Do you know the difference between ostriches and meerkats? Ostriches tend to hide their heads underground when they encounter enemies. Ostriches believe they are hidden as they cannot see their enemies, but this is not the case. Meerkats, on the other hand, are guards, always looking about their surrounding carefully. Hwang Yiseul (Hwang), representative of Sonjjang Design Hanbok considers herself to be a meerkat, always acting confidently. She believes facing difficulties is far more worthwhile than avoiding or idling one's time away. What’s more, she asked the Sookmyung Times (SMT) to encourage young students to act like meerkats. Here is the story of her passionate life.
SMT What motivated you to become a Hanbok designer?
HWANG It was just a coincidence. Until I became an undergraduate student, I had no interest in Hanbok. I had the fortunate chance of participating in a play at the school festival after reading the book Goong written by Park Sohee. In the book, all characters wear Hanbok, well, newly designed modern Hanbok. After designing and putting together my own Hanbok creation,I sold it via the internet. Several people saw it and asked to purchase it. It was then I started to sell Hanbok, but just as a hobby. It was a really attractive and heart-throbbing experience. Even at that time, I didn’t see Hanbok as my job or profession. When I look back, I realize why ‘fun’ is considered the secret to ten of the most successful entrepreneurs.
SMT Commuting to SMU from Jeonju must have been backbreaking. What made you decide to enter a master’s program at SMU?
HWANG After starting my Hanbok business, I know I had neither the expertise nor the design background to succeed fully. Even though I had to travel up to Seoul every week from Jeonju to attend school, I was passionate about learning. I chose SMU because of Professor Chae Keumseok in the Department of Clothing & Textile. She is an expert in the design field I was entering: altering traditional outfits to match today’s modern styles. One of the most touching things I still remember is her words, ‘Make something come alive.’ I was really impressed and focused on the real utility of Hanbok.
SMT Throughout your 8 years, you faced failures like poor Jeogori shirt sales. How did you cope with the failures?
HWANG Indeed failure was hard. However, those failures were the foundation of my success. There are no meaningless failures. During those times, I neither analyzed the market carefully nor set new strategies. Therefore, I now realize the importance of setting differentiated strategies. For instance, in Tongyeong there is a cafe selling lattes, but written on them are swear words, which distinguish the cafe from others. In this sense, my strategy is to add the essence of the young generation into Hanbok. Normally, Hanbok is only worn at big events like weddings and sold by older women. However, my designs and selling philosophy incorporates the younger generation’s sympathy. In addition, in the past, there weren’t many Hanbok stores on the internet, so I started my business online. Young people can now buy Hanbok as easily as they buy other clothes like blue jeans.
SMT Usually, people do not wear Hanbok since they think it’s uncomfortable. Do you think the day will come when people will wear Hanbok as often as they wear blue jeans?
HWANG Before answering the question, people who feel Hanbok to be high-priced and stuffy have never really worn Hanbok. People who complain are likely people who have never worn Hanbok. Hanbok is not uncomfortable. It is even possible to wash it in the laundry machine. Perhaps, there are some trifle difficulties wearing Hanbok since society has changed, but I am trying to popularize Hanbok by changing and rearranging it by shortening the shirt, adding acceptable colors and decorations, and incorporating pockets into the design. In the end, people will wear Hanbok as often as they do blue jeans. I feel encouraged because most of my customers are young people who are interested in new Hanbok. Also, some of them are uploading pictures of themselves in new Hanbok on SNSs.
SMT Some people argue that modernized Hanbok is too unconventional. What do you think of these objections?
HWANG I do face criticism. One of the biggest misconceptions towards tradition is the notion of merely maintaining and preserving old things. However, although we must preserve tradition, we have a duty to modernize it as well. For instance, people no longer sit on the floor; therefore, I have adjusted Hanbok to meet the needs of society today. The word tradition implies ‘conveying’ and ‘letting in.’ That is, we must transform old things into something that allows the new things to embrace the past and present. In this sense, I don't think my designs are unconventional.
SMT Finally,what do you have in mind for the future?
HWANG I would like to overcome the negative idea that Hanbok is a luxurious or costly outfit like my role model, designer Gabrielle Chanel. She achieved gender and social equality by making everyone look beautiful in her clothing regardless of social status. I hope people will learn to love Hanbok and wear it more often. I am confident since I believe the future of Hanbok is very bright. Since 2006, when I first started my own business, the Hanbok industry has grown continuously. The government has even founded a center for Hanbok and Hanbok is appearing more often in the media. Internationally, with the hot blast of Hanryu, more foreigners are showing a deep interest in it. And, lastly, more and more people are clicking “like” on my Facebook page, which I used to introduce my new modern style Hanbok designs.
SMT Before we end our interview, may I ask what does SMU mean to you?
HWANG I became a professional thanks to SMU. I needed an education to become a specialist and get accredited. I pondered the value of and my perspective towards Hanbok while at SMU. Eventually, I became stronger, building a solid academic foundation. Thus, SMU made me who I am.
Hwang Yiseul (Hwang)
• MA in Department of Clothing & Textile
• Representative of Sonjjang Design Hanbok
• Wrote the book, I Wear Hanbok to Hongdae
• Award from Jeonbuk Craftwork Contest and more