Hanbok is a traditional clothing in Korea with a history of over 5,000 years. Nowadays, it is easy for modern people to feel a distance from traditional clothes. However, there is a way to sense Hanbok, and that is through improved fusion style Hanbok. It is becoming more and more popular than the traditional Hanbok worn during formal occasions. Hwang Yiseul, a Hanbok designer, is also working hard to popularize Hanbok by publishing books and launching a Hanbok clothing brand. SMT spoke with Hwang Yiseul, designer and CEO of ‘SONJJANG’ and ‘LEESLE’.
Before beginning, please introduce yourself and your companies to our readers.
My name is Hwang Yiseul, and I design Hanbok at my shop in Jeonju. I am also the designer and CEO of ‘SONJJANG’ and ‘LEESLE’. ‘SONJJANG’ is the name of my Hanbok clothing design company, and ‘LEESLE’ is the brand name of the modern Hanbok clothing line that I created. It originates from my name ‘Hwang Yiseul’. Modern Hanbok refers to a Hanbok clothing line that meets the needs of everyday wear but keeps the idea of traditional Hanbok alive. Because it serves the lifestyle of modern people, many young adults in their twenties and thirties sense Hanbok casual comfort for use when traveling and dating and as school attire. I launched LEESLE 6 years ago, and since that time, I’ve seen it gradually become street fashion.
You did graduate studies in Clothing & Textiles. What graduate school course most helped you with brand creation and marketing?
My graduate studies all helped lay the groundwork for my company and brand. In the past, I also did a lot of self-learning about Hanbok through books and exhibitions. However, my graduate studies enabled me to learn about Hanbok more holistically such as relic and mural exploration which can be uneasy to access if I just keep self-learning. I once thought that traditional Hanbok comes from the Joseon Dynasty, but my studies told me that Hanbok did not come into existence just 500 years ago in the Joseon Dynasty but rather 5,000 years ago. At graduate school, I discovered there have been various patterns, shapes, and structures that have continuously evolved over the years.
What sparked your interest in Hanbok as opposed to other clothing?
I think my personal experience with Hanbok influenced me a lot. I once used Hanbok as my cosplay attire, and when I did, people looked at me and wanted to take photos with me. Those people complimented me and said it was a special experience for them. Now that I think about it, I suppose I became interested in Hanbok because wearing it made me feel confident, proud, and fulfilled.
Please tell us about your motivation for starting to design everyday wear Hanbok.
I entered the Hanbok business in 2006. From 2011, I entered graduate school and was studying and working at the same time. I was curious as to why people still love Hanbok but no one could be found wearing it in their daily lives. I knew from that moment that I wanted to share Hanbok and sought out its limitations so that I could correct them. For example, looking at young people, I realized they didn’t know how to wash, buy, or wear Hanbok. Hanbok was far from accessible for the younger generation. There was a need for a Hanbok clothing line that met the needs and wants of modern people, so I started designing Hanbok for everyday life. This was not a new idea at the time, but I wanted to supplement the modern Hanbok clothing at the time with my own ideas. My initial everyday Hanbok designs were problematic, so I then changed my focus to people in their twenties and thirties, and as a result, I established ‘Beauty Series’, which was the foundation for LEESLE.
You have various attempts to K-fashion and sell your everyday wear Hanbok overseas. What prompted you to promote your product overseas?
I believed that Hanbok had the potential to become fashionable and trendy, and I wanted to protect its legacy. Jeans that have become everyday clothes in Korea originated in the West. This means unfamiliarity is not an issue or concern among people. There was no reason why Hanbok could not become popular abroad. Also, in the world of fashion, designers are always looking for inspiration. For me, that was Hanbok. I wanted to promote Hanbok as a new clothing line.
What has been your most memorable overseas Hanbok sales episode?
Actual overseas sales started before the LEESLE brand. Consumers were typically those interested in clothing for weddings and parties. Unlike Korea, party cultures are well-established in other nations, and at those parties, women proudly wear and show off their unique dresses. One of the biggest parties in US schools is the ‘Prom Party’. When the party is held in August, dress sellers start advertising their goods on school websites or community boards from January of that same year. Young ladies upload pictures of the dress they plan to wear to the party so that other students do not show up in the same dress. One year, a dress that I designed won first prize at the party contest. I still recall the young lady who bought and wore the dress, and she posted a positive review of the event.
What has been the most difficult part about launching a brand and about being a Hanbok designer?
Originally, I thought it would be hard to launch my brand because I would need a lot of art and commerce background. However, the most difficult aspect was coming up with a comfortable yet trendy look in terms of length and width for everyday life. There is a perception in society that Hanbok is worn only on special occasions, so people continuously asked me how I would modernize Hanbok for the global society. I was under a lot of stress. In addition, when I first showed my designs, they were criticized by some extremely conservative people who refused to accept the transformation of the traditional Hanbok. Perception and prejudice were the biggest difficulties to launching the brand.
How did you overcome those difficulties?
Nothing in particular, but I also cannot say that I wasn’t worried. Even so, I tried not to be swayed by prejudices. I focused my attention on my final goal, and I decided to try my best to achieve that. Also, I tried to persuade people instead of being discouraged because I firmly believed that I had a purpose, and it was valuable. More recently, I have been trying to attract the attention of people who actively use platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.
What has been the happiest and most worthwhile moment as a Hanbok designer and CEO?
Without a doubt, it is when I see others enjoying a Hanbok that I designed. Each design is the product of a lot of consideration, so I'm happy to see consumers wearing them. Whenever consumers praise the designs, especially the minute details, I feel rewarded because I care deeply for all aspects during the production process. I think it's delivered through clothes without having to say "The designer really paid attention to this part."
What are your goals for the Hanbok brands 'SONJJANG' and 'LEESLE'?
The first goal would be to make 'SONJJANG' and 'LEESLE' the NO.1 clothing brands 'in the universe'. I personally dream this will come. I also hope to become a leader in Hanbok design by honing my skills and abilities and eventually inspire others to follow in my footsteps. I want to create a symbolic brand that I can be proud of and that becomes a standard. I will put a lot of effort into quality and design, but also into making that design last throughout history for more than 100 or 200 years.
Last, would you like to leave any final words for Sookmyungians?
I realized the joy of learning while studying at school. After graduation, I also learned that what I studied at school was applicable to my work and helped me to perform and do my work better. As a graduate of Sookmyung Women's University, I am proud to show off my expertise in society. I'm happy to pass on my knowledge to Sookmyungians any time. I hope all Sookmyungian graduates become proud alumni. Let's all be great people and meet in the wider community.
-Master’s degree of the Department of Clothing & Textiles
-CEO of ‘SONJJANG’
-CEO of ‘LEESLE’
-Author of I Wear Hanbok to Hongdae
-Costume designer for Korean Folk Village
-Awarded the 2019 Wadiz Crowdfunding Award
Choi Song Bojeong / Reporter
Na Cho Seongah / Reporter