Korean fashion designer Kwak Hyunjoo.
Hair and makeup by Jeongmin Lee / Taken in cooperation with TINNews
Fashion is an industry in which it is important to be “edgy.” That term has been around, in American English, for a long time. It means something that pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable, or is on the leading edge of a field, something that literally sits on the edge of a cliff that overlooks that which is safe and socially unacceptable. In the original sense of the word, “edgy” means something so new and unusual that it is both interesting, yet also a bit uncomfortable. And in most places, fashion is meant to challenge people’s standards and the limits of what is comfortable.
But this is Korea. Here, the word “edgy” has entered the lexicon, but only in the limited sense of something that is “new and fashionable.” The original sense of boundary-pushing is gone. And this is not surprising, since this is a neo-Confucian culture that is inherently uncomfortable with things that are new or which challenge the status quo. And in the Korean fashion industry, which is heavily supported by the government and controlled by civil servants, the American sense of “edgy” is not considered a good thing. It’s a strange relationship, actually, as the Korean government pushes movies, TV dramas, music, and now fashion overseas, because historically speaking, the Korean government and artists have not had a great relationship.
Now, as Korean fashion designers are starting to be more noticed overseas, the standards for judgment are becoming more international. In short, to compete as an artist in the global market, one has to be edgy, in the western sense of the word. In New York, London, Milan, and Tokyo, no one wants safe and conservative. They want “edge” as sharp as a knife.
This is a portrait of Kwak Hyun Joo, one of several young Korean designers receiving increasing attention overseas, and not amongst just the general public, but from western fashion journalists and buyers as well. Designer Kwak’s fashions are creative and truly edgy, and when she posed for this portrait, I wanted it to reflect that, as well as her specific personality.
As a photographer, I always try to talk with my subjects and get to know some aspects of their character, to find something that can help me make a picture. In designer Kwak’s case, I didn’t know her well, but it was easy to communicate with her, since she is quite friendly and cheerful, with a really great sense of humor. When I asked her if there were any concepts she would like to express in a photograph, she responded that she like the idea of the “femme fatale,” in the sense of Snow White’s poisoned apple, or a “dangerous woman”.
I immediately thought that the easiest way to express a sense of danger was with a knife, which also gives a sense of creation. You can peel an apple with a knife, and you can cook with a knife, but the knife is also a symbol of danger. In Japanese kitchens, for example, it’s considered bad luck to store knives out in the open. Indeed, knives are used for mostly cooking, but they can easily become a lethal instrument of death.
A woman holding a knife, along with an apple, suggests a sense of creative power, but also the power to threaten, to hurt, to destroy. Along with the bright orange dress, stiletto “killer” heels, and her luxurious hair, and the heavy makeup we were using, I felt the look was perfect for her, a young designer with “edge” as sharp as the edge of a knife. As a designer, she possesses the power to create, but not in the safe, acceptable ways that everyone might like.
And that is the very thing I wanted to express in that picture, while also making an image that needs to be interesting in itself. It is important to remember that on the international stage, even Korea’s most famous stars and celebrities would not be recognized on the street, so the same picture that might satisfy the Korean market is just a picture of a random person to the average international viewer.
And frankly, many Koreans do not know most of their own famous designers, besides a few of the very most popular, such as internationally-based Lie Sang Bong, television regular Ha Sang Beg, or the late, great André Kim. In order to attract the attention of the many people who might not know who Kwak Hyun Joo is, the picture needs to be truly edgy and original itself. It needs the viewer to ask the question, “Who IS that?” and perhaps actually make them more curious about wanting to learn more about them.
In my view, even a celebrity picture must be truly unique. My question is always, “Would this picture be interesting, either thematically or visually, if this person wasn’t famous at all?” This is what makes the world’s greatest living portrait photographer — Annie Liebovitz — so great. It’s not about just the celebrity, but about taking a strong, unique picture that is both an expression of the photographer’s style and the subject’s personality.
In the end, I was very grateful for Kwak Hyun Joo being so open-minded about this portrait. The power of this picture comes not just from me, but also from designer Kwak’s bravery in allowing this picture to be taken and published, which again defines her as truly “edgy” in the original sense of the word.