By Cathy Rose A. Garcia
There is no doubt Andre Kim is Korea's most famous fashion designer. He has created a unique image and brand name instantly recognizable by Koreans.
As Korea's first male designer, Kim is a trailblazer in the fashion world. His fashion shows are known for showcasing his decadent, richly embroidered gowns worn by beautiful celebrities.
Throughout his 46-year career, Kim has successfully cultivated the Andre Kim brand, associated with luxury and romanticism. He has lent his name to a wide range of goods, such as golf wear, eye wear, jewelry, underwear, children's clothing, bedding, home lighting, Hankook Chinaware porcelain dishware, Samsung household appliances, wallpaper, a Kookmin Bank credit card and even interior design for apartments.
Kim, who has, perhaps singlehandedly raised the international profile of Korean fashion design in the last four decades, recently talked to The Korea Times about the importance of fashion in upgrading Korea's national brand.
Kim supports President Lee Myung-bak's efforts to upgrade the country's brand on par with advanced countries. "Our President Lee tries so hard. I have great respect for him. He tries his best to promote Korea internationally and more strongly", he told The Korea Times, at his shop in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul.
Kim has been staging his fashion shows abroad since the 1960s. He believes fashion is an important tool to introduce and highlight Korea's rich culture and arts to the international audience. Aside from Korean culture, his distinctive designs are also inspired by Oriental and European culture.
"It is very important to combine artistic and cultural imagination together with fashion. Most strongly, I want to impress the citizens from around the world with Korea's very high culture and sophisticated, very artistic fashion. This is very important to do internationally", he said.
Kim was the first Korean fashion designer invited to present his collection in Paris, France in 1966. "Even Japan didn't present a fashion show in Paris yet. I was the very first Korean to present a show in Paris", he said.
His collection in Paris was well received, with French paper Le Figaro calling him a "magician from fairyland".
In the late 1960s to 1970s, Korea was still a developing country, so it was a big thing for Kim to be often invited to present his designs around the world, such as Washington, D.C., New York, Honolulu, Singapore, Jakarta and Los Angeles.
Throughout the years, Kim staged his extravagant shows amid the pyramids in Egypt, and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. He was also invited by the International Olympic Committee to stage shows for the Olympics in Barcelona and Atlanta
Foreign audiences, according to Kim, were very impressed with his designs.
These fashion shows did not just boost Kim's international profile, but Korea's as well. Kim wanted to prove that Korean and Asian arts and culture were just as rich and significant as the arts and culture of Western countries.
"I have great pride in my country and Asia. That is my very important purpose. Internationally, European arts and culture are better known. But I wanted to show through my artistic fashion collection that Korea is also very artistic. I wanted to show Korea's rich and high culture. I wanted to impress them. That was my focus", Kim said.
Kim said his fashion shows reflect his love for Korean and Asian arts, culture and history, and he wants to share this with the international audience.
"I wanted to recreate Korean and Asian royalty's dresses. Because I am Korean and I am Asian, so I wanted to show Asia and Korea's beautiful heritage of culture. I wanted to have a fashion show not only for the sake of commercial fashion. I wanted it to be more like an artistic stage performance. My desire is, through Korean design and arts, to pursue total arts. I wanted to be a fashion designer, not just for commercial design, but dedicated to total arts", he said.
Kim's fashion shows abroad invariably help promote Korea's fashion industry, something that he is well aware of.
"Helping to promote Korea as a country is a very important part. I wanted to show them (international audience) Korea's garment export business. European designers are exporting with higher price, but Korean exports are not very high. But Korean designers, they have imagination and creativity. People have a special impression when they see the labels `Made in France' or `Made in Italy' because of their long history of fashion. I want to promote Korea and Asia's imagination through my fashion", Kim said.
The demand for his fashion shows abroad is stronger than ever, thanks perhaps to the continued popularity of hallyu or Korean Wave around Asia. Kim is known for inviting top Korean stars such as Bae Yong-joon
, Choi Ji-woo
, Jang Dong-gun
, Lee Young-ae
and Won Bin
to model his creations on the catwalk.
"My fashion shows are very different from others shows in America and from other designers. I wanted to insert very artistic and dramatic style, so we need TV actors and actresses to convey the dramatic feeling and atmosphere, he said.
At 73, Kim is definitely not one to rest on his laurels. He continues to work hard to promote his designs and Korea's national image as well.
"I will work more to present Korean fashion, culture and art around the world. I want to let the world know about Korean fashion and creativity", he said.
Who Is Andre Kim?
Korea's top designer Andre Kim was born in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province in 1935. At a young age, Kim said he was always interested in the arts, and wanted to become an artist, or poet.
He finished high school at Hanyeong High School, and graduated from the Kukje Fashion Design Academy. In 1962, Kim presented his first fashion collection. He became known as Korea's first male fashion designer.
At the age of 27, he founded Salon Andre Kim in 1962 in Sogong-dong. In 1966, he was the first Korean to hold a fashion show in Paris. Throughout his career, he has staged countless fashion shows in Korea and abroad, including New York, Washington D.C, Barcelona, Cairo, Sydney, Beijing, Shanghai, Bali and Cambodia.
Kim's fashion shows always feature the hottest Korean celebrities as models. Some of Korea's biggest stars such as Song Seung-hun, Jang Dong-gun
, and kwon Sang-woo
, have all walked down the catwalk wearing Kim's designs.
When asked how he chooses which celebrity to appear in his fashion shows, Kim said, "Of course, beauty is important. Intellectual aura is also very important. Also good acting skills".
Kim has received many accolades at home and abroad. In 1982, he received a Cultural Merit Award from the Italian government. He became the first fashion designer to receive the Korean Presidential Culture & Art Medal in 1997. In 1999, the San Francisco city government even established Andre Kim Day, and in 2000 he received an Art and Literature medal from the French government.
Over the weekend, Kim received the Bo Gwan Order of Culture Merit from the Korean government, in appreciation of his outstanding contribution to the promotion of culture through fashion.
He was named chief designer for the 1981 Miss Universe beauty pageant, and designed the Korean athletes' uniforms for the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. He was also appointed UNICEF goodwill ambassador in 2003.
At the age of 73, Kim shows no signs of slowing down. He remains a high-profile figure in Korean society, instantly recognizable because of the signature all-white space suit that he has worn for decades.
Kim continues to hold numerous fashion shows in Korea and abroad. This year, he has staged fashion shows in Shanghai and Bali, featuring Korean stars Lee Da-hae
and Han Chae-young
Kim has a reputation for working 7 days a week, but he clarifies he works only half a day on Sunday. "So, it's just six days and a half", he says, with a smile.