Interview Gissella Ramirez-Valle, Photography Juun Lee & Alex Finch
/Street Style Photography 2014-2015
You were active as a street fashion photographer. How did you fall into that?
Juun: My mother is interested in fashion and around 3 years ago while I was serving in the military she bought me books like The Sartorialist. After the military I resumed college for a semester and then took a break and went to Vancouver with the intent to study English for six months. During my last month in Vancouver I decided that I also had to visit Los Angeles and New York. I got to New York just in time for New York Fashion Week and I was really interested in seeing what it was all about. On the first day I saw Nick Wooster and I thought that this was a really great chance so I bought a camera and started shooting 4 days in a row.
Were you by yourself? Or did you meet up with other Korean street fashion photographers?
Juun: Yeah, I was by myself. But I saw some famous Korean photographers guys and I approached HB Nam to say that I was his fan. He’s actually the first Korean street photographer to become well known, back in 2011. He’s been featured in some Korean reality tv shows, he released a book and it really influenced others to get into street fashion photography too.
So what happened next?
Juun: I came back to Korea on October 2014 and I still had around 5 months before the following semester started, so I sent emails to some Korean fashion magazines. Camscon, a digital street fashion platform recruited me as a full time photographer. I started shooting for them the following week.
That escalated quickly!
Juun: Yeah, I really had absolutely no experience prior to shooting at New York Fashion Week. My father likes photography though, it’s his main hobby. He has alot of cameras and I received one from him to start shooting in Seoul.
How was it becoming part of the street fashion photography community in Seoul?
Juun: When I first came out to shoot in Sinsa I didn’t have any fellow photographer friends. But after I became friendly with one, he introduced me to the others. Everyone was surprised when I started going out shooting here in Seoul because for a rookie I had the best gear.
Was it difficult to maintain your own style when there were so many others practicing street fashion photography too?
Juun: It was really hard. These days there’s around ten photographers shooting in Sinsa when it gets really busy, when the weather is nice. And actually I felt bored about how it works. We would stand in the same spot for 5 hours and wait for fashionable people to pass by. There’s alot of fashionable people of course, but we would look for those who are extraordinary and those would come by once or twice a day. I would do it 6 days a week. It was exhausting and I questioned what I was doing so I started doing my own kind of photography off the street.
So being a street photographer isn’t exciting anymore?
Juun: It’s exciting. Meeting new people is exciting, but I came to realize that it wasn’t for me. I wanted to take special photos, but when that special subject appeared we all shot them. We don’t get alot of time to shoot the person. When I’m taking a photo someone else is waiting to take their photo right after. We surround the person and it made me feel uncomfortable because maybe the person being photographed would feel a bit burdened to be in this sort of mechanical system where everyone takes their photo one after another.
Also I only use the ‘one-shot’ strategy where I only take a single shot every time I press the shutter button. If I were to take more than twenty shots in burst mode, it’s up to chance. Of course i’ll get a good shot. But I prefer taking just two or three and picking the best from there, it makes the process more authentic for me.
In New York City you can stand in the street and take a photo of anybody passing by without asking for permission, but not in Korea due to certain laws that restrict that...
Juun: Yeah that’s right. That's why the most common method in Korea is to just ask the model to stand and then you take a photo. But actually there’s also photographers who take photos of the models walkingto replicate the candid style of street photography in other countries. It’s really awkward to stage all of that in my opinion. The process of asking them to walk a certain way and pretending to be natural and candid, it’s not my style.
/Seoul Fashion Week FW15
It seems that the only place where you don't have to ask for permission is at Seoul Fashion Week.
Juun: Yeah, anything goes at Seoul Fashion Week (laughs).
/Adulescent 2015 -
So Juun, you don't do street photos anymore. Tell us about how your fashion label Adulescent came about!
Juun: Adulescent was launched on July 1, 2015, after 6 months of planning. I have a friend in university who’s a bit older than me. We talked alot and decided that we wanted to do something. We weren’t sure what, but just something. You know in Korea many young people are restricted by the environment, they can’t do what they want. So at first we thought of spreading the message of don’t grow up, just do what you want. We thought about how to spread the message and we chose to start a clothing brand with that message as the brand identity.
This message is really important for both of us because my major is Chemical Engineering and I really don’t like it. We both had other ideas about what we want to do but in Korea there are not many people who know what they want. In Korea we just go to school and study to get into university and once we get into university we don’t know what we want. We choose majors not based on true interests but just as safe bets for the future. I mean I chose Chemical Engineering only because my test scores were high enough for it.
Is changing majors an option?
Juun: It’s looked down on. And that’s something I think needs to change, even if you reach thirty or fourty years old you’re not too old to find a new path.
Alright, you had an idea but how did you make it happen?
Juun: I don’t have experience in this, but I have many friends in the fashion field now who gave me guidance and support. I have friends who run their own brands, do modeling and do photography. Without them I wouldn’t have been able to start Adulescent.
They’ve helped in promoting too right? These days it seems to be less about the design and more about who is pushing the brand.
Juun: Yeah, sure my friends help in spreading the word, but having celebrities blindly endorse something just for sales, that’s something we don’t like. In Korea celebrity endorsement is the key for making sales. It happens outside of Korea too though, I mean Kanye West pushed Vetements alot and now that brand is huge, but then again the lead designer is famous so I guess that’s reasonable (laughs). On a related note, I think that paying fashion bloggers to post photos of themselves wearing our brand is the same process as staging a candid street photo. It’s phony.
So your ideal scenario is for Adulescent to grow organically?
Juun: Exactly, but truthfully if we don’t use the process of paying people to endorse the brand for example, it’s really hard to grow. We should find a balance but we are really stubborn (laughs). We are still thinking about how to go about it...
There’s a lot of streetwear brands popping up these days...
Juun: That’s why we have a strict brand identity. These days it’s not just about the nice design or who is pushing it but about the brand identity. The message is now really important, that’s what really attracts people.
True, I think people are looking for fashion brands to identify with, brands with a message that they can trust and respect. Are you trying to build a community?
Juun: Yeah, actually many people in Korea have the dont grow up mindset too, but they might feel too restricted by the environment to express it, so we want to support them and not just be a brand, but also be their friend. We also have a video interview series with people who are pursuing their own unique path. We’ve featured DJ’s, painters, models, and photographers who really identified with the brand's message.
After graduation will you be getting that company job?
Juun: I’m a junior in college right now and I have a year left, but I’m going to take another semester off and focus on Adulescent full-time. It’d be cool to also have a physical community space for like minded people to gather and host events.
That’s really admirable. Let me know when it opens up!
One last thing. Recently I spoke to a hair designer who told me that 5 years ago her blonde hair was very out of the ordinary and she’d get strange looks for it. Now I’m also seeing more and more youth in Korea with tattoos or piercings too. Any comment on what any of this means?
Juun: Hm, well I think those things are more visible nowadays in the cities because it’s become a bit of a fashion fad. Though as a result there’s growing communities around those sorts of things, but it’s still considered strange in mainstream society to have odd colored hair or tattoos and piercings. I do think it’s a good start to have communities that accept those things, because it makes young people not as afraid to be themselves.