Identity struggle fires creative power

By Rumy Doo
  • Published : Apr 9, 2017 - 17:31
  • Updated : Feb 5, 2018 - 15:49

In a world where the notions of ethnicity, culture and identity are constantly evolving, Korea’s fashion world is taking those influences and turning them into creative expression.

Fashion model Han Hyun-min presented a striking image on the Korean catwalk at the 2016 Seoul Fashion Week fall-winter collection in March 2016. Born to a Nigerian father and Korean mother, Han is Korea’s first model with African roots.

“I’ve always been skinny and tall at 184 centimeters and 56 kilograms. Kids would make fun of me. I used to envy people who were bigger,” the 16-year-old told The Korea Herald.

Though young, his unique appearance and talent for walking have already made Han a much sought-after model. After debuting exclusively with the brand Heich Es Heich by Han Sang-hyuk, he went on to walk on 11 runways at Seoul Fashion Week spring-summer collections later that year.

Although the only country he has ever known is Korea, he frequently felt a sense of otherness in his homeland.

“Whenever we would go on school trips or to other public places, I would stand out. People would stare. I used to be scared of that.”

Some of his experiences reveal the racial prejudice that is still prevalent here.

“Sometimes kids would blurt out (offensive) words. I guess they were just young. Some of my friends’ parents told them not to play with me. That was a real shock,” he said. “They had said ‘You shouldn’t hang out with someone like that.’”

Growing up in Itaewon, however, he was also exposed to a multitude of cultures.

“There were some mixed-race children like me. There were French, Japanese, German, British kids. I had a Muslim friend who didn’t eat meat at restaurants.”

Now, Han believes his appearance is an advantage. “That’s where my strength lies,” he said. “I want to work hard to develop that and later make my own clothes. And someday I might even try living abroad.”

Han Hyun-min models for fashion brand Munn on March 28 during Seoul Fashion Week. (Seoul Fashion Week)

Street interpretation of Korean heritage

Fashion brand IISE creates bags and clothing inspired by Korean elements -- Buddhist monks, traditional hanok houses and hanbok clothing -- but which maintain a contemporary edge.

The creators are two brothers -- Terrence and Kevin Kim, second-generation Korean-Americans. Only when they came to Korea as adults did they fully realize how exotic the country was to them.

“Growing up in the US as a minority, you are constantly labeled as the ‘Korean kid’ or the ‘Asian kid.’ So before coming to Korea, we thought we were very Korean,” Terrence told The Korea Herald in an interview. “But as soon as we arrived in Seoul we realized how American in fact we really were.”

Walking down the alleys of Insa-dong, a neighborhood of Korean knickknacks, Terrence and his brother were bombarded with creative stimuli.

“When we came to Korea for the first time since our childhood in 2012, all the architecture, fabrics, art and design were completely new to us even though they were sometimes thousands of years old. The first time we walked Gyeongbokgung palace the colors and the ceiling patterns looked, to us, as though they were designed in the future.”

Model sports a look from IISE's 2017 spring-summer collection (IISE)

They became captivated by the silhouette of a monk striding by with a knapsack slung on his shoulders, and the idea of their brand IISE -- which refers to the Korean for “second generation” -- began to substantialize.

“I think being a Korean-American in Korea can be difficult at times, but it also can be an advantage because you bring a different perspective, experiences, and approach to certain things,” said Terrence. 

IISE procures material dyed with natural dye -- persimmon juice, charcoal and knopper gall -- by master craftsmen from Iksan and Jeju Island. Fabrics include gwangmok cotton and Korean silk-cotton blend. Details that pay homage to Korean tradition are found in their items: The bottoms of the backpacks’ straps are knotted like the bags of monks, and their stitches resemble those of Taekwondo uniforms. Coats and shirts feature hanbok collar lining. 
IISE's showroom in Pyeongchang-dong, Seoul is decorated to reflect its design philosophy - a mix of contemporary street and traditional Korean. (IISE)

IISE targets the international market, currently selling to the US, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Having just wrapped up a successful pop-up store event in Apgujeong Galleria last week, the brand plans to hold a presentation show explaining their concept to buyers.

“We often think the things we create are a reflection of our identities. Yes we are Korean-Americans, not 100 percent American, not 100 percent Korean but a mix of both.”

By Rumy Doo (