Jeong Woo Lee


Maison de Lee Young Hee, Fashion designer

Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul

Jeong Woo Lee is a fashion designer and daughter of the late Hanbok designer Young Hee Lee. She stepped into the fashion world in 1987 by undertaking the Maison de Lee Young Hee boutique and played a key role on supporting her mother advance to Paris in 1994. Her independent brand ‘Sa Fille’ launched in 1998 also succeeded in receiving global attention. She later returned to Maison de Lee Young Hee and assisted her mother by focusing on presenting the beauty of hanbok in various and expanded ways. The installation <Wind, Wish> held at the DDP to commemorate 40 years of Lee Young Hee’s career emphasized on the aesthetics of hanbok, being her major achievement. It was Jeong Woo Lee’s intelligent contribution that sustained the brand philosophy of Maison de Lee Young Hee to this day. After the sudden death of her mother last year, she has been clearing up the 40-year-old boutique and donating the major works to a national museum in order to continue the legacy. This interview is about fashion designer Jeong Woo Lee and Maison de Lee Young Hee told from her side.

melmel chung

Last October Lee Young Hee received the Geumgwan(Golden Crown) Order of Culture Merit. As the key person of Maison de Lee Young Hee and daughter, it must have been a dramatic moment.

It was the nation’s first Golden Crown to award the fashion field so it had a huge meaning. Until then Prof. Seok Ju-Seon’s Eungwan(Silver Crown) Order of Cultural Merit was the sole achievement in fashion. I think our field is yet to receive more respect compared to literature or art in that matter. Unlike artists, designers are more likely to be treated more casually. But you see, there are many fashion designers that are at the same time artists considering their outstanding creativity, like Alexander McQueen. And I think my mother was worthy to be such person as well. Aside from being her daughter, I think she was the one and only person in this world who ever reinterpreted a traditional costume with so much creativity and variation.

After her passing, you decided to close the boutique and donate the major works to the National Museum. What triggered you to do so? You could have continued the brand as the successor.

It’s not too much to say that the past 43 years of Maison de Lee Young Hee represent the history of Korean traditional costume, because it carries the essence of all the features of hanbok. Being the one who best comprehends my mother’s works, I figured that the ultimate role for me was to organize and collect everything and find a way to preserve the most valuable pieces. My original plan was to switch the boutique that dwelled the long years of the brand into a memorial museum but I was standing before an enormous amount of hanboks and accessories that filled every drawers and boxes throughout the whole 5 levels. They were piles after piles that added up after all those years preparing countless shows, presenting new collections every season. It was utterly impossible for a single person to manage. I figured the most suitable place to store them long-term was the national museum. And among the many, the Daegu National Museum was perfect since it was specified in costumes. I’m currently working on categorizing the works under era, purpose, material, color and design so the exhibition can last 100, 200 years. It will explain the reason behind every styling, which will help the future curation. What surprised me was that as I go through all this categorization, I could remember the history of every single piece, like when and how they were made. Being the only one fit for this job, I’m putting my bestest effort into this.

There was the traditional line with a touch of design, the more casual and comfortable line, and the modern wear Maison de Lee Young Hee introduced to the world. Was there a specific design principle throughout your products?

It’s the colors and the color senses. If you take a close look at the fabrics of Maison de Lee Young Hee, it separates us from other hanboks because when you put the same color together, our color saturation is one level lower. As if you added a drop of gray into yellow or red. Mother could not stand the intense, vivid colors. So matching our hanboks with other hanbok houses absolutely makes no harmony. We applied both Eastern and Western materials, went as far as to get rid of the jeogori as well, but when it came to colors, we always agreed to Mother’s taste no matter what. So it’s the colors and tones that distinguish Maison de Lee Young Hee.

We’d like to know more about the major work of Maison de Lee Young Hee that connotes the philosophy of the brand.

There are many but I’d like to emphasize the white jeogori (the upper garment of hanbok). Back in the 70s and 80s it was common to get three sets of hanbok before marriage. One was the hot pink skirt paired with yellow jeogori for family gatherings prior to marriage, and the scarlet skirt paired with light green jeogori for your wedding day, then one or two more sets prepared in advance for special occasions in the future. With our times changing, Mother convinced people about cutting down the number sets of hanboks. Instead, she suggested that we keep the scarlet & light green set which symbolises the bride, and add just a single white jeogori that would still look good with the scarlet skirt later on. We have hundreds of different types of white jeogoris at Maison de Lee Young Hee. I think these are the history of hanbok design themselves and an important archive of how hanbok has changed over the course of time and marketability.

What is the biggest message Maison de Lee Young Hee wanted to portray through the medium of fashion?

Mother always pursued to spread the beauty of hanbok much wider. It wasn’t simply sugar-coating what’s already in front of us, but about being the pioneer of discovering the new and show the less-known side of the beauty of hanbok. Within the frame of the traditional costume, she was the first person to ever add a designer’s touch by adjusting the details and color, and the first to invent the ‘modernized hanbok’ for more comfort. And in order to let the world become aware and make it universal, she entered the Paris market with success. The 43 years of Maison de Lee Young Hee is equal to the Korean costume history. Those years were our dedication to spreading the beauty of hanbok with passion and devotion.


You gained independent success in Paris after leaving Maison de Lee Young Hee, and led a nice career along the worldwide fashion market. What part of hanbok triggered you to become a fashion designer yourself later in life?

