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Designers add a modern twist to hanbok style : Government is keen to show the world the versatility of Korea’s traditional attire

Dec 13,2017
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Designer Yu Hyun-hwa, left, describes hanbok, Korean traditional attire. Model Han Hyun-min, right, wears Yu’s work. [HANBOK ADVANCEMENT CENTER]
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The Korean government is eager to promote the beauty of hanbok, the traditional attire of Korea, to modern people and to the world, but the fact that hardly anyone wears it in their everyday lives isn’t helping with its efforts. In order to bridge that gap, the Hanbok Advancement Center under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, holds various events to bring the beauty of hanbok into people’s wardrobes.

This year, following a moonlight fashion show held on Oct. 20 at the annual Hanbok Day, the advancement center held “The Modern Hanbok - Dynamic Difference” fashion show in Gangnam District, southern Seoul on Dec. 5. The show featured modern interpretations of hanbok by five designers - Yu Hyun-hwa, Cho Jin-woo, Park Hyun-sook, Kim Min-ji and Kwon Hea-jin - who each highlighted the different sides of hanbok and its potential as clothing that is wearable in our everyday lives.

The five designers all had a different approach to the attire, from traditional femininity to modern androgyny, meeting the different desires of contemporary fashionistas. Designer Cho’s dresses were the most faithful to the traditions of hanbok, with a short top and layers of long skirts that give the bottom half volume. The pastel-colored roses that models wore in their hair gave the dress a Western twist.

Park’s dresses were the most modern, with the dresses made to fit just short above the knee, and coming in bright, candy-like colors such as baby pink and sky blue to give off a young look targeted to outgoing women in their 20s. Kim’s dress-like outfit looked traditional from afar, but what looked like an ordinary hanbok skirt was actually high-waisted pants with a top adorned with bold flower patterns. Kwon’s dress-like coats were the only single-piece outfits of the evening, and the designer used bold colors to go with the outfit’s minimal details.

Designer Yu’s garments added modern touches to the traditional vibe of hanbok. Without using many colors, the designer created a unisex chic ambiance by mixing elements of male and female hanbok into her designs. While the long vest and wide pants were inspired by men’s hanbok, the blouse-like top with wide sleeves and the accessories were taken from women’s hanbok.

“I’ve designed modern hanbok in the past, but to be honest, they weren’t that wearable - we just called it that,” said Yu in an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily at her hanbok salon near Hongdae, western Seoul. “But this time, I was eager to design something that I could actually wear myself. I changed every detail to fit people’s everyday lives, such as design, the colors and the material.”

According to Yu, who has been designing hanbok for more than 15 years, the demand for hanbok saw a stark fall earlier this decade, along with the falling marriage rate. “Traditional hanbok was considered a must for newlyweds for a part of their wedding, as well as another set of hanbok they could wear afterwards. But now that less people are getting married, or downsizing their weddings, not many people buy traditional hanbok,” said Yu.

To bring hanbok closer to the people, Yu took out elements of hanbok that feel unnecessary in the modern day. While the proper method of wearing hanbok involves at least three layers of skirts for volume, it has been replaced with wide pants that do a similar job. And rather than using fancy, expensive silk, Yu kept to the cheaper, more accessible materials often used in clothing today. The cheaper materials also allow people to wash them at home, instead of having to be specially dry cleaned.

“I am a Korean, and this is my vocation,” said the designer. “Since no one was wearing [hanbok], I felt the urge to make something that people just couldn’t help but want to buy. The beauty of the color and lines of hanbok are exquisite. We need to get out there in the market and to the world, and not just wait until opportunity comes knocking at our door.”

By keeping faithful to certain details distinct to hanbok, Yu believes that the style can go global. It’s only been four years since the hanbok project was launched, but the future of hanbok may brighten up with talented designers like Yu who are ready to innovate.

“I want to be a designer who can change myself to fit every moment and condition I’m in. There are some tough conditions to endure, but I hope to work my way through. I’ll keep working hard to make something for people to wear, while not losing the depth and elegance of [traditional] hanbok,” said Yu.

BY YOON SO-YEON [yoon.soyeon@joongang.co.kr]