Sarah Kate Watson-Baik (@urbanwit) is married to Seoul. You may know her best from hosting several seasons of K-Style alongside Irene Kim, where they shared K-beauty and K-fashion discoveries with the world. Her extensive knowledge of Korea's fashion landscape has led her to most recently becoming the Style Director for Viki's Dramaworld. In this special interview, Sarah Kate recounts how her love story with Korea began, shares her personal style philosophy, and gives us a sneak peak into her next project.
Interview Gissella Ramirez-Valle, Photos Haqi Cahya
Hi Sarah! Let's start from the very beginning. When did you first come to South Korea, and why?
Sarah Kate: I had just finished my studies in the United Kingdom where I earned a B.A. & M.A. from Central Saint Martins and Goldsmiths. I was really interested in global Anthropology and I had been to Japan. I really wanted to live in Asia, and at that time, in 2006 there wasn’t that much known about South Korea but my friend suggested that I go. Within a month I found a teaching job online at a private elementary school in Seoul and I came to teach Science and Mathematics.
Did you come with any expectations?
Sarah Kate: I came here randomly to check it out and find something new. Right off the bat there was this feeling of, "Hm, this is interesting, it’s not what I expected." There was this energy. I would go clubbing a lot and there was not much variety of music, there was only either Hip-hop and House music and the house music was a little old. But still there was this feeling that something was about to blow up. And I talked about that back then and then of course it happened, that boom, with the Hallyu Wave.
"I had a feeling something was going to happen. Korea was hungry for it."
How were you able to sense the impending boom?
Sarah Kate: I had a feeling something was going to happen. Korea was hungry for it. It still is. You know, I’ve traveled alot, so it’s like Europe is already retired, the United States is getting there, and Korea had this dynamic energy bubbling.
That was 10 years ago. What made you stay?
Sarah Kate: That feeling! I never had the intention to stay long term (laughs). It just happened. Honestly, if I had the intention to stay this long from the beginning, my Korean would be much better by now.
Would you share a tip on how to best learn the Korean language?
Sarah Kate: (laughs) Literally what you need to do is drink with friends to pick it up.
On a related note, I heard you were a pretty big club promoter in Seoul. How was that like?
Sarah Kate: I love clubbing, I was a big clubber in London. It was the art scene clubbing. It were very electro-clash and exciting. I was very into dressing up. Coming from that and coming to Korea and missing that is kind of how I got started making parties in Korea. They started in Hongdae and then got picked up by VU Entertainment which was the managing company for Club Answer in Gangnam at the time and Pentaport Rock Festival. So I was allowed to make these crazy parties and the whole point was to get people dressed up and be free. We would have branded parties with themes, decorations, dancers that would shoot confetti guns, and confetti would fall from the ceiling. None of that had existed before in Seoul. Chad Burton would shoot my parties. The first party in Gangnam was crazy, girls dancing on tables, we received complaints after risqué photos got posted online. The managers didn't have a problem though because we attracted so many new patrons. They were like "So when can you do this again?" (laughs)
"for me fashion has always been about dressing up, playing, having fun, enjoying and trying on different things."
What's your personal style like?
Sarah Kate: My personal style developed through digging through thrift stores back in the United States. So now I have quite a good eye for identifying fashion by era. I would dress up and play around getting pictures taken. So for me fashion has always been about dressing up, playing, having fun, enjoying and trying on different things. So that’s basically how I fell in love with clothes, fashion, and styling.
Do you hunt for vintage in Korea?
Sarah Kate: I don’t look for vintage stuff in Korea. I just gave up. There is vintage, but it’s not the vintage that I would want to find. It’s Japanese vintage, usually 80s and 90s. I love ornamental, embroidery, anything shiny and luxury end of vintage.
So where do you do your shopping?
