Representing the creative future

The sacred space between dress and undress

Seohee Kim's RCA graduate collection explores the quiet bliss of moments spent alone in her dressing.

Talking to Seohee Kim, it quickly becomes clear that there’s much on her mind: Eastern and Western perceptions of clothes: male and female stereotypes, ways of revealing the body, and modes of expressing the self; her upbringing in South Korea, her mother’s closet… her graduate collection questions all of the above with its sheer fabrics and fine lingerie detailing, raising conflicting thoughts on the exposure of female flesh and sexuality, and notions of fragility and delicateness commonly associated with her chosen materials. Above all, it serves as an interrogation of the intimate space that lies between dressing and undressing.

Seohee finds direction in the moments she spends alone in her room: “I don’t like the feeling of belonging,” she tells me, “my room is where I can exist in an intimate mood, a state of mind that makes me feel like myself. We spend so much time in public, rather than alone, in a private room. The time we spend getting dressed is crucial to me. When we’re alone, we’re mostly dressing or undressing, and it’s a time I love, a time when I can fully focus on myself.” It was in these golden, personal moments of intimacy that the RCA graduate’s collection took shape.

Her research process centred on finding a pure, subjective material—something intangible and related to personal experience, something not found in books—that would give voice to the intimate encounters between our bodies and our clothes. Her primary visual references were a collection of photographs and videos taken of her mother changing in her closet in Seoul. “I captured every moment of my mother’s movement in her closet because I really wanted to explore the body