Representing the creative future

Jaden Cho on UK education and making fashion in Seoul

Exploring the complex topic of cultural identity in fashion with Seoul-based designer Jaden Cho

Located in the old town of Seoul, Jongno, not so far from the royal palace, Jaden Cho found a new home after moving from London back to Seoul at the beginning of the pandemic, barely having graduated from the Royal College of Art’s MA Womenswear programme. His second collection titled ‘Second Chance’ is the first presentation held at Cho’s showroom, facing their studio across the hall. A mannequin holding up the signature flag dress, this time adorned with countless colourful feathers forming a mosaic pattern, greets you as you step out of the elevator. Maybe it’s the location, maybe it’s the looped sound of traditional Korean percussion instruments, as the background music; We can’t help but yet again think: “This is the modern Korean aesthetic.” But what even is “The modern Korean aesthetic” and should a brand represent it just because the designer is a born and raised Korean?

For your collection, you wanted to develop a “new made-to-order” system. Can you talk to us a bit about that?

Made-to-order sounds impressive and all, but at the time, I went for it only because I didn’t have any other means of production. In this way, you can produce in small amounts. Following the traditional production system, a designer needs to have made a thousand or five hundred pieces ready to sell. I started thinking about how I could survive as a brand and made-to-order was my method of choice.

I don’t intend to reject the method of the past but it’s not viable anymore. For now, our couture line only gets orders, so in this way, I can focus more on the design, making the amount that’s needed, not producing any surplus.

For instance, the pink dress is made out of flower packaging that gets thrown away. I bought those 2 years ago and they only had 5-6 rolls of that fabric. I measured the fabric and it was just enough for two dresses. If we mass-produced, we wouldn’t even be able to make a sample of that.

“Why don’t people make pockets for women when all you need is a little bit more fabric?” – Jaden Cho

A new generation of designers advocate for values such as sustainability but they often feel pressured to do so and even feel like it’s unfair, since the previous generation of designers could afford to be more indulgent. 

At RCA, tutors told us that we don’t need to make clothes and that there are too many clothes already out there. I felt that this was unfair and oppressive. Why should we make clothes out of leftovers when they could make them out of silk and jewels? I wanted to use quality silk and cotton too. But after doing two collections, I simply want all my clothes to have an owner since we worked so hard on them. We can’t abandon sustainability but we also can’t expect garments to be one hundred per cent sustainable. Now I’m wondering how I can create more beautiful things for myself, for society, and how to be frugal or less frugal without getting too much backlash.

Sustainability can mean many things. In your new collection, the garments are so versatile. Reversible knitwears, two-in-one piece suit, and pants-skirt combination, clearly keep women’s comfort in mind. In order for a brand to make more profit, they need to make and sell multiple pieces and it seems like your collection is the opposite of that strategy. Other than the environmental side of sustainability, are you being sustainable in a sense of feminism or financial stability?

My motto is “Maybe we can’t make women feel comfortable, but we cannot make them uncomfortable.” We have pockets for dresses, skirts, jackets, you name it. It’s an obsession of mine. When I research, I barely see any pockets for womenswear. I like to put my AirPods or masks in my pocket and women don’t even have an outer pocket. Why don’t people make pockets for women when all you need is a little bit more fabric?

I learned about sustainability for the first time in the UK. Other than using less fabric and colours, I reflected on whether there is a type of sustainability that I had inside me. It was the notion that I want every garment to have an owner. I really try to avoid making a t-shirt because no matter how luxurious it is, it’s worn out in a couple of years. The clothes that I make are complex, heavy and highly decorative that even if you don’t wear them anymore it is unlikely that you’d throw them away in a bin. I don’t throw away a well-made jacket even if it’s out of style. I feel sorry for it.

Mosaics and pattern work are very prominent in your collections. In previous interviews, you highlighted ‘happiness’ and ‘beauty’ as the core values that make up your brand. How do you define beauty and romance?

I say that the keywords of Jaden Cho are ‘Happiness, romance and time’ only because I lack all three of them. I’m not really that happy, and as you know, there isn’t much romance or time in Seoul. I thought that if I made them my ideals, it would be better. The first collection titled ‘A Bouquet’ was outright about happiness. Now that we finished the second one, the previous one looks gloomy. It was a collection we prepared with no financial ease after I’ve come back from the UK because of Covid, literally out of fear of dying. I put out a million KRW (approx. 1,000 USD) worth of flowers for a presentation and they usually last for two days. Some people say that’s too much, they’d rather make another dress for that money; I think it’s part of the romance and it’s something that I don’t have in my daily life. I like that my life and my garments don’t line up. This season was more fun than the first one; this one’s brighter. Maybe because there was less pressure since the keyword for the second collection was ‘envy.’

“I’m unhappy 360 days out of the 365 days of the year. I’m happy on the day of the photoshoot or the presentation. There’s a sense of ‘I did it.'” – Jaden Cho

Is it inevitable for positive emotions such as happiness and romance to accompany negative ones like envy?