Sarah Kate: I think it’s very important to buy local. So here in Asia we should focus on our young emerging designers. I love Thai designers because they have a very vibrant culture and use vibrant colors in their clothing. Filipino designers have a very couture style and the price is very affordable because that’s the nature of their industry. There’s amazing designers in Indonesia, Malaysia, The Philippines & Thailand. I love color and mixing pieces, but I also love Uniqlo. I think it’s dangerous to buy fast-fashion but if you choose wisely and make sure you’ll wear it at least 30 times, it shouldn't do any harm.
How did you land the K-Style hosting gig?
Sarah Kate: From my club promotion days I was able to meet a lot of entertainment industry people. At the time everyone was hanging out at the VIP tables, so I started getting styling gigs since I was known for the costumes I made for myself and my dancers. A K-style producer contacted me and asked if I knew any foreign stylists, and I was like, "Yeah, me!" I got on the show and that was before Irene Kim blew up as well, so we were both like, "What are we doing?" (laughs)
What did you learn from the material covered for the show?
Sarah Kate: I already knew a bit about K-fashion because I’m friends with designers. I really learned a lot about K-beauty! All about hair and makeup from our guests. We had nail artist Unistella on the show too.
How would you define K-fashion?
Sarah Kate: Koreans are very good curators. Japan in the 90’s was amazing but was all about the hyper. It was like taking 70’s American film culture, a bit of porn, manga, lolita culture and heating it up at 360 degrees and boom it's Harajuku fashion. Korea is very conservative, and chic in a way, they don’t dress up for many events. There’s not a lot of color. There’s no gala culture. If you go to a wedding you probably are wearing black, it’s kind of New York-ish in that way. So I think fashion-wise Koreans are amazing curators but it’s muted and toned down, a chic style that is street-friendly. When I first came to Korea in 2006 it was all leggings and flats everywhere. A bit later on it was stockings with sandals. Fashion was not as globalized back then and as Korea has become more and more open over the last decade, it has transformed.
Which Korean designers do you like?
Sarah Kate: There's Lie Sang Bong, of course. But an emerging designer that I like is Cheez Heezin. She’s got her own personal style. She’s an illustrator she creates her own prints. She loves pink, as do I, and it’s so true to her. I like how she is not compromised by trends. VVV is another designer, who does more street oriented apparel and she’s sticks to her own tastes.
"If you learn your fashion history, you’ll never have a problem being stylish!"
Drama World premiered on Viki a few weeks ago. Can you tell us about the project and your involvement?
Sarah Kate: Drama World plays with the global view of K-dramas. It’s about an American girl who is a fan of K-dramas and falls into an actual K-drama through her phone. She suddenly starts interacting with the characters in Korea. My role was Style Director so while I was not always on set, I came up with the concepts alongside the writers. My whole mission was to dress the characters in as much Korean brands as possible. But because the shoot was done over the course of three months, all of our borrowing had to be for three months at a time which meant no current season. Fortunately we were able to borrow clothes from Greedilus, Chez Heezin, SMK, Lie Sang Bong, and Jimmythetaylor!
You're also a college lecturer!
Sarah Kate: Yes, I lecture at Gukjae Fashion Occupational College. Lie Sang Bong is also a lecturer there! The course I teach is Fashion Culture, so I’m really obsessed with the sociological points of fashion. Fashion is not just trend, it also represents what is going on in the world. The fashion education in Korea is very technical, they’re amazing at sewing and draping but they might be missing the fashion history or cultural studies aspect which is as important. I go through each era from 1900 to 2000. I try to make it as fun as possible, we talk about the 70’s, Glam Rock, David Bowie, Studio 54, and even drug culture. No teacher would really talk about that in Korea but it’s a huge part of youth movements and fashion. If you learn your fashion history, you’ll never have a problem being stylish!
You're quite the Renaissance Woman! What else should we look forward to?
Sarah Kate: Right now I’m having fun with YouTube where I share my lifestyle and understanding of Asian fashion with the world. Upcoming are two new series, The Hip List for Star World Asia and a new K-style series that I'll reveal more about soon. As far as fashion goes, in the future I would love to have my own brand, something like a kid’s clothing line that’s colorful and full of prints!