For Ju Yeon Hong, footwear design is emotive. It is a way to sculpt meaning and challenge beauty ideals, both uncovering and subverting the hidden truths behind the use of animal materials within the industry. Her collection 31,984 takes its name from the amount of whales killed by whaling since the 1960s. Looking at the mesmerising yet troubling experience of touching whale skin, her final collection explores to great effect the form and appearance of these beautiful creatures, crafting her shoes with micro-rubber instead of whale skin.

We catch up with Ju to hear more about her project and time at the RCA.

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What was the starting point of your collection?

My final collection drew on a personal experience: four years ago, I touched a whale’s skin for the first time. I was surprised by its lustre, caught between its beauty and the moral dilemma of such a product. I posed a set of conceptual questions to commence the project:

How greatly are we living amongst the sacrifices of countless beings?

How informed are we about what’s behind products we deem beautiful?

How, as individuals, do we feel about this?

How did you begin your making process?

Usually in the initial stage of my process, before I start designing, I first create sculptures or small pieces that relate to my concept. Working in this way can help me to break the limits around any idea I have far more easily than if I were to design in the ‘usual’ way. Creating a sculpture can be an individual work in itself, so there’s far more chance to develop ideas.

To me, shoes are more like sculptures, not just ‘fashion’ items. As a form, shoes satisfy both my interest in fashion and art, and I understand my work to fit into both categories. When you design something, it starts as one thing, but as it develops, it hangs between art and design with no clear borderline.

How was your experience of studying at the RCA?

Both the curriculum and vision at the RCA are very different compared to my BA in Korea. The tutors and technicians always encouraged me to think and act freely in my work. There were no limits and I could pursue virtually any idea that came to mind.

Because of my concept, I couldn’t use any animal products. Therefore I had to find new materials for the body, the sole, and even the smaller parts that make up the inside of the shoe. During my process, I had to use a CNC machine to create my material, ‘micro-rubber’, in a usable form. I had a lot of difficulty with handling this material, because it was something new, and I had never tried these processes before.

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Can you reflect on where you see your work within the fashion market, and your feelings about the industry?

I always sit between conceptual design and commercial design. I think this is the most difficult issue for all fashion students. In my case, fashion and art have always been my main interests, but whilst studying fashion in Korea, I was confused about where I would fit in, because I always was more interested in the art side. Fortunately, I had a chance to work as an illustrator and designer at a shoe company in Korea for three years. There, I was able to see and experience both sides of design and it proved to be a good formative experience.

The underlying issue with fashion today is that it is simply not sustainable. Trends are changing very fast and people rapidly pursue fashion; it all transforms too quickly. I think that if we can draw out an emotional trend, not just an aesthetic trend, then someday we may be able to change the system. I think that the only way forward is for individuals to take responsibility and make an effort to be sustainable.

How do you feel about life after the RCA?

During these two years at the college, many things have changed and all the competitions, projects and numerous opportunities have been so enriching. Among these experiences, my greatest achievement is that I have had enough time to refine myself as a designer, through my own collection. My time at RCA has been, in one word, amazing! I will continue to work hard and play hard; there is much for me to learn and I plan to work for somebody else before potentially marketing my own work, one day.

Words by Lilah Francis

All images courtesy of Ju Yeon Hong

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