“Behold, the new has come” is the tone-on-tone half-concealed message on a shiny black plastic dress with fringe sleeves. E Wha Lim picks Bible quotes to make bold fashion statements. Her “La Religieuse” graduating collection is the result of a spiritual journey, that of a girl who does not want to choose between her piety and modern individualism in fashion. It is also the culmination of several years of preparation and research.

E Wha Lim was raised Catholic in Korea but her real encounter with religion happened through European Renaissance painting and sculpture. An art-convert of sorts, she then immersed herself in books and frequent trips to the religious capitals of Europe. Reading extensively about nuns’ habits inspired her designs, and she soon aspired to adapt religious dress to modern life and taste by fitting waists and cutting shorter skirts. Her view? “You don’t have to follow the strictest rules just because you believe in God”.

“I am interested in how the simplest and most formal dress can flow.”

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Religious dress, its strict uniforms and garments frozen in time is in fact a case of fossilized fashion we would think is the antithesis of what young designers feed on to compete in this fast-paced, ever-changing industry. But they find grace in E Wha Lim’s eye. “I am interested in how the simplest and most formal dress can flow,” she says, referring to a Peter Lindbergh photograph of three nuns walking in the streets of Italy in windswept formal dresses. One of religious clothing’s purposes remains to hide women’s tempting bodies in standardized uniform. “But aren’t you meant to celebrate God’s creation?” she asks with a smile. One of her cashmere mini-dresses has a length of ruffles in front, but cheekily none behind, making it quite revealing.

When drawing, she keeps in mind her muses, the heroines of hauntingly beautiful movies. Her personal classics include Black Narcissus by Powell and Pressburger, Ida by Pawlikowski, and indeed Rivette’s La Religieuse. In these movies, sexuality is presented as the attribute of people having rejected spirituality, and female leads struggle with the questioning or losing of their faith. In E Wha Lim’s collection, the alternative for women is no longer between saint and whore, but between conformist and rule-breaker. The alter ego of the modestly-dressed, complying nun is a free-spirit; provocative yet never vulgar.

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Traditional yarn and techniques were used for this modern knitwear collection. Cashmere, mohair and wool were then assorted to less traditional materials such as polyester or nylon. The latters are often melted in a heat press rolling machine to create a shiny effect, making the knitwork invisible. E Wha Lim spent a lot of time at the RCA yarn store experimenting with samples, textures and melting temperatures. Approaching 200 degrees made the mesh crispy and breakable, whereas lowering it to 100 degrees ensured a strong shine with the compromise of flexibility. She now sources the finest yarn from premium Italian companies she personally visited during her travels. As for the color palette: burgundy, dark red, black and navy blue are borrowed from Leonardo Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks, but some colors were “twisted” by making them shiny and evocative of latex. The ruffles of one dress required an impressive 12 meters of melted bright golden polyester.

Once she has chosen the mood she wants to achieve, her creative process involves the gathering of all samples and sketches in front of her – standing up on a table if necessary. She then “visually connects” colors, designs and textures. “You can work with soft fluffy cashmere and then choose to match it with its complete opposite: nylon. Or start with something close-fitting and then add a thousand ruffles. It’s also about having fun with the designs!” Special attention is then paid to styling. Her eye was trained by a year spent at Dazed’s styling department, where she drew inspiration from senior stylists who would quickly and spontaneously reinvent an outfit, instantly recognizing fit, proportion and balance in clothes and accessories. She also ultimately expects people wearing her clothes to “wear them their own way” – be it as undergarments or outer pieces, accessorized or mixed with other brands.

 “You don’t have to follow the strictest rules just because you believe in God.”

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A Fine Arts major, E Wha Lim had never designed clothes, knitted nor sewn before entering CSM’s Bachelor. She wished to start with fashion but didn’t think at the time it would be a final career. However her first year experiences in knitwear were a decisive epiphany. While CSM served as some kind of creative brainstorming, doing an MA at RCA was the perfect complementary training as it taught her to put these ideas into action and learn many concrete techniques. E Wha Lim speaks highly of her tutors, who provided excellent guidance all along. She recalls one particular goose-bump-worthy moment when Iain R Webb pulled off a model’s cardigan over her head, using the jumper as a veil, prompting her to take her collection in a forever more bold direction.

Even though fashion studies are usually quite solitary, E Wha Lim developed a genuine taste for collaborations. Photographer friend Nhu Xuan Hua responded with great artistic sensitivity to the clothes by suggesting a fragile and destroyed atmosphere fraught with burning symbolism, a pale model holding a bouquet of burnt matches, ashes falling on her skin. E Wha Lim also enjoys the “proper teamwork” she discovered at her current position in Stella McCartney knitwear where she says she feels “empowered”. We have no doubt this capacity to thrive in a professional team will be an asset in the industry. This elegant collection, tailor-suited for the modern, free woman, is a promising début.

 

Words by Amélie Guinet

Photography by Nhu Xuan Hua

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