Hanbok can make every ordinary person shine. Majority of the guests that visit the second floor of the boutique were so caught up with the whole wedding preparations they would come with hardly any make-up on and dressed casually, but when they change into their final piece of hanbok, they become truly beautiful. There was this one time when my staff and I wore hanbok dresses wore our hanbok dresses to a gala dinner hosted by a famous luxury brand, and that night we received a rush of orders. So when in Paris, I’d always take out my hanbok dress when I’m not sure what to wear to a party. And every time I do I’m always in the center of attention. It proves how unique Hanbok is, spotlighting the person who wears it.

There’s definitely something more to hanbok because it’s not easy to describe it in a single category. To your view, as the key member of Maison de Lee Young Hee and designer of the modern wear inspired by the traditional costume, what makes hanbok so exceptional?

Hanbok is a very spiritual costume. You have to wear it for yourself to understand it. Making western clothes based upon the concepts of hanbok have always put me wondering the basic question, ‘what is hanbok?’ I must find the answer in order to be able to make my clothes. And what I found out was very astonishing. Hanbok has a very slight room between the fabric and the skin. And I think that room gives freedom to your soul. I’ve never experienced that in any other.

You ran the Paris boutique of Maison de Lee Young Hee, which was twice selected as the ‘Most Beautiful Shop’ in Paris. Having experienced the local applause, what made the shop so competitive?

We ran the Paris boutique under the concept of ‘The encounter of the East and the West, Men and Women.’ The clothes had timeless sophistication and most of all, were beautiful. We never distributed to any other shops or department stores and sold only at ours. It was literally haute couture. The local feedbacks were greater than you can imagine. Just recently, I showed our Paris collections to the curator of Yves Saint Laurent Museum who visited the Seoul boutique and she was deeply moved because she had finally got to meet the brand in person she was only able to wander outside the shop as a student. We were hot. The luxury and uniqueness we pursued especially stood out in our under garment. I always emphasize on the ground-makings of everything so the quality of our under garment equaled to the outer garments of other brands. We strictly used silk, mesh and specially woven patches. We certainly poured a lot of effort into them. This unknown side of our clothes is Maison de Lee Young Hee’s major distinction. In Paris, the models would even purchase our under garments as wedding gowns.

You launched your own brand Sa Fille in Paris, was the first to introduce Korean perfume, and was selected as one of the 16 creative creators in Paris. For what reason did you return to Maison de Lee Young Hee?

Well, it’s fair to say that I never left. I thought of myself as Lee Young Hee every moment I worked at Maison de Lee Young Hee. I opened a shop in New York following Paris and the sales were increasing, experienced ongoing success, but suddenly one day designing clothes felt tedious and I wasn’t having fun. Fashion must keeping moving forward but it felt as if I was standing in the same place.

Tell us about the relationship between Lee Young Hee and Lee Jeong Woo.

Mother was like the artist who focused on the concept and material, and I was the designer who built the style. For her, hanbok was a canvas to paint her colors and design and then I would take the various costumes for people to try on and find the matching items that would finish the look. Fashion always has a trend and transforms along time. Thus what matters most is how or who wears the same piece. But hanbok is different. This view created a shift of aspect and sometimes caused conflict between us. But most of the times we inspired each other, filled each other with our different strengths, and the synergy was the major driving force of Maison de Lee Young Hee.

What side, out of the many, of Lee Young Hee did you respect the most?

Mother was gifted with her sense of colors. She described the cosmos in the skirt and jeogori. Dying the mix of colors from nature, matching the colors of the top and bottom and embroidery, it made my jaws drop all the time. I’m also a fashion designer and I know a number of famous designers but I’ve never seen someone like her who plays with so much variety of colors with such freedom, while preserving the delicate and elegant image. For that reason my respect for her never failed even when we had arguments over our different opinions.

We were told you strongly proposed to hold the 40 year memorial show of Maison de Lee Young Hee <Wind, Wish> at DDP in 2015. Tell us more about it.

It was a show I planned for nearly a decade. When Mother turned 70, I asked to myself what would be meaningful for her 80th birthday. She’d been doing fashion shows for 40 years so that was nothing new so I thought of an exhibition which could be much better. We had experienced doing an exhibition in Paris but this time I wanted to buckle down on it and combine with contemporary art. Fashion design is bound to the human body so you need to keep searching new things within the limited form and space, which occasionally suffocated me. I was always fond of architecture and fine art and this project gave me this strange sense of freedom. Works of Maison de Lee Young Hee is a whole lot more beautiful in person. So I chose to present it to a larger group through a new form of exhibition. And it was a great chance to prove that Mother’s existing works can transform into a different form of art.

As a designer dedicated to hanbok for years, we wonder what your views are towards the young generation that consume rental hanboks around the castle in Seoul in order to spread the tradition.

Times have changed and so have our values. Thus the growing market of rental hanboks should not be denounced. Nonetheless, it’s quite unpleasant to look at them walk the streets around the castle. I hear they are mostly worn by foreigners(tourists) and probably it’s to meet the multi-cultural taste, but those hanboks have lost their national identity. No matter how much you vary the style for more comfort, concerning colors and material you must stick to the basics of hanbok, which is simplicity. But when you look at the rental hanboks there are hundreds of needless elements like patterns and even lace in just the skirt itself. It wouldn’t be strange at all even if you wear those around the Versailles Palace. The esthetics of hanbok is elegance. And obviously without that, it doesn’t look like hanbok at all. They say it’s strictly a commercial realm so it’s hard to control but I wish situations like these that could depreciate the beauty of hanbok be avoided.