Womenswear designer Gayeon Lee launched her eponymous brand in 2014. In just a little over a year she has accomplished what most fashion designers take several to achieve. This past October MUTZINE visited Gayeon's workroom in Seoul shortly after she wrapped up her debut runway show at Hera Seoul Fashion Week. In this interview we learn about Gayeon's creative process, her notable classmates from Central Saint Martins, and the challenges of the Korean luxury market.
Interview & video Gissella Ramirez-Valle, Photos Ana Fernandez
Hi Gayeon! Thank you for allowing us to visit your studio. Congratulations are also in order for the Seoul Fashion Week debut! Could you walk us through how that happened?
Gayeon: Thank you! I actually never intended to show at Seoul Fashion Week this season! I had initially applied for a government fund here in Korea to get into Paris Fashion Week or even London. I got funded for a booth to present my work for those markets. However, the lady who was part of the committee recommended for me to apply for Seoul Fashion Week too. I visited the website and submitted my application with very little special preparation. I got accepted to show as part of Generation Next, the emerging designer division and it went from there.
What's the selection criteria for Generation Next?
Gayeon: It's tailored for emerging designers in Korea. You have to explain how your business is growing and how many stockists you have. Of course there's points given for creativity and potential too. They look at your whole story and the result is a generous support package to put on a runway show.
Following the runway show, what has the reaction been like?
The Seoul Fashion Week Daily gave Gayeon Lee a full page review, which is very positive feedback. I’ve had coverage from Elle Hong Kong and ID Magazine. International buyers from Harvey Nichols, Selfridges, Farfetch, and Matches Fashion have come to the show and showroom too!
It seems like this past Seoul Fashion Week was a first for many international buyers and members of the international press!
Gayeon: Yeah, it seems that this time Seoul Fashion Week has spent so much money for supporting designers. There was even a gala dinner at the end for all participating designers to gather! Invitations were also given to buyers and members of the press, so everyone was treated very well.
Your show's music set a really great mood. How did you choose the sounds to compliment the collection?
Gayeon: I asked the music director for something classic but not cheesy. I wanted a little bit of piano with cello. I explained the idea from front to back and gave him photos of my collection . Instructions included when to start the music, when to stop, and when to start music that complimented the sounds of the dresses that walked down the runway.
It was like a fairytale!
Gayeon: Really? (Laughs)
Yes! Every other show seemed to have electronic music or really intense sounds but your show had a different feeling that transported everyone to another space. It was really memorable because of that.
Where do you gather inspiration? What's the perfect atmosphere for getting into the creative groove?
Gayeon: I like going to exhibitions, finding a painting and picking up inspiration from there. It could even be a sculpture or an old photo. For this collection, I was at a random bookshop in Paris and I came across Federico Clavarino’s travel photobook Italia O Italia . His photos are all laid out on the moodboard. I’m definitely inspired by works of art and the textures, colors, silhouettes within them.
The fabrics, colors, shapes and proportions are gorgeous!
Gayeon: In this collection I was very particular about the fabric. So it took me a long time to choose the right fabric. In this collection there’s a lot of volume too. There was a certain shape to achieve and the fabric needed to breathe. I contacted alot of agencies here in Korea that import European fabric. I went to every office and sorted through hundreds of samples. The final choices were Italian and Spanish fabrics.
It must have been very tedious!
Gayeon: It was, but I enjoy the process of choosing fabrics. They’re beautiful materials!
Is there any semblance of Korean traditional garment construction in your work?
Gayeon: When I do research I go to the Central Saint Martins library. I look through old European magazines from the 40’s and 50’s. So my inspiration for methods comes from there. It's interesting though because when press has seen my work back in the UK they would point out some "Korean elements."
Do you think they were reaching for something that was not there?
Gayeon: No, I guess there should be something since I’m Korean and my workroom is in Korea.
Who are your role models?
Gayeon: Whenever I do interviews I receive this question and I always say this same thing because it’s the truth! I think it's my parents. I was the first child and my mother was always very particular about my clothing and my hair. She really enjoyed decorating me. My dad's in the fashion industry too, he wasn’t a designer, but the fashion industry was never that far away from me growing up.
Why Fashion Design?
Growing up I drew, I doodled alot. Growing up I would look at photos of my younger self and I was interested in what I wore. I went to Hongik University and studied Textile Art and Fashion Design. Ultimately I chose to follow Fashion Design and then went to London’s Central Saint Martins to obtain a Masters in Womenswear.
Was Kathleen Kye a classmate of yours at some point?
Gayeon: No, she graduated 3 years after I did! But I had 4 amazing Korean classmates which was very out of the ordinary. There's usually just one Korean student in the CMS MA program per year, or none at all. One is currently head designer for Eudon Choi in London and another one is doing knitwear for Low Classic, KYE, Push Button. Her studio is nearby in Yeonnam-dong and we actually worked together for my previous collection that had knits. Another classmate of mine has a label called The Antidote. It's really great menswear. We are all still close and support each other to create synergy when there’s a chance!
Do you think more Korean fashion designers have potential for becoming well known internationally?
Gayeon: Yes of course! I mean as a designer myself it’s amazing to get funded since I’m new and it makes me feel encouraged to do my best. Many Korean designers are making huge steps in a shorter period of time these days. It's because there's a lot of investment is going on.
What's the most challenging aspect in doing what you're doing now?
Gayeon: I’m still young in this business, so I don’t have hundreds of staff. I have a few interns helping me out. They work really hard but I’m still doing everything by myself. It’s very hard to manage the designing side, the business side, and I have to meet people, and at the same time I have to be creative still. I have to make things with my own hands and think of the next collection while also keeping track of figures, money, everything! Of course it's great to have to learn to manage everything because when the business grows I’ll know the ins and outs and be able to direct effectively.
It's a challenge, but once the show is over and done with, it’s a rewarding experience which gives me energy to keep going. I’m going to Jeju Island tomorrow for a little break. But for next season, I already have some fabrics in mind, some details and silhouettes. (Editors Note: At time of publishing FW16 is already available to view at www.gayeonlee.com.)
Do you plan to show at Seoul Fashion Week again?
Gayeon: Sure, if I’m granted the opportunity once more I’d love to. But honestly right now I’m targeting the markets in London, Paris and New York. In the future when the label becomes bigger I can come back to the Korean market. I think that’s a wiser step for me.
What’s the state of the Korean luxury market like right now?
Gayeon: Well for example in the United States, it’s a wholesale market. So you sell your stock to stores for a wholesale price and then it gets resold for a retail price. But in Korea most shops don’t have buyers, so there is no wholesale, and instead it’s me bringing stocks to department stores and hanging them. The department stores display them and when they’re sold they keep a hefty percentage as commission. When it’s not sold, I have to bring the items back so there’s a huge risk of not selling or making any money. It's mostly like that in Korea, but if you make it really big, like if certain celebrities wear your clothes then you’ll blow up and sell out immediately.
Easier said than done! So Gayeon what's in store 5 years from now?
Gayeon: (Laughs) It's hard to estimate that far into the future but I’m very hopeful. I only started this one year ago and I’ve gone through so many steps that I didn’t expect. I didn’t expect to have a show in Seoul so quickly or to meet buyers from international department stores. If it’s like this in just one year, I’m sure in 5 years it must be nicer than now.
Visit www.gayeonlee.com to keep up with the designer!