When designer Han Song set out to develop a new fabric in 2003, little did he know that it would take some 10 years of research and development to arrive at a final product that would be hanging at some of the most well-known stores around the world.
“I was doing Paris Haute Couture shows at the time and a French fashion journalist, while interviewing me, stressed the importance of having a new, innovative fabric,” recalled Song at his TROA studio in Samseong-dong, Seoul last week.
“I felt virtually everything under the sun had been done in terms of design and her words struck a cord,” said Song.
Upon returning from Paris, the designer embarked on developing an eco-friendly alternative to denim.
“I happened to read about the environmental impact of jeans and thought this was something that needed to be addressed,” Song said. Pesticide is heavily used in growing cotton, and the dyeing and washing of jeans that produce the faded look have been linked to environmental damage by organizations such as Greenpeace.
Song began working with Korean mosi, or ramie, and then hemp ― both eco-friendly fabrics ― but soon abandoned them.
“Mosi was too much like linen and hemp didn’t have a good feel to it visually,” he said.
In 2004, Song was introduced to Korean hanji yarn, created by twisting into yarn thinly shredded mulberry paper made from the inner bark of mulberry tree branches.
“Hanji yarn was in the very early stages of development and could not be made with machine,” he said. When machine-produced hanji yarn became available some four years later, Song took it up again.
The designer found hanji yarn and Korea’s traditional dyeing method a perfect match in his quest for a fashionable, comfortable and eco-friendly alternative to denim.
To obtain a wide range of colors ― electric blue, light blue, burnt orange, green and brown formed the collection for the fall/winter season ― plants and minerals are used: Indigo plant, charcoal and even the prickly chestnut bur, to name but a few.
“Doing less harm to the environment is a great thing. But I wouldn’t be doing this if it didn’t yield these unique colors,” Song said, pointing to a rack of colorful hanji denim. The colors are intense yet not jarring; there is a naturalness about the colors that is soothing and serene.
In August, TROA Jeans achieved a remarkable feat. It entered the three most coveted fashion cities selling at three Barneys New York outlets in the U.S., including the Madison Avenue flagship store in New York City, two Barneys New York outlets in Tokyo, as well as the prestigious Paris select shop Colette ― all less than a year after opening its New York office.
Meetings with store buyers confirmed for Song that his approach ― emphasizing design, rather than the eco-friendly aspect ― was the right way.
“It is great that it is eco-friendly but our focus was more on design and this is why we have been able to reach the stage where we can sell them commercially,” Song said. “Eco-friendliness alone is not going to open people’s wallets.”
TROA Jeans are aimed at fashion-forward cosmopolitan women looking for edgy, day-into-evening looks that meet the demands of modern lifestyle. And judging by the response from shoppers ― the brand is selling well and looking to expand into more stores next season ― Song seems to have achieved a breakthrough.
“We try to do things in ways that incorporate nature,” Song said of his manufacturing process. For example, the fabric is dried outdoors in the sun and, rather than dyeing the fabric in machine, people stomp on the fabric in a dye tub.
“This lessens energy consumption,” he said. “An eco-friendly process is just as important as the materials and the product.”
By Kim Hoo-ran (firstname.lastname@example.org