Passion is Fashion, Lie Sang-bong, Mineumin Publishing
By Yun Suh-young
"Fashion is passion" is an overused term in the fashion industry, but Lie Sang-bong has no other way to explain what drove him as a designer over the past 30 years.
He chose the tired cliche as the title of his new book, a collection of essays that read like an autobiography. His exuberant but carefully-paced words provide an earnest and kaleidoscopic account of his humble beginnings and growth to becoming one of the most influential figures of the Korean fashion scene.
Lie's passion for fashion started to burn when designers were just beginning to be accepted as artists in a society that had previously failed to distinguish them from seamstresses.
The first person in Korea given the honor of being described as a ''fashion designer'' after the word entered the social lexicon was the late Andre Kim (1935-2010), who debuted his own brand in 1962.
Kim, then a rare male figure in Korea's nascent fashion industry, quickly gained iconic status, as television celebrities and upper-class women fell over themselves to buy his lavish ball gowns and other extravagant garments that qualified as status symbols in a country developing a taste for materialism.
But famous as he was, Kim was also an enigma, a towering man moving around in popped-up, all-white outfits who never engaged with anyone aside of his narrow circle of designers, celebrities, models and journalists.
As a person, Lie, the most prominent figure among the so-called ''second generation'' designers that came after Kim, was everything that Kim wasn't. While his works often won critical acclaim, Lie never appeared to take himself too seriously. His bubbly and approachable personality is tailor made for the age of ubiquitous Internet and social media.
Lie's works stood for values opposite to those expressed by Kim. The earlier creations of Lie, who introduced his own line in 1985, were considered to be overly artistic. However, he eventually showed a talent for striking a balance between being imaginative and wearable, which allowed him to be a critical source of creative input in the fashion industry.
Lie Sang-bong works in his office in Yeoksam-dong, southern Seoul. / Korea Times
Lie and Kim both happened to be students of the late Choi Kyung-ja, a largely-forgotten early designer and founder of the Kukje Attire Academy, which could be described as the country's very first fashion institute.
Lie entered Kukje after giving up on his dream of becoming a writer or an actor while a student at the Seoul Institute of Arts. It was difficult to pursue a career in theater after his father's business went bankrupt.
Pressed to be self-dependent, Lie looked for ways of becoming a bread-winner and Kukje was just a short walk away from his home. After a year of training at the school, Lie threw himself into the world of fashion.
While his beginnings were modest, Lie's ambitions grew as he began to gain a reputation from his private collections and participated in design competitions.
In the book, Lie fondly but painfully remembers when he was younger and would painstakingly and desperately prepare for several months for a catwalk exposure that would last 10 minutes. No matter the size of the show, the applause at the end of them was uniformly electric, he says.
Lie began gaining international recognition after he showed his collection at the Paris Pret-a-Porter collection in 1987, an event he still participates in regularly. His activity in Paris opened new opportunities for him after he found buyers in France, Germany and even Middle Eastern countries such as Kuwait.
From designer to cultural icon
In Korea, he became well known after an appearance on the MBC television reality show "Infinite Challenge" in 2006 during which he put up six "ordinary-looking" celebrities on his runway. In this collection, he introduced clothes printed with "Hangeul," Korean alphabet, and gained a reputation as a "national designer" who spreads Korean culture to the world.
Lie is definitely a curious character. He always claims he is 37-year-old, which he probably isn't. He says he loves the number 37 because adding three and seven creates a two-digit number with a zero in it ― which he believes represents infinity and emptiness.
His business card is a small envelope with ''Be Happy!'' written inside it. He spells his surname as ''Lie'' in English instead of the more widely used Lee because he wants to be different.
He explains that his eccentricities reflect his passion to always evolve and change. "Stagnant water is bound to rot," he says. "I want to keep evolving until I breathe my last breath.''
When recalling Lie's collections, people first think of the strong use of black and red along with the extraordinary performances he always produces to surprise audiences.
But the usage of the two colors he is most famous for isn't exactly intended, he says. He used to always like black and the red because he was inspired by a fire that burned his house down.
"People think I have a strong style, but I don't and I don't want to. I follow my heart and focus on what I'm interested at the moment and inspired by. That's what comes up in my collections," Lie says in his book.
To him, freedom means "thoughts without limits." Designers should have their eyes, ears, heart, and even cells open wide.
"I find inspiration in everything. I think designers should be like water and wind. Water changes according to the form of each container and wind can go anywhere and everywhere. Style should also be like that."
He laments the monotonous trends that dominate the Korean fashion market saying designers should not be swayed by them and consumers should try to create their own style instead of buying outfits shown in store-front display windows.
The passion of the forever-young, ever-evolving designer is so apparent that it seems to spill out of the pages of this book.