Happiness is relative; something negative is bound to follow. The first collection was also about the happiness of a moment. After that moment is gone, there’s unhappiness. I’m unhappy 360 days out of the 365 days of the year. I’m happy on the day of the photoshoot or the presentation. There’s a sense of “I did it.”

We were concerned about putting the flag dress at the entrance since we all worked so hard on it, feather by feather. Now, I don’t care if it gets stolen or if it just hangs there. My kids [as Cho refers to his studio members] often worry about it getting stolen, but now, I’m like, it’s ‘old fashion’; someone steals it, we’ll take a picture of it and post it. Emotion is not a constant power; it shifts between positive and negative.

Speaking of the flag dress…

Can I talk bad about my school? [laughs] I went to RCA and they wouldn’t let me make clothes. They would say: “Unless you’re H&M, you should make books, write dissertations, theorize, tell a story or give a presentation.” I can’t speak English that well, so preparing for a presentation alone would take me a week. For instance, if I wanted to say “blue”, they’d say: “It’s not blue, it’s sky blue.” To talk about theories, you need to find the right words and I’m not British. I’m struggling to express myself even in Korean right now. I spent one hundred million KRW (approx. 100,000 USD) to go there and I only made a couple of garments during one year when I could have done 60 or 70 pieces if I stayed in Korea. I was frustrated and in a bad place because it felt like I was wasting a year of my life, after making a tough decision to go abroad at an older age.

And the theme for the semester was to make a book in three months. I was pressured to make everything into a symbol and a manifesto and England’s royal flag was so beautiful. So I saw three two-dimensional objects: flag, page and textile. Let’s make a big book out of textiles that would be a scarf. I didn’t tell anyone that it was a garment; it was a secret of mine. I just put two holes in it and said pages need holes to be made into books.

I decided to put the flag in Hyde Park. It’s symbolic, like the first moon landing. I was in a self-celebratory mode about making a flag and claiming Kensington as if it were mine. “Nobody pays attention to me because I’m a foreigner, but I’m going to claim it as my land.” I embroidered, printed, knitted… I made one with the school’s flag too. Fortunately, my tutors were satisfied. I had the best spot in the first-floor lobby. Behind each flag, I labelled them and for RCA’s flag, I wrote ‘FUTURE’. At the time, this was my least favourite word. My tutors would always say “You are the future”, “You have to talk about the future and not dwell in the present”, and “Move beyond the past and suggest something futuristic.” But not everyone can live in the future. I’m a very nostalgic person and I don’t think our future would be that futuristic. Time simply passes by in the present. If we were futuristic, the future would be the present and there’s no fantasy in that at all. They were telling us to make clothes with which we can grow plants on the moon, garments that don’t make our necks tired when using computers, collaborating with Apple, or inserting machines into garments. At least until I die, people would be more than happy with a plain pink silk dress.

“During my studies in the UK I would think: ‘Do my British friends, the European students and tutors know how much I spend here?’ The amounts that Asian kids pay for school in the UK is money they couldn’t even get selling their homes.” – Jaden Cho

Is there anything you gained from RCA or your time in London? 

At the time, I was totally unsatisfied with everything. I spent the money I could’ve used for my business on tuition. I would think: “Do my British friends, the European students and tutors know how much I spend here?” The amounts that Asian kids pay for school in the UK is money they couldn’t even get selling their homes. “Would they feel sorry for me?” The 2 years were full of hatred. But by literally tying my hands down, they got me to think about what kind of person I am, why I was there, and what I should do if I want to do this for the rest of my life. They caged me and it made me realize that I need to be doing this for a living in order to be happy. I’m grateful.

“I drastically changed after going to the UK. Before going there, I wanted to be a Western person.” – Jaden Cho

Do you feel a responsibility to represent your cultural heritage?

I drastically changed after going to the UK. Before going there, I wanted to be a Western person. I was envious of their methods of weaving, embroidery, the curved sleeve, jacket collar… I wanted those to be the signature of my brand and I wanted to be crowned by the Queen like the British people to the point of longing to become the person who brings honour to the Western culture. Like most Asian people do.

I started flower arrangements because I liked flowers, and people would say to me: “It’s Western flowers but it looks East.” I realized that I can’t pretend their culture is mine. Already too many British and French kids were like: “I went to my grandmother’s place in the countryside and here’s a Victorian jacket that I found there.” If a classmate of mine says that tailoring is their thing, that they’re from Newcastle and it’s their signature, I won’t be able to explain myself as well as them even if I make a better jacket. I’m from Cheonan, and I just saw jackets at the department store…

The UK seems to categorize concepts according to the country, not the individual. How many people out there match the clothes they make? A lot of people that I admire are very different from the clothes they make. Raf Simons doesn’t wear Dior dresses; John Galliano only dresses like that for the shows, he doesn’t wear a pirate’s hat on the streets, it’s showmanship. Also, McQueen didn’t wear embroidered jackets. I want people to see what’s inside too but they judge too much relying on what they can see. If I did something that was so apparently spectacular, they would have liked it no matter my nationality, age or gender. Once a professor referred to me as “The guy who is good for a Korean” because they didn’t know my name.

