionally worn by Confucian noblemen, and put on gat, or the traditional horsehair hat. Women wore colorful costumes of fine ramie fabric, called mosi. It was the much celebrated hanbok designer Lee Young-hee’s first advance onto foreign soil.
“I was determined to deliver Korea’s aesthetic tradition to the high-ranking participants of the charity fashion show,” recalls Lee. An enthusiastic response from the international audience boosted her self-confidence as an artist; it led her to pursue her dream of turning Korean traditional dress into globally admired luxury clothes.
That Washington show was a sheer luck for Lee. She replaced a designer who was supposed to present her works at the show. “I was a pinch hitter. I took 50 sets of costumes to exhibit in Washington. I was fortunate to have so many dresses from my previous catwalks at home,” Lee said. Most of the costumes showcased in Washington at the time came from her charity fund-raising show that had taken place two months earlier in Changdeok Palace, where Princess Bang-ja (Masako), widow of Yi Eun, the last crown prince of the Joseon Dynasty, resided.
“The Clothes of the Wind”
“Back then, hanbook was often called ‘kimono coreen,’” Lee said. The Korean dresses were regarded as some fake imitations of Japanese kimono. Resentful and desperate, Lee was eager to change the widespread misconception and introduce foreign fashion-minded public to the true beauty of Korean dress. She launched a Korean dress show in an Orangerie exhibition in Paris under the theme of “The Clothes of the Wind,” displaying evening gown-style sleeveless bodices combined with luxurious long skirts. The low-cut crop tops elegantly revealed women’s upper cleavage, while the light-woven skirts waltzed to the rhythm of the breeze. That modern adaptation of Korean traditional dress became Lee’s design hallmark.
The expenditure to prepare for the upscale Paris exhibition was sizable at 350 million won, of which 250 million won was financed by the designer out of her own pocket. “I stuck to my rule of reinvesting money earned through my hanbok business to heighten the image of hanbok around the world,” Lee said. “I was almost ready to sell all of my possessions to finance the significant exhibition.”
Durumagi for Global Leaders
Lee designed Korean-style dresses for the global leaders to attend the 2005 forum of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) held in Busan. Her choice for the heads of state from 21 countries was the traditional durumagi overcoat. “To reflect the brilliant natural environment of the forum venue, I opted for seven colors in dyeing the fabrics ― the deep blue of the ocean and the sky, the golden hue of fertile soil, the grey that resembles the traditional roof tiles, the green of pine trees, and so on,” she said.
Her key concern was U.S. President George W. Bush. “I heard that he knew fashion. Some said that he did not particularly like the poncho he wore during the APEC forum in Chile in the previous year. Additionally, I had to wait long to get to know his measurements, which arrived at the very last moment.” As she recalls, President Bush was the first of the participating leaders who showed up to take a close look at his coat before the forum started. After the forum, when suggested by his staff to get his coat delivered, he wanted to carry it himself. “I felt so proud that the global celebrities modeled for my works,” Lee said.
Dreams for Exquisite Mosi Fabrics
Lee’s design house organized an haute couture fashion show in Paris on July 6, under the theme of “The Excursion of the Ladies” with extensive use of the top-quality mosi textiles from Hansan, South Chungcheong Province. The fabrics were adorned with images of apricot flowers and the “four gentlemen,” or the plum, orchid, chrysanthemum and bamboo. Models walked the stage, wearing elegant bamboo hats, which used to be worn by gisaeng, the traditional female entertainers of the Joseon Dynasty. “Woven with silk yarns and gold threads, one roll of upscale mosi may be priced at as much as 7 million won,” Lee said.
Her Favorite Vintage Accessories
Toward the end of the interview, Lee was so pleased as to offer to show some of her fashion jewelry pieces. Especially remarkable was her collection of 24 vintage rings. Some were gifts from friends and younger designers, while others she bought during her overseas trips. Most of her favorite rings were made of affordable jewelry stones such as violet amethyst and silver, while none of the rings were made of diamond or other expensive stones. “Personally, I don’t appreciate the much glittering of classic precious stones as a match for daytime dresses. The glittering stones should go better with evening gowns under the dim light.” She emphasized that she finds the rings with large stones very fashionable accessories as she believes they accentuate the artistic character of the wearer.                                   
[September 18, 2010]