Written by Stephen Schelling
Photographed by Lorryn Smit
Interpretation by Cho Nam-hee
“The true artist does not create art as an end in itself; he creates art for human beings. Humanity is the goal.” This was said by Jewish-Polish violinist, Bronislaw Huberman, an early 20th century artist who was known for his tone, expressiveness, and individualistic and personal interpretations. Both Huberman’s words and the descriptions of his artistic style can be applied to a local artist and craftsman here in Gwangju, traditional Korean clothing designer Park Hyun-chul (박현철), who will have an exhibition of his works in Gwangju this month.
Hyun-chul’s own words express a similar sentiment. “I do not make clothes to make money. I just wish for people to be happy with my clothes.” It is a sentiment he speaks with sincerity, and perhaps it goes deeper than the present. Hyun-chul approaches his work as a spiritual preoccupation with respect for nature, reverence for Korea’s history, and filial piety.
Before Hyun-chul began designing, he researched Korean history and studied literature. “I think it is important to study the whole era of Korean history since what I am making now is the clothing that people wore in the past,” he said. “Not only do I have to know how to make hanbok (한복, traditional Korean clothing) but I also have to understand people in history and their lives.”
Hyun-chul’s designs are inspired by the history found in the excavated costume artifacts of the Chosun Dynasty (조선시대). It is in the realization of those designs that Hyun-chul also imbues his family’s personal history into his work, as his grandmother also designed and crafted hanbok. When Hyun-chul’s grandmother passed away, she left him her fabric and silk. It is with this sense of familial duty and purpose that Hyun-chul designs and creates his hanbok.
“It is my entire self,” he said. “The tasks I do and my behavior, my tone, my thoughts in relationships with people, and the sense of color – everything is the legacy of my beloved grandmother. She did not leave a picture behind, but she gave me her treasured silk. I feel her when I touch the silk she used, cut it with scissors, and sew it with thread. I experience this illusion: It is as if the flow of air changes and goes back to the times when she was alive.”
Hyun-chul’s grandmother likewise thought of her fellow person and the importance that her work carried with it. “She did not neglect a single piece of cloth,” said Hyun-chul, “and she only made clothes for those she liked the most with sincerity. She thought of her and her customer’s attitudes and sacred hearts and the importance of that when it came to making their hanbok.” Hyun-chul remembers some of his grandmother’s venerable wisdom: “Don’t make clothes with bad feelings, don’t make clothes for money, [and] focus on the person who will wear the clothes.”
Hyun-chul has adopted his grandmother’s ideas and hopes to continue in her spirit. “I want to be like her and hand down her spirit to my descendants,” he said. He suggested imagining a story like this: “There was a grandmother who made such clothes, and her grandson, a man who was noble-minded and warm-hearted with skilled hands, took over her work.”
It is this heartfelt heritage, along with an understanding of Korean history, that has informed Hyun-chul’s artistry. After first looking to the past, Hyun-chul then looked to nature to find and hone his design style. “I am mainly inspired by the setting sun, wilting flowers, the forest on a wet day, and fallen leaves,” he said. “Also, I get colors for hanbok from old traditional Korean houses, wooden furniture, and from remaining cultural assets. When the colors pass through my hands, they become skirts, jackets, and pants worn by people.”
Hyun-chul makes extensive use of muted earth tones with small flourishes of richer, more vibrant colors. Reserved floral designs further accent the toned-down colors. His designs appear simple in their arrangement. The colors and nature designs create a subtle harmony that, from a design standpoint, is actually quite complex to create. Again, Hyun-chul first turns toward history for inspiration.
“I like colors and fabrics that have stayed in for years,” he said. “It seems like those senses of color come naturally. Our ancestors made fabric from nature, dyed out of grass, and threaded silk.” He humbly continued, “In fact, I do not have new innovative designs. I only follow the traces left by our ancestors and mix old fabrics together with modern fabrics.”
Hyun-chul then elaborated on his personal design style. “Simple design and colors are my preference. I believe color restraints stand out since the hanbok constitutes more elements than Western clothing, and the silhouette of a hanbok tightened near the chest spreads toward the bottom in a sudden manner. Often, those who prefer my clothes call them ‘well-controlled clothes.’”
Hyun-chul’s mother always told him to be careful when leaving a mark on one’s life. It is a sentiment that his grandmother took seriously, and so does Hyun-chul.
“If you don’t make the clothes in good faith, it will always come back,” he said. “I think clothing is something that I have to make with the most honest, transparent, and purest mind. I think it’s because the clothes touch our skin first. I feel a spiritual bond between the client and myself from the moment they pick up my clothes and enter the showroom, as if I have known them for a very long time. The smile of my client at the final fitting after the production makes me happy.”
With his understanding of hanbok in Korean history and his ancestral profundity, Hyun-chul’s ultimate desire as a hanbok artist and craftsman is expressed through his deeply felt reverence to the craft and his altruistic desire to share it with others.
“Hanbok is very precious for me,” he said, “and I want it to be the same for my clients.”
Those interested in commissioning a personal and unique design from Park Hyun-chul may contact him through his Instagram, #눈썹달주단.
Park Hyun-chul’s fashion show will be held at the Gwangju Theatre (영화의 집, the cinema house next to the theatre) on Saturday, September 23, at 6:00 p.m.
Stephen Schelling is a writer and teacher, a pickler, and an Eagle Scout from America with a B.A. in journalism from Marshall University.