Ain’t Too Proud to SangBeg
Published April 10, 2009
As Seoul’s reigning style celebrity for the city’s youth culture, Ha SangBeg led the charge away from conservative commercial shows at Seoul Fashion week. Opening to role-call shouts from Full Metal Jacket, SangBeg sent out a brigade of female and male models in chic survivalist gear. Looks came in black, navy, cream, army green and khaki with a few symbolically strong exceptions, a remarkable departure from SangBeg’s Spring/Summer’s neon palette. The show was a highpoint in the otherwise staid schedule for Seoul Fashion Week’s main show-space in SETEC (Seoul Trade Exhibition Center), and one of the more wearable collections. Massive pockets turned miniskirts and hooded jackets doubling as dresses into items that could serve as their wearer’s only garment, regardless of circumstance or necessity.
Initially, I saluted SangBeg for what I perceived as a vivid anti-war statement running through the show’s military-like exigency and serious symbolism, particularly the moment when the show halted, to be followed by a sequence of ghostly white versions of the uniform-inspired line wafting down the runway, preceded by models with yellow carnations stuffed into their left pockets. Upon meeting SangBeg I realized that I’d sandbagged the collection with didactics. “I have just been wearing this army coat all winter,” explained SangBeg, handing me his multi-layered pea green standard-issue nylon coat to examine. Happy to accept my reading for his show, SangBeg was clear that the clothes themselves came first.
SangBeg praised his coat, which he had bought at an Army & Navy store, for its cocoon-like qualities. “It kept me warm all winter.” His motives were practical rather than political, in spite of the recent interest in topical themes: “especially today after North Korea’s little stunt, but I have nothing to do with that.”
Mid-way through our discussion, a group of dainty young ladies in conservative Gossip Girl-style gear complete with Chanel headbands recognized him from his popular style show on Mnet (Korea’s local MTV station) and gaped as he directed my attention to a cluster of bright, friendly looking silver buttons with neon blue, orange and pink lacquer that he’d pinned on to his coat. “See, these are hollow-point shells,” he explained, pointing to the items I mistook for abstract flowers. “It is the most brutal and destructive bullet made. A pointy bullet just pierces through the body, but the hollow point explodes inside a person on impact. Part of my jewelry collection is to make these in silver, gold and cheerful colors. These buttons look pretty but they are really scary.”
In the same spirit, the pink patterns on the sharp navy mens’ suits that SangBeg sent down the catwalk at SETEC were intended to look like raw open flesh torn apart by a hollow-point shot.
SangBeg’s last show was inspired by the idea of an alternative underwater universe. We recalled that the last time we had met, we had gotten Mr. Fish pedicures, in which we immersed our feet in water and we were told that small fish ate off the dead cells. Although the process was advertised as a symbiotic relationship where the helpful fish nibble away unwanted dead skin, interestingly their suckers were actually focusing on the thinnest and freshest part of my feet. Sangbeg and I agreed that the fish were not our friends, but weren’t particularly adept at extracting blood, either. Similarly, SangBeg’s new collection was about putting a thin pretty spin on actually horrifying dangers.
Sangbeg’s close attention to tailoring grounds the clothing. After establishing himself on the London club scene as a DJ, stylist, and fashion reporter for Vogue Korea, SangBeg trained at Saint Martins before returning to Korea. England certainly influences SangBeg. However, he is always attentive to references and ingredients unique to Korean culture. “In this collection, I included a modified version of traditional Korean menswear trousers,” he said with a cheeky smile, “but I tied them with wire, to give them a wavy hem. No one understood how I did it, but they knew that what I was doing was uniquely Korean.”
Despite pushing Korean style further into the international framework than the forgettable strictly commercial designers who also showed at Setec, SangBeg is sensitive to his privileged relationship with a Korea on the cusp of serious paradigm shifts. “I used a lot of camouflage in this collection, because we Koreans like to be camouflaged,” he said, glancing at his identikit Chanel-clad fans.
“We can be aggressive. We can be pussy,” he declaimed, before we burst out in giggles. “No really, we can be pushy but we can also be pussies. We are very polite. Etiquette is very important to us. Respect is very important. It is the first step to being socialized. From school on, we are educated that being showy is bad,” he went on, while pointing from the vast Woobar windows onto the expansive highway, cityscape and scenery of the Han River. As the second designer since my arrival a week ago to make this observation, SangBeg drew my attention to the near total uniformity in colour for cars crowded along the massive stretch of road we can see from the W hotel’s lobby.
“I could not have happened in the eighties or before,” SangBeg mused, although his delightfully impish personal charm makes it impossible to imagine he would ever lack an audience. “Only now is Korean culture opening up and becoming more diverse and accepting. It all happened here with The Crying Game. When that movie first screened, the pivotal scene was censored. We knew what we were missing and we were tired of being sheltered. That’s when educated audiences started resisting and now Korea has come out with Oldboy and other examples of cinema that are scandalous but worthy of international admiration. It’s not gratuitous.”
“I do a lot of different things, but I am first and foremost a designer. Everything I do goes back into my collection,” he explained while showing me a signature ring he designed to resemble the knot on a piece of wire fencing, with diamonds at each end. “Everything that I do as a stylist, TV presenter, author, and diamonds designer all goes toward supporting my collection. It is my secret garden. I might listen to advice but I won’t follow it. This is mine and I’ll do my own shit for my garden. I am not living for other people’s reactions with my collection. It’s my one bloody style.” Literally.