But the people you mentioned are all white males. Of course, there’s the fact that minorities are up against harsher standards in terms of categorization, other than the individual capability of a designer. Like Virgil Abloh being categorized as a ‘hip-hop’ designer, not just a designer. I think if one says “I’m trying to depict an Asian mood”, it’d be very hard for Western people to understand, for many reasons. 

They would ask, “Why isn’t there a dragon?” As much as I worry about me not having a stronger colour, I think Seoul is a city whose colour is that it doesn’t have a colour. It is very mixed. We copy everything that looks nice.

“Korea is already getting a lot of attention and if we don’t show what’s ours this time, this potential power will be lost.” – Jaden Cho

While there is a tendency to categorize according to nationality, there’s also a tendency where they [Western cultures] can’t really tell Asian cultures apart. Would you say there’s a strategy to navigate the cultural hybridity that is so prevalent on the international stage, to the point where Asian cultures meld and blend together to be consumed as just ‘exotic’, as evidently shown in Vogue USA’s post on Chinese ‘Hanfu’ celebrating the Lunar New Year?

It’s a problem for our generation to solve. Korea is already getting a lot of attention and if we don’t show what’s ours this time, this potential power will be lost. Like the Antwerp 6 and the first generation of Japanese designers to go abroad to Paris, there’s planning to be made. That’s also very Seoul; it’s not a culture where every individual shines on their own. If it became united, maybe it can be understood as “this is Seoul” to the outsiders. The Korean designers that are getting attention now are too small. And there seems to be a forced pattern where they put us with one Japanese designer and give us awards in turns. It’s obviously an effort to seem “fair.”

“I complain but it’s actually easier to produce a collection in Korea. It’s much harder in the UK and that’s why I have respect for British designers.” – Jaden Cho

You talked about your design process not being so common to the point of being unwelcomed in Seoul, most definitely when you visit the manufacturers. How do you deal with that problem nowadays?

Do you remember that all my garments have inner pockets? I bring the samples to the factory and say to the seamstresses: “It’s not that hard, it’s the basics.” And they tell me to get out. For me, the basics are the details that were there when the jacket was invented for the first time.

Now that I have a second season out, there are some seamstresses I can talk margins and linings with and textile producers to whom I can make orders in small amounts. I’d love to produce in-house but studios in Seoul are forced to outsource. I’ll try to close that gap as much as I can, but I don’t think I’ll be able to do so entirely for the rest of my life.

I complain but it’s actually easier in Korea. It’s much harder in the UK and that’s why I have respect for British designers. Even for their own nationals, there are very few raw materials available and the productivity within the nation is very low. Korea was a poor country; we used to specialize in the primary industry until relatively recently.

You have expressed an ambition to redefine fashion in Seoul. What do you think that is currently and how do you want to redefine it? 

What buyers expect from Korean designers is cheap, reasonable and spurious. The brands that are making a lot of sales overseas sell pretty printed t-shirts and a hundred dollars worth of shirts, something provocative that you can throw away after wearing it once. That is what Seoul is good at. I wouldn’t say that we have to stop doing this, we can leave this as our charm. I’d like to show that Seoul can do other things too. I think if our generation can’t do it, it’s over for us. We’d go down as the ancestors who were bad at fashion. [laughs]

“People still think that if they buy a t-shirt from H&M for 8 dollars, it’s all made by machines, when it’s cut and sewn by a person.” – Jaden Cho

What kind of craft would you like to showcase in the next collection? Is there a design method you prefer the most or one you’d like to shed light on and preserve? 

We’re planning on showcasing this year’s Fall-Winter and next Spring-Summer together this September. Since we’re preparing two collections at once, instead of focusing on a single type of material like we did in the last two collections, we decided to pick a theme that can cover them both.

Human hands are irreplaceable means of labour. As advanced as it is, technology cannot replace what we do. People still think that if they buy a t-shirt from H&M for 8 dollars, it’s all made by machines, when it’s cut and sewn by a person. If there’s anything that a machine did, maybe it’s the ironing.

I think it was a unique choice to open your presentation to the public, as the public often does not get to see haute couture up close, especially in Korea.

I didn’t want to differentiate people, separate what they could buy or couldn’t buy and make them uncomfortable.

I come out on the weekends to see the people’s faces after trying the garments on, what they like and don’t like but I think my clothes are too precious to me still. People treat them too carelessly, clothes fall from the hangers when they’re made by four people for two months. It’s also what I intended. My first collection was entirely presented on mannequins so people couldn’t touch or wear them. Sometimes I feel like I’m scaring people off by being arrogant. On the other hand, when people go to the Arario museum, they don’t touch the artwork there.

I need to go towards customers who like what I do, fast, before I am ruined. I think you get ruined day by day. When people don’t buy the dress I worked really hard for, there’d be fewer and fewer dresses like that in the following seasons. And what’s left in the end would be t-shirts.