The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] Illustrator’s reinterpretations of hanbok prize originality

By Choi Si-young

Published : July 7, 2024 - 15:44

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Wooh Na-young, an illustrator known for hanbok drawings, poses for a photo before an interview with The Korea Herald at her office in Seoul on June 25. (Choi Si-young/The Korea Herald) Wooh Na-young, an illustrator known for hanbok drawings, poses for a photo before an interview with The Korea Herald at her office in Seoul on June 25. (Choi Si-young/The Korea Herald)

When Wooh Na-young, a graphic designer-turned-illustrator, quit her work at an online game publisher in 2012 after a decade in the industry, she suffered an identity crisis. But she at least knew that being a game graphic designer was not fulfilling for her.

“I had to find what I wanted to do or be, and hanbok caught my eyes,” Wooh said in a recent interview with The Korea Herald, explaining her love for the hanbok silhouette -- the elongated lines and broad shapes. A want for her work to be as relatable as possible became the reason she chose to animate Western fairy tale characters wearing traditional Korean clothes.

The Koreanization of “Alice in Wonderland” at a solo exhibition in June 2013 proved to be a big hit. The image of Alice in a wrap skirt, worn high and fixed tightly to the chest that blooms into a voluminous silhouette was a sensation to not only Koreans but international audiences as well.

Calls flooded in, including one in 2015 from the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Massachusetts. The Amherst-based museum wanted to showcase Wooh’s “Alice in Wonderland” as part of an exhibition on the protagonist created by author Lewis Caroll.

Partnerships with companies took off the following year as Johnnie Walker Blue Label carried Wooh’s illustration of the Ten Symbols of Longevity originally from the Joseon era (1392-1910) on a limited series of bottles sold in Korea.

“Alice in Wonderland” by Wooh Na-young (Wooh Na-young) “Alice in Wonderland” by Wooh Na-young (Wooh Na-young)

“I was lucky,” Wooh said of her rise to fame. “It wasn’t overnight though. I had many ‘Alices’ before that. The Alice that landed me everything I have now is because I had those moments that went unnoticed,” she added, citing “Beauty and the Beast,” a work she also tried recreating with the characters in hanbok.

“I had tales that people are familiar with and I produced many, many hanbok recreations. The patterns those people noticed in my reinterpretations are the identity I’m remembered by, I think,” Wooh said.

Asked how she projects originality, given the role of “reinterpreting” something already popular, the 45-year-old artist highlighted crafting an identity so personal and unique that it opens up a new discussion.

“When I was in London meeting up with people interested in Korean culture, I met this woman who said my hanbok illustrations piqued her interest in Korean culture,” Wooh said, recalling an event organized by the Korean Cultural Center in the UK last November.

Wooh described the encounter as boosting her conviction that her job as a hanbok illustrator goes beyond just clothing illustrations. She published a book on women’s hanbok in 2019, keeping in mind ever since that she needs to do the same for men.

“I’m trying to find the time,” she said, referring to her packed schedule. One of her projects is a joint effort with Disney Korea to produce illustrations involving Korean cultural heritage. Wooh is also a brand ambassador for the Korea Heritage Service, the government body in charge of cultural heritage.

“Most of the hanbok that I draw are what people find familiar, which are from the Joseon period,” Wooh added. “I want to take on different hanbok from earlier periods,” she said.