How Seoul Design Duo Blindness Is Using Gorgeous Menswear to Defy Korean Gender Norms – Vogue.com
Of the 70-some shows that return to Seoul Fashion Week each season, no one has captured the international crowd’s attention quite like Blindness. Since officially launching the label one year ago (they consider Spring 2017 their first true season), designers KyuYong Shin and JiSun Park have been quickly named the collection to see among international buyers and editors, who are drawn by the duo’s groundbreaking point of view.
Where most Korean designers tend to trade in more commercial items targeted toward the country’s young customer base, Blindness indulges in sheer spectacle—not through flashy performances to distract from unremarkable clothes, but through wildly imaginative, romantic garments with yards of tulle and dripping pearls. Even more head-turning is their informal mission: to use fashion to defy gender norms in South Korea, which despite rapid economic development and Westernization remains a deeply conservative, patriarchal, and heteronormative society.
Though it is true that some standards in Seoul are unconventional—now, young men might openly wear makeup, buy heeled shoes, and fuss over their appearance—Koreans tend to otherwise stick to convention; there are certain stigmas at play. When Blindness first began shaping its style, they were in fact rather hesitant to openly say they were playing with gender. But perhaps emboldened by their trips to Paris—the happy result of making the 2017 LVMH Prize shortlist—or tuned into the narrative the press have latched onto, they’ve doubled down on it. This season, they went as far as to send out statement T-shirts that said “Blind Gender Roles” and “Fuck Gender;” they are now stocked at Barneys New York, Leclaireur Paris, Selfridges London, and more.
“The question we always want to ask is, ‘Is this men’s clothing or women’s clothing? Is that a man or a woman inside them?’ ” Shin said backstage. “That’s the blindness.” Here, Shin and Park explain the story behind their rule-breaking style and what it’s like to challenge the status quo in Korea.
When you started a year ago, it felt unlike anything else at Seoul Fashion Week. Why did you decide to take such a different approach?
Shin: Our first season we started together, we decided to do a proper show, one that was really more conceptual. Even if it didn’t bring in the buyers, we thought, “let’s raise the bar for the press and let them know that there are designers like this in Korea, too.”
Park: In London, young emerging designers have that style, that feeling. But Seoul didn’t really have it. In Seoul, if you’re looking for suits and pretty, well-made pieces, there are plenty of existing designers doing good work. We wanted to make it more exciting.
What are your roles in the design process?
Shin: Our train of thought is usually . . . how about we just try it? (laughs) I’ll look at the little artistic details she conceives—the vintage buttons, pearls and crystals—and find a way to work them into clothes. We do paper sketches, but move everything on to Photoshop and draw the clothes right on top of rendered models.
Park: I don’t really know the process of making clothes, since I studied composition and liked to do illustration. Compared to people who really studied it, I design a bit differently. He tends to rein me in. I might push to make a really artistic show piece, and he’ll find a way to change it a bit and make it prettier, more wearable.
How did you sharpen your unconventional aesthetic? You also take gender into a very different sort of consideration than other designers here.
Park: When we design, we don’t think about whether it’s for men or women. When we dress the models, we just decide who it looks good on, who do these clothes flatter. If we find a friend it looks good on, man or woman, it doesn’t matter.
Last season, for example . . . our beaded bomber jackets, a few womenswear buyers bought them, though they were shown on men. In Milan, they said they sold out in not even one week.
Shin: It happened after LVMH. The interest started to grow. What’s interesting is that the pieces they’re buying are ones we hadn’t actually thought of selling—they’re more for the show.
Park: It’s true, we do make more commercial pieces, but people pick up the show pieces more often.
There isn’t much feminine or otherwise unorthodox menswear in Korea, is there?
Park: Honestly, our first season when we went genderless, the overseas press and buyers loved it so much, but the Korean ones . . . for Korean press to like it, generally it needs to already be a famous brand or celebrities have to be wearing it. We’re emerging designers, but once we got the LVMH Prize shortlist overseas, that’s when interest started to grow here.
Shin: The reverse bow blouses we showed on women, actually, a lot of Korean men bought them. That was surprising.
Do you see the culture changing here? Why do you think gender has been so strictly defined in Korea?
Park: Korea is a bit tough. Among the older generation, defying gender norms is really objectionable. We have a very old, conservative, patriarchal culture that is more strict with men. Among our younger friends, actually, the interest in more liberal overseas culture is growing. There’s the feminism movement, too. So the norms are going away a bit, but in Korea, the men have to go to military [mandatory conscription] and it affects them. He [Shin] went to military, too, and felt the pressure to be traditionally masculine grow.
Despite that, there are some men loosening up. There are men who open their minds up, but to do it, you need to be brave. In Korea, especially, they might ask why do men wear this or that . . . but these men are finding their style in spite of that. There are people who are brave and want to look cool, so for us, we want to loosen that and help bring it out.
Shin: Korean men’s style among young people . . . the ones who have interest in fashion, their viewpoints are slowly opening up. For us, if we keep doing this kind of genderless fashion and then other brands do it, then it could become quite average. Well, maybe not to this extent (laughs), but we think we can help make change happen. That men—or women—don’t have to dress or act a certain way.