Unknowns who dress the West's beautiful people

18th September 1998 at 01:00
Fashion design in the republic has been starved of opportunities through lack of publicity. Jeremy Sutcliffe reports

Galliano, Westwood, Kim. Kim? Yes, Andre Kim. Just one of the South Koreans whose clothes decorate internationally famous models and celebrities but are little known outside their own country.

Andre Kim is perhaps Korea's best known fashion designer. His clothes have been modelled by some of the world's most beautiful women, including Claudia Schiffer. Brooke Shields and Michael Jackson are among his many showbiz customers. Back home he is as famous as Vivienne Westwood or Stella McCartney are in Britain. Yet internationally he is virtually unknown.

The reason, he believes, is largely because the big companies that dominate South Korean industry have failed to promote Korean design. He says: "We have a lot of good designers. But if you look at Italy or France, which have produced names like Givenchy and Versace, you will find that they have had a lot of help from big companies. It's very difficult to export couture clothing abroad because it needs a lot of promotion, and that is expensive. Publicity is vital."

Mr Kim is an admirer of the new wave British designers John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, both products of the UK's art schools. Korea would do well to emulate our specialist colleges, he says. "In Korea, there are not many high schools (for 16 to 19-year-olds) which specialise in the creative arts, and I would like to see more. The education reforms planned by Kim Dae Jung should change that."

But even Galliano and McQueen, highly creative designers though they are, have had to rely on internional companies like Christian Dior to promote their name - underlining Andre Kim's point. Korea has still some way to go before its designers become household names around the world.

Lee Young Hee too has designed clothes for Michael Jackson. Kevin Kline had a coat made by her in his favourite colour, to match his eyes. Christian Dior and Raisa Gorbachev have worn her clothes. Even Barbie - of doll fame - has commissioned one of her designer dresses.

But if Andre Kim's are ritzy and modern, Lee's clothes are traditional chic. For the past 25 years, she has been designing and making traditional clothes. They are distinctively Korean: the V-necked costume, rounded sleeves and wind-blown skirts. Her fabrics, colours and meticulous needlework can all be traced back to a tradition dating back more than 1,000 years.

Lee, who is also professor of textile design at Dongduk women's university in Seoul, has played a leading part in reviving Korean interest in traditional costume. Her classic styles, adapted to suit modern tastes, are highly sought after by well-to-do Koreans.

The distinctively Korean flavour of her clothes has brought her to the attention of the West. Four years ago, she opened a boutique in Paris, building on the success of her first Pret-a-Porter show in 1992 and an award from the French minister of culture.

But while she has been at the forefront of popularising Korean couture in the West, she, like Andre Kim, is well aware that Korea has a long way to go before its designers' labels are as well known as its cars and microwaves.

"I see the potential. We have young people with the ability and ideas. I would like to see Korea establish a similar scheme to Japan, which has successfully promoted its traditional costume abroad.

"I hope one day the Korean hanbok will be as famous throughout the world as the Japanese kimono."

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