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Profile of Korean Fashion Designer Lie Sang-Bong

Aired July 12, 2013 - 05:30:00   ET


MONITA RAJPAL, CNN HOST (voice-over): He's known as Korea's answer to Alexander McQueen, but designer Lie Sang Bong most definitely has a style all of his own. Known for his architecturally shaped silhouettes and vivid colors, Lie draws inspiration from Korean life and culture. Standing apart from others with his heavy use of the Hangeul alphabet in his pieces.

A former actor, Lie gained acclaim for his flair for fashion right from his debut in 1993. But it wasn't till Lie successfully launched his pret-a-porter collection in Paris 11 years later that his work again gaining recognition internationally. Now with almost 30 years in the industry, his designs have been worn by a host of international superstars, from Lindsey Lohan to South Korea's first lady.

He's also lent his art to Korean business giant Samsung and LG to create limited edition films and computers. This week on TALK ASIA, we're in Seoul to see the city through the eyes of designer Lie Sang Bong and get a rare inside look into the working of his Korean couture fashion house.


RAJPAL: Lie Sang Bong, welcome to TALK ASIA.

LIE SANG BONG, FASHION DESIGNER (through translator): Nice to meet you.

RAJPAL: When you look around your studio, when you look around your stores, how do you feel about all that you've accomplished?

LIE (through translator): I think I'm still at the beginning stages and I don't consider myself to have achieved anything yet. I merely consider what I have as a rack. There used to clothes filling this space and some months later, there will be new clothes in this space.

RAJPAL: You started your label in 1985. What gave you the confidence to do that?

LIE (through translator): Rather than confidence, it was out of desire to make clothes that I wanted rather than selling ready-made clothes like I once did. I wanted to make clothes that would perfectly express my ideas. That's why I started my own label.

RAJPAL: But fashion wasn't your first love. It wasn't your first passion. Tell me about acting.

LIE (through translator): I was the head of the household. So even though I loved acting so much, I was afraid. So I ran away and fashion was where I took refuge.

As I started studying fashion, I was attracted to its charm. When I was working at a clothes repair shop, I'd only considered clothes as a way to earn a living for my acting. (Inaudible) later I realized that I could also make a new life out of this.

RAJPAL: Do you ever feel the pressure of fashion, of the industry?

LIE (through translator): I will never forget the moment of leaving the thing that I love because I've always lived with a pain of abandoning that dream. I never ran away from each season of the fashion show. No matter what criticism I received, I endured and did not run away.

This continuation of overcoming as well as my pain has helped me endure more.

RAJPAL: How has the business changed since the time you started to where it is today, do you think, the industry?

LIE (through translator): (Inaudible) entered the fashion industry, Korea was not well known although it was entering the Asian Games, the Olympic Games, it was on its way to that fast economic development. Not many in Paris even knew where Korea was.

RAJPAL: Tell me about your first showing, your first pret-a-porte showing in Paris. What was that like for you? Paris is often seen as the capital of fashion.

LIE (through translator): At first, I didn't do fashion shows. During the IMF period in Korea, I packed up my clothes and went to sell clothes in Paris. I started by displaying clothes for buyers called salons and selling them. And for the following five years, I had been doing business. Then I realized it was time to exhibit the world of designer Lie Sang Bong, and not only the business side of me.

I thought it was time to pursue my dream again. So in February 2002, I had my first collection in Paris.

RAJPAL: And what was that like for you? How did you feel?

LIE (through translator): Rather than excitement or happiness, my leg was very swollen at the time because I tripped on the street. I was only worried about whether I could stand on the stage after the show to greet guests. So I was preparing for the collection with this worry inside. And at night, after each show, I was caught up in asking myself why I came to Paris, why I had chosen Paris and what I could be doing next.

I didn't necessarily have a chance to enjoy the happiness. Maybe it's because at that point, I'd already achieved part of the dream. The reason why I had these doubts in me was mainly due to the experience I had before the show besides the accident of tripping and hurting my leg, I had a bathtub filled with water, and I was sitting in it. All my staff was sleeping outside in the next room.

But at one point, (inaudible) my mind was clear, I couldn't move my body and I couldn't let out a sound, either. No matter how much I shouted, not a sound came out of my body and I thought I was going to die just like that in the moment. I felt death. I don't know how much time had passed, but I saw a flashback of my past in front of my eyes.

RAJPAL: Was it a panic attack?

LIE (through translator): I almost felt death and after 30 minutes or an hour, I barely managed to crawl back out of the washroom. So I considered myself to have achieved a death and that's why I second guessed myself with questions like why I needed to do shows in Paris.


RAJPAL: So this is your office space, your studio?




RAJPAL: So this is your office space, your studio?

(Inaudible) very interesting things.

LIE (through translator): This is where I sometimes listen to music.

This is all the music that I listen to when I want to meditate. I can sit here and calm myself down.

RAJPAL: And so you take ideas, inspiration, everything that we have here.

LIE (through translator): We were just in the middle of packing these suits. Doesn't this material remind of butterflies?

RAJPAL: Very light and fluttery.


LIE (through translator): This dress is a more elegant form of a butterfly.

RAJPAL: This is a dress?

LIE: Yes, a dress and jacket.

RAJPAL: Wow, OK. I can see Lady Gaga wearing this.


LIE (through translator): Well, I don't know if she would wear this. Last time, Beyonce wore this.

RAJPAL: Ah, Beyonce wore it?

LIE (through translator): Maybe not these clothes; probably this.

RAJPAL: Oh, look at this.

LIE: Butterfly. Butterfly (inaudible).


Let's talk about your designs. Your clothing has been worn by some very famous women. You've got Beyonce, Rihanna, even the first lady of South Korea. In your mind, who is the Lie Sang Bong woman?

LIE (through translator): I don't fixate on just one woman and make clothes. But I've always looked for new women and worked on them. So my muse has always been changing like a new challenge to find a new woman. Maybe that's what we can call the Lie Sang Bong lady. And am I greedy?


RAJPAL: No, it's good to keep changing, yes.

Tell me about working with your son. What is that like, working with your son and creating with him?

LIE (through translator): It's been just over a year since I've started working with him. He was working on men's clothes in London and came back and has been helping me here. My daughter's running a showroom and a gallery in Chelsea, New York.

Because we've lived apart from each other for so long, I guess I didn't know much about my son. But working together and sometimes being interviewed together, I realized how my different and unique lifestyle put him through hardship during his teenage years.

I was almost shocked when he said his dream was to become a salary man. When I asked him why, he said it was because he'd been wearing unique designer clothes all his life while working until very late at night. And he kind of yearned to wear a normal suit and tie. Then I realized even though what I'd been telling him was out of the care I had for my son as well as out of desire to make him as successful as I was, to him, every word became a scar. I only realized this recently by working with him.

RAJPAL: But now -- but now you're -- you're creating together, but now you're working together and do you feel closer to him?

LIE (through translator): Because I've been living only for myself, I haven't had a chance to travel with family. And I don't even think that I've had a chance to take a picture with them. So the very first time that we spent together was when we opened a store in Kuwait.

I don't know how highly I'd be evaluated as a designer, but as a father, I'd likely get a zero.


Well, you still got a lot of time to try and rebuild your relationship with him.

Now as the head of the Council of Fashion Designers of Korea, what do you want people to know about Korean designers, about Korean fashion, about the "Made in Korea" label?

LIE (through translator): When I was a honorary ambassador of Seoul during my interviews for the foreign press, I would spent a lot of time introducing them to Seoul. Nowadays, whether it's England or South America, people from other countries interview me with questions on what this Korean wave is.

I realized our culture isn't only Korean movies, dramas and K-pop, but now also K-fashion.

I think the variety in our culture and tradition, as well as the potential and aspiration of young Korean designers, will be very well received by the world.

RAJPAL: What do you think are the misconceptions of Korean -- Korea and Korean fashion around the world? Is it true that -- is it your first show in Paris, they had put a flag of the DPRK in front of your booth?

LIE (through translator): I think that was 1997. Yes, that's right. It was the day before I opened the booth to buyers. There were about 1,000 design companies exhibiting their clothes. I was ironing at the booth, and I looked up and I saw a flag of the DPRK.

I was so shocked, more so because it was a time when there was even less communication between North and South Korea. Nowadays, that's changed. And most people know about South Korea. But 10 or 15 years ago, many of the Europeans didn't know anything about us.

RAJPAL: When do you think the "Made in Korea" label will be seen as - - or highly regarded as, say, "Made in France" or "Made in Italy"?

LIE (through translator): Already in I.T. industry, Korea's reached a world-class level. In terms of fashion, some brands are already treated with that respect and are sold at department stores. But from the foreign perspective, I think it'll take Korean fashion 5-10 years to be regarded as high-level fashion.

RAJPAL: The perception of South Korean or Korean culture is very conservative. How do you keep pushing the boundaries of fashion?

LIE (through translator): Rather than being conservative, I can't think of a more open country than South Korea, especially in a city like Seoul. I've even heard of international brands and people working for famous European brands, that they try their marketing strategies in Seoul first.

That just goes to show how receptive Korean people are. And I'd like to think of Seoul as a city full of energy.


LIE (through translator): Here is where the pattern is made. And after grading, we do the cutting here. And after the cutting, then it gets sent to the sewing department.

RAJPAL: How involved are you in every part of the process?

LIE (through translator): I come down here several times a day.

RAJPAL: How many people do you have working with you?

LIE: Sixty, 70, 80 (ph).

RAJPAL: Really?

LIE: Yes.

RAJPAL: And then how many months does it take from when you have designed the collection and then you sell?

LIE: (Inaudible) months.

RAJPAL: (Inaudible) months. That's fast.

LIE: Yes, yes, (inaudible). And this --

LIE (through translator): In fast fashion, it only takes about one month. But for designer brands like mine, it takes 3-4 months.


RAJPAL: I can see why you would (inaudible). How often do you come here (inaudible)?




RAJPAL: (Inaudible).

LIE: Yes.

RAJPAL: I can see why you would (inaudible). How often do you come here and what inspiration (inaudible)?

LIE (through translator): When I come here, my mind is at peace. It's walking distance from my office. These are traditional dan chong (ph) and these are lanterns that hold people's wishes. When these are lit, it becomes even more beautiful. The world turns red. It looks like the sky is opening.


LIE (through translator): This is a religious thing. People come to give Buddha a shower. And then we make a wish like this.

Now everything will work out for you.

You'll be happy.

So when we climb up the mountain, there's a big statue of Buddha. And there are small temples on the side.

RAJPAL: Is the (inaudible) one thing I see so much here is the vibrancy of the colors. So vibrant.

LIE (through translator): I think it's such a great thing to have a place like this among the forest of buildings in the middle of Seoul City.

RAJPAL: I understand you take a lot of inspiration from whatever you see around you, in particular, architecture here in Korea.

LIE (through translator): I've always tried to find something new. And I think I was immersed into Korean culture more when I was into the Korean language. It's always been a fight to convert and express what I saw and felt (inaudible) design to my clothes and not a fight to sell more clothes. I've always thought loyal customers are the ones who love what I make and how ever method I choose to make it.

RAJPAL: There must be a sense of freedom to do what you do. You must feel this everywhere that you look. There is a little bit of inspiration.

LIE (through translator): I guess I've always yearned for freedom in my work. So in the beginning, I've often used birds as a motif. I think my soul longed to be free whenever I wanted to see a new world or fly while going back and forth between school and home or between work and home.

RAJPAL: And we see butterflies (inaudible).

LIE (through translator): Butterflies represent my dreams. There was a recession all over the world. So people still had dreams. But I thought I was struggling to push forward on a daily basis while losing grip of all my dreams. So every one of those butterflies represents each person's dream. And I wanted the butterfly to fly into the sky holding my dream within. That inspiration comes from a music video.

A guy who likes my work sent it to me. It's called "I Believe I Can Fly."

At the end of that music video, I saw a butterfly fly through the bars of a window towards the sky, chasing a dream.

And that's when I got the butterfly motif.

RAJPAL: When we talk about you finding inspiration everywhere, you even sound inspiration in your house that burned down, the black and the red in your collection.

Is that true?

LIE (through translator): I will never forget that time. My house was in Seoul, chongchangdong. It happened at 1:00 am. The fire broke out on the second floor. When we all came out and the fire truck was on its way, my mom was right next to me, crying. But to me, the scene of the building engulfed in bright red flames with windows blowing up seemed so beautiful.

So for the following season, red was the prevailing theme of the show.

RAJPAL: Talking about finding beauty in everything. So if we're looking forward, what are you working on right now? What is your inspiration today?

LIE (through translator): What's important to me is what I see, feel, definitely our country's traditional elements. But I don't want to be only tied down to those.

When I did a show in Moscow, I used a theme of Pushkin meets kimsowol, a Korean author. And for my future show in Austria, I'll be using the sheet music of Beethoven and Mozart combined with the music sheet of adida (ph).

So I'm trying to show the communication between those two types of music. Although Korean culture will be underlying theme, because the audience is from Switzerland and Austria, I've included their culture to communicate with them.

RAJPAL: Where have you found the most receptive audience and the most receptive consumers of your -- or buyers of your clothes?

LIE (through translator): I think the Middle East area. As far as I know, I believe there's a shop now in almost every city. And Moscow is very important market for me as well, as New York, where I entered three years ago.

RAJPAL: Do you ever worry about critics? Do you ever think about what they say or how they review your collection?

LIE (through translator): I think I'd be lying if I said they didn't affect me at all and that I was only fighting to express myself better. Their criticisms do affect me to some degree. But the harshest critic would be the consumers buying my clothes. If they abandon my clothes, my fate as a designer would also end.

RAJPAL: What advice do you have for young designers that are coming from Korea, from South Korea? What advice do you have for them? How to survive this very competitive fashion industry?

LIE (through translator): The most important thing is not to lose yourself. Knowing one's strength is important. Keeping one's own color rather than changing to satisfy the taste of many target markets.

Another thing would be to know the world around you, to be globalized means not only insisting on your own style, but also knowing and accepting other countries' cultural differences in order to communicate.

You should first understand the world around you and then bring and show yourself to the world.

RAJPAL: Lie Sang Bong, it has been a pleasure.

Thank you so much.