Won Jeon, the brains behind the South-Korean fashion brand/collective Painters, isn’t afraid of being different. His latest collection, Dead Poet’s Society, which showcased as part of the Russian Fashion Council’s Global Talents Digital contest first, and then at last Seoul Fashion Week, builds on his lifelong interest in the elusive nature of constructing individual identity. Below, he details his international fashion journey and the importance of authenticity in a sea of rapidly changing trends. He describes it best when he says “I choose to stay on the B-side.”
Won Jeon, could you tell us a bit about how you got into fashion and how you came to create the brand/collective Painters?
I grew up in Seoul, and I was home-schooled there. It wasn’t the typical pathway that people take there for their education, but I was lucky enough to have parents that let me pursue an alternative pathway. This allowed me to be in control of what I wore every day, instead of wearing the strict dress code demanded of students in school. That was probably when I realised how difficult it is to express individual identity through style in Seoul from a young age.
After deciding to pursue fashion, I became a college student in London. While I was at university, I thought a lot about how individual identity manifested in my work. I started to watch people closely, and I found that people who pursue art and design are always pursuing new ways of seeing, thinking and valuing individual identity. I realised that I wanted to be surrounded by likeminded people that share my values regarding this topic. I decided to start the brand Painters in an effort to show different types of beauty in womenswear.
Having studied in Seoul (Seoul Mode Fashion Institute) and London (London College of Fashion), do you see yourself as an international designer in terms of outlook? How did studying in these two very different cultures inform your work?
I gained a lot of insight and inspiration by studying in both Asian and European cultures. The fashion industry in Seoul is more about following trends than building individual style. Seoul is well-known for plastic surgery in Asia, and we have very fixed ideas about beauty. The cultural exports and movies that come out of Seoul show this: they are stylish and trendy, but it is hard to find the individual’s distinctiveness in their style. I think this is because people in Seoul don’t want to seem unusual.
Alternatively, London has a variety of ethnic groups and cultural movements, so every individual is proud of their identity and aims to maintain their originality. These two very different experiences gave me an insight into people, cultures and how individuals play with their identity through their look in different parts of the world.
I would say that my unique experiences have affected my work strongly when I create visuals (images, videos or graphics) for Painters. I always check if it is looking clean and cool, and if I can recognize the identities within it.
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How much do other creative mediums (like painting, film and music) inform your creative process when designing a new collection?
I take a lot of inspiration from all the arts. I search for the cause or the reason behind the work, and this is as important to me as the cool visuals. I’m interested in what the artist is trying to express, what their purpose is, and the grievances they have. I try to imagine what the developmental process was for the artwork. I think about why and how the author created what they did, which gives me a wider insight into creative inspiration. At this point, I try to think about the messages that I want to express through my collection.
Congratulations on being one of the selected designers to showcase your latest collection as part of Russian Fashion Council’s Global Talents Digital contest. The collection you presented was named after the film Dead Poet’s Society. Can you tell us more about this inspiration?
Dead Poet’s Society is about a group of students with dreams of working in creative professions. Their parents and teachers are not supportive, they want them to aim for more practical careers like medicine and law. They don’t value the more classically underpaid jobs. For this collection, I started to focus on jobs that society can undervalue, and I wanted to present them in my own way. There are a poet, a painter and a writer who might be seen as useless, or destitute. For this collection, I tried to give people new ways of looking at these undervalued jobs.
“You must trust that your beliefs are unique, your own even though others may think them odd or unpopular.” You use this quote from the film to introduce us to the lookbook. In what ways does this quote speak to you personally? And how is it related to the clothes you’ve presented?
Whilst preparing this collection, I was aware that the garments I was making weren’t exactly ‘looks’ in the traditional sense. My friends consoled me by telling me, ‘you are different, and you have your own way.’s Other people would say I needed to make my designs with more of a commercial focus, that I needed to realize that this is a business and a very different space from art school.
Sometimes, I do feel lost regarding my direction; I can make wrong turns. Not knowing the ‘general standard’ of design I am aiming towards in my final work can be hard. When I am feeling lost, I try to get to the bottom of that feeling. I think I am good at making mistakes and learning from them. This is reflected in my experimentations with volumes and shapes that are shown through my collections.
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The collection is fascinating; the materiality and silhouettes specifically remind me of sculpture. The loose threads, net-like pieces, upcycled clothes and also the use of pages from old books gives the collection a sense of craftsmanship and laborious artisanal work. In an increasingly industrialised society where everything is mass produced, how do you maintain a sense of artistry within your clothes?
When I decided to start Painters, I dreamt about making a collection with my hands rather than manufactured in a factory. In our society, everything is mass-produced, and we are surrounded by fast fashion; I wanted to show my thoughts and my values through my looks – that is the basis of Painters.
Experimental shapes and volumes that people have never seen, fabrics mixed by hand and an interesting set of stories for each new season. I push myself to try new things and experience as much as possible, either good or bad, to keep myself progressing forward.
I guess that uniting all these elements isn’t easy. What was the process like designing the collection? How is your creative process?
It all starts with a word or a sentence that I’m inspired by. Then I make up stories, imagining the world that surrounded the initial idea. At the start of a project, I like to play around with ideas without thinking about the final piece. I put together all the parts of the research and the initial ideas, such as fabric and materials, and start to mix them together. When all these foundational steps are laid out, I start to sketch the shape and volume of each look. Lastly, I add any details.
A lot of Painters’ collections display alternative ways of looking at form, which reminded me of what Rei Kawakubo was doing in the ‘80s with her formless, asymmetrical silhouettes. You also define the brand like this: “Not following beautiful faces, garments or proportions, Painters aims to make a new impact to make sure that different people can be accepted within their own level of individual tastes and identity.” Do you think of yourself as someone defying the current state of fashion, society and the status quo?
I don’t see myself defying the current state of fashion. Here is a quote that speaks to this. “I like weird people, the black sheep, the odd ducks, the rejects, the eccentrics, the loners, the lost and forgotten. More often than not, these people have the most beautiful souls.” I just like the opposite of normal; that is where I normally find the most interesting inspiration. I think this is the reason that I choose to stay on the B-Side.
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When looking in retrospect at previous collections, I see you usually cover the models’ faces. What comment are you making about anonymity vs visibility? Is it to make it more universal somehow?
Recently, I have been interested in which kinds of people hide their face in society. Normally, these people are those who strongly express their thoughts – like the Anonymous group, protestors and creeps. They hide their identities in a way that gives them more control over their identity; covering their face limits what people can see them do. For instance, subtle shifts or movements. Ironically, the stronger message these people tend to want to relay, a higher level of anonymity is sought after also. These ideas inspire me. I also think that by covering the face of a model, my looks get stronger.
Sustainability was central to Global Talents Digital, a word that sometimes is thrown around in the fashion industry, how does Painters strive to be as sustainable as possible in this day and age as a fashion brand?
I use lots of recycled fabric for my collections rather than buying new high-quality materials like silk and cashmere. This sheds new light onto the way I look at wasted and undervalued materials. I try to use recycled materials in small details like the care labels. I think that sustainability will become much more important in the fashion industry, so I am trying to find sustainably-manufactured materials for my future projects.
You’ve presented your collection virtually as part of Global Talents Digital. These past months, we’ve seen many other designers and brands present their collections through films, 3D and CGI imagery, VR… The global pandemic has forced everyone to go digital. How do you face this challenge?
After March 2020, everything changed in the world. All the fashion weeks were cancelled, and lockdown introduced an unprecedented amount of distance into everyday life. Since then, presentations have become digital. Of course, it would have been better to present them on a catwalk and on a physical stage. In a way, these changes also allow for a new level of innovation within presentations.
Before the pandemic, only a small percentage of people could see the catwalk up close, and all the videos from the catwalk had a similar format. Now, brand promotion has become more creative with the development of technology, and so consumers can easily access and interact with the brands. I believe this digital transformation will bring us onto a new level of development within the visual arts.
To deal with these emerging trends, I have presented several projects on a variety of platforms such as live streams, a digital trade show by video conference and a digital fashion week. Recently, in regard to these projects, I have spent a lot of time reflecting upon how I visually present Painters digitally.
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Back to the film Dead Poet’s Society, there is a reference to Robert Frost’s famous line “Two roads diverged in the wood and I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.” This is really good advice. Do you have any advice to younger people who are scared to stand out?
This is the Truman show and you are Truman, so don’t get cold feet.
What does the future hold for yourself and for Painters?
When I am much older and I look back on my life, I hope that I’ll have made diverse presentations with cool collections that aren’t related to the ever-evolving trends. I hope that I will have included thought-provoking messages within each collection, and that my work will have been showcased worldwide so that people from all over can appreciate the values I have instilled in Painters. Most importantly, I hope I do not settle until I fulfill all my career goals.
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