When I think of the global textile market, China immediately comes to mind as the world’s largest textile producer. But South Korea also plays a significant role in the highly competitive global market. The Koreans rank sixth in the world in terms of export value and eighth in terms of production. Away from the classic, fast-moving fashion industry, a trend towards combining modern and traditional design is evolving.
Traditional Korean clothing, such as Hanbok, is increasingly being combined with modern aspects. Young, Korean fashion designers are making it their mission to redefine the beauty of hanbok. I spoke with hanbok designer Hyunsung Moon 문현승 (39) to learn what he thinks of the trends. For the interview, I met him at his studio in Gangnam.
Hyunsung, you design Haut-Couture hanbok in an industry dominated by women. Are you an odd man out?
There are not many male designers who train in this field. I never had any problems with it during my studies. I love my profession. However, it is a bit more difficult when it comes to customer contact. When customers visit my atelier, I always notice how surprised they are when they meet a male designer.
Why did you decide to enter this industry?
Since I was 17, I had a strong desire to work in the fashion industry. So it was natural for me to study fashion design at university. During my studies, I became aware of the gap between traditional design and modern style. Unfortunately, well-known fashion labels usually did not offer opportunities and work environment that fosters creativity. Back then focus was more on adhering to guidelines and protocols that emphasized producing global trends. On the other hand, hanbok seemed to be the field where one could be most creative and bring in one’s ideas from A to Z. Moreover, during several internships, I had access to and found a fascination for Hanbok. Still, today capturing the story of both, the one who wears a Hanbok and the designer who creates the Hanbok has been well-kept-up in the business of hanbok fashion.
Nowadays, however, Hanbok is very rare. It may be worn on special occasions.Hyunsung Moon 문현승
What exactly is a Hanbok?
Simply put, Hanbok is a traditional Korean clothing style. If you take a closer look at the word hanbok 한복, it consists of two words: han 한 means “Korean” and bok 복 stands for “clothing.” Until about 100 years ago, hanbok was worn by Koreans as everyday clothing. It reflects the culture and lifestyle of that time. Nowadays, however, Hanbok is very rare. It may be worn on special occasions.
Does every Korean have a Hanbok in his or her closet?
In the past, many married couples still had their own Hanbok at home. But the demand has decreased greatly recently.
So people are getting married less in South Korea these days?
You could indeed say that. I think there are three reasons why the demand for Hanbok has declined. First, there are fewer and fewer couples getting married in Korea; second, more and more people are dressing according to Western standards. Third, there are more and more Koreans who choose to rent, not buy, Hanbok for special occasions, such as a wedding.
On what occasion do people wear Hanbok today?
Hanbok is mainly worn on formal occasions, such as Baekil 백일 and Doljanchi 돌잔치 (the first important birthday celebration when a baby turns 100 days and at the one-year-old birthday party), or Chuseok (the harvest festival). Other important occasions when hanbok is worn are weddings and funerals. Recently, besides formal occasions, hanbok has made a comeback with younger people. [Additionally, more and more men wear hanbok. For example, both male and female younger people may wear hanbok when they visit a palace (the entrance is then free) or at folk festivals. – Editor’s note]
Dressing in woman Hanbok looks very complicated and cumbersome. Is that true?
Hanbok is not something you can easily throw on. You almost always need the support of another person to help move the two layers of skirts into the correct position. And, all the ribbons need to be tied correctly, which is impractical to do by yourself. But the effort is worth it because Hanbok is very comfortable to wear.
How much time does it take to have Hanbok made by you? And how much would it cost?
Our Hanbok is all unique pieces. The production is very complex and takes time. From the first meeting to the fitting, you should plan for about two months. The cost also depends on the materials you choose. On average, a classic handmade Hanbok costs about 2,000 USD.
How do you start the creative process when designing a new dress?
As I mentioned before, hanbok is usually worn for special occasions. Therefore, during an introductory meeting of about two hours, I would like to know more about the person who will wear the outfit. I need to know what kind of occasion they will be worn. t is important for me to know what kind of occasion the Hanbok will be worn. Then, I start with the creation and the first drafts for the design.
What materials do you mainly use for your creative designs?
For wedding Hanbok, I usually use natural silk; the best, highest quality fabric in Korea. When designing modern Hanbok, more complex materials are used. These are mainly functional fabrics that do not wrinkle and are easy to wash. Increasingly, however, new, environmentally friendly recycled fabrics are also being used.
Is there a special experience you had while designing your clothes?
I once had a customer, the mother of the bride, who wanted to have Hanbok made for a completely western-themed wedding. In Korea, it is an important tradition that at least the mothers of the bride and groom wear a Hanbok at such a special ceremony as a wedding. The customer was accompanied by her daughter, the bride-to-be. While I was talking to the mother about the details of her Hanbok, the daughter felt more and more attracted to the traditional dress. In the end, I was allowed to outfit the entire family with Hanbok. The bride and groom had decided to have a traditional Hanbok wedding, which of course made me very happy.
What does the name Moonaoq stand for?
The name Moonaoq is based on oriental thought. 무 “Moo” means embracing and 낙 “Naoq” means joy and pleasure. It means embracing joy and pleasure by designing costumes for the most shining moments of one’s life, such as going on stage or getting married.
Unfortunately, hanbok is becoming more and more forgotten and is gradually disappearing from the scene. Are there any efforts to make hanbok mainstream?
High-end silk hanbok has been a luxury item for a long time, even in times when almost everyone wore a hanbok as a daily outfit. If the economic situation deteriorates, the demand for hanbok also decreases drastically. Unfortunately, there are also manufacturers in the hanbok industry who supply their customers with poor quality and thus do not contribute to the positive development.
And wherever there is a tourist, cultural heritage facility you can almost always find a hanbok rental shop nearby, where you can rent the outfits for a few hours at a reasonable price. I can’t imagine, however, that hanbok will ever become mainstream. Whether the most important Korean entertainment export, the boy band BTS, can manage to give hanbok a boost remains to be seen. These and other k-pop stars, such as BLACKPINK, made headlines for wearing a modernized version of hanbok in one of their music videos to promote the traditional garment worldwide.
The popularity of hanbok has gone up and down over the years, but always remains an important part of Korea’s cultural scene. We are grateful for the interview with Hyunsung Moon to learn more about this beautiful part of traditional, yet modern Korean fashion.