Reviving traditional wear

Reviving traditional wear
Fashion designer Lee Young Hee is known for her modern hanbok designs.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Fashion designer Lee Young Hee may not be widely recognised in Singapore, but she is hot property in Paris, New York and her native South Korea because of her modern hanbok (traditional Korean dress) designs.

The youthful-looking 79-year-old was in town last weekend for SGKstar, a three-day festival showcasing the best of Korean beauty, culture and the arts at Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre. Itcelebrated 40 years of diplomatic relations between Singapore and South Korea.

As this year also marks the 40th anniversary of her career as a hanbok designer, Lee was "very excited to come and take part". A firm believer that one can wear the hanbok every day, she points to her outfit of a black blouse and white skirt as an example.

"It is the lines and the curves of the silhouette and the silk material that make this a hanbok," she explains. She has other hanbok designs in the style of short dresses and estimates that traditional hanboks make up half her designs.

A woman's hanbok typically consists of the jeogori, which is like a cropped jacket with long sleeves, and the chima, a long skirt-like fabric that is wrapped around the bust and falls to the ground. A petticoat, called the sokchima, is worn underneath.

For Lee's first international show in Paris in 1993, titled Clothes Of Wind, she sent models down the runway in lush-coloured chima without the jeogori, so the models' arms, shoulders and cleavage were exposed. While the crowds in Paris loved it, her sexy hanboks caused a stir back home.

Speaking through a translator, Lee recalls: "Everyone was talking about it. They said, 'This is not our culture; this is not our clothes.'"

The late Dr Seok Ju Seon, a well-known scholar of traditional Korean clothing, quelled the commotion. Quoting Dr Seok, Lee says: "As time passes, people change. As people change, clothes should change too."

Lee, who is married to a retired government worker with three adult children, is admired by Italian fashion designers Miuccia Prada and Giorgio Armani for her beautiful hanboks. She counts South Korea's first ladies and current president Park Geun Hye among her clients.

Lee has a boutique in Shinsa-Dong in the Gangnam district of Seoul, and there is a Lee Young Hee museum in New York which has a collection of her hanboks and other exhibits showcasing Korean culture.

Prices for her silk hanboks start from $1,000 and go upwards of $3,000, depending on the pattern and embroidery on the fabric.

While it was common during Lee's childhood years to wear a hanbok, the style of dress gradually fell out of favour during the mid1900s, giving way to Westernised clothing. Most South Koreans now wear the hanbok only during important occasions such as weddings and first birthdays.

Of her sexy Clothes Of Wind collection, Lee says: "If we had the same Korean tradition, no one would like the hanbok. But my designs are something that everyone would be able to wear, like a dress or an evening gown."


I designed it in collaboration with Korean handbag company Simone. It is one of a kind and I like it not only because I designed it, but also for its shape and size for travelling. I've had it since September.

Things in her bag


I always have this in my bag and I give it to people I meet when I travel to show my collection.


I get hot easily, even when I am indoors and during winter. This fan was given to me by my high school junior and it has our school anthem on it. I usually keep a fan with me for six months before it starts to fall apart - by then, someone else would have given me another one.


I have all genres of music in here, from classical to pop. I use this on long-haul flights.


I usually find myself in situations where I meet someone and have to take his or her measurements straightaway, so this comes in handy. This is from the brand Simone and I have had it for about 10 years. I used it to take American politician Hillary Clinton's measurements.


I was on Ulleungdo, an island east of South Korea, to make my way to Dokdo (a nearby island) to stage my Clothes Of Wind fashion show, but it had to be cancelled due to bad weather. I was furious and bought this comb to remember the moment. I held my show on Dokdo two months later in October 2011.


People tell me that I have fair and toned skin and this is my secret. I have been using Sulwhasoo products for almost 20 years.

This article was first published on December 10, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.

Purchase this article for republication.



Your daily good stuff - AsiaOne stories delivered straight to your inbox
By signing up, you agree to our Privacy policy and Terms and Conditions.