September 2020
People > Hanbok Designer Danha "Hanbok as Global Daily Wear"
Hanbok Designer Danha "Hanbok as Global Daily Wear"

Blackpink, the Korean girl group sensation, wore hanbok, the traditional Korean clothes, in their “How You Like That” music video, inviting curiosity from fans in Korea and around the world. The eye-catching bright colors and patterns in the video let the world know that there are much more diverse styles of hanbok than are commonly known. Danha, the designer of the highly touted hanbok who also runs a firm specializing in hanbok named after her, dreams of turning the traditional Korean garment into everyday fashion for people around the world.

Production of the highly praised hanbok for girl group Blackpink
Surge in inquiries about hanbok from home and abroad after the release of the music video
Began to design hanbok by upcycling discarded wedding dresses
Research and content development needed to promote hanbok overseas

Greetings! Your company is gaining worldwide attention for designing the hanbok worn by Blackpink. Could you tell us a bit about it, Danha?
I would be happy to. Danha was established in 2018 to produce hanbok by upcycling discarded materials. Danha aims at contributing to improving environmental conditions by making hanbok with recycled fabrics and making hanbok accessible to more people. We sell our original hanbok designs through our online shop along with artistic goods with traditional motifs that are created in collaboration with a few outside designers.

Is it true that you worked as a casino dealer for some time? How did you turn to hanbok designing?
Having majored in Chinese literature at college, I worked at a casino using my language skills. Working as a dealer is quite exhausting, but the hours are rather short and many dealers have side jobs. I liked hanbok even as a child and began a business leasing hanbok online. It was a time when online leasing of hanbok was growing more and more popular, and my side job became so successful that it replaced my main job. My mother had a wedding dress shop, and I saw lots of wedding dresses being thrown out there. I wondered if I could reuse the spare gowns for hanbok. I received donations of dresses from a few large wedding shops and started to upcycle them.

It must be quite challenging to design something, and few would dare to try. How were you able to do that?
Whenever I went abroad, I brought hanbok with me and wore them there. That was because I felt very special in hanbok and it looked prettier when taking photos. To wear hanbok while travelling, I had to modify it to be more comfortable. Even if I had a professional hanbok maker do the alterations, I had to know something about hanbok to get the results I wanted. So I learned about hanbok design at a specialized institute and am still learning while working. As I got into in practical hanbok making, I became interested in delving into the theoretical side of clothing, too. At the moment, I am studying at a graduate school’s department of fashion design noted for traditional clothing research.

We understand that your designs are based on a flat pattern method. Could you elaborate on that?
Danha pursues upcycled hanbok, and so we adopt the flat pattern method as our basic principle. Traditionally, Koreans used this way of cutting pattern pieces from flat pieces of fabric and sewing together the cut-out pieces. Compared to the draping technique, in which the designer drapes the fabric around the body or pins it onto a dress form, the pattern method results in much less wasted fabric. With draping, over 10 percent of the fabric is lost, whereas the loss is an average 3 percent with the flat pattern method.

How did Blackpink come to wear Danha’s hanbok?
We didn’t have any connection with the group until they contacted us and said they wanted to purchase our hanbok. They altered our pieces to fit the members’ bodies and the mood and concept of the music video. Jennie’s robe has been cut in half and was used like a skirt. Rosé’s cheollik, a garment used in formal attire for military officials of the Joseon era, was originally not embroidered, but they added embroidery to it to make it even more fun. I heard that they liked our hanbok because of the fancy patterns that are hard to find elsewhere.

Do you design the patterns on the hanbok yourself? What draws you to these traditions?
Yes, I do. I usually get ideas from palace artifacts. I often visit museums online and offline and look around everything from paintings to crafts. Lately, I’ve been looking into folk paintings and embroidery to develop new pieces for the next season. The traditional artifacts adopt many motifs that carry auspicious meanings, such as the ten symbols of longevity called sipjangsaeng, phoenixes, and all kinds of plants and animals. They embody wishes for long and healthy lives, fertility, and abundance. Perhaps that is why I feel at ease when I see traditional arts.

Blackpink’s hanbok sparked debate over the identity of the Korean traditional attire. In designing hanbok, what elements do you want to keep and what do you want to improve?
I try to maintain hanbok’s original form and fix the issues that cause inconvenience to the wearer when moving, including the wide sleeves. I use not only silk but also washable fabrics and materials that are woven with thread made from plastic waste. The controversy over hanbok’s identity is attributable largely to misunderstanding, but it has been an opportunity to educate people on the multifaceted nature of the clothes. For instance, some people who had questioned if a crop top could be part of a hanbok have come to understand that we Koreans had a traditional garment called gaseum garigae, a sort of chest wrap. I, for one, welcome the controversy itself.

There must be more visitors to your online shop and more inquiries about purchasing your products. How has the overseas reaction been?
We relaunched our shop for the release of the Blackpink music video to now enable overseas ordering and payment. We anxiously waited for the video’s release, and the moment we saw the scenes where they wore our clothes, we yelled out in happiness. Before the Blackpink video, we had almost no orders at all from outside of Korea, but the visitors to our site have since multiplied by the thousands. Many overseas customers say that they initially thought hanbok was something difficult to appreciate, but that they changed their minds after seeing the music video and looking around our shop. Most overseas customers seem to be attracted to the unique silhouette and fancy patterns of Hanbok that are outstandingly different from Western attire.

What do you think is needed to spread hanbok worldwide? What could the KF do to help?
Some people view hanbok only as formal dress, and I would like to tell them that that is not true at all. The bestselling items in our shop are not special costumes but daily wear items like skirts. The most frequently repurchased item is the skirt, too. When you wear a hanbok skirt along with an ordinary blouse, you look effortlessly special. There is prejudice that people wearing hanbok in daily life are eccentrics bent on drawing attention, but I hope people will see and wear hanbok as just one among many fashion choices. With this in mind, we need to come up with media that will share the appeal of hanbok, its usefulness as fashion, and its cultural value to the outside world. It would be meaningful for the KF to produce and distribute hanbok-related content in print, images, and video. The foundation could also organize an overseas showcase of hanbok and invite celebrities with whom it has connections. I will continue to work to help people around the world access and wear hanbok, and I hope the KF will make similar efforts in areas where it is difficult for individuals to make an influence alone.

Long and short black cheollik, a garment used in formal attire by Joseon-era military officials / Courtesy of Danha

Gungbo skirts with patterns from bonghwangmun inmunbo (wrapping cloths with patterns of phoenix, pearl, and lightning motifs) from the National Palace Museum collection. Gungbo refers to the wrapping cloths used at palaces, and inmunbo means brightly colored or painted wrapping cloths. / Courtesy of Danha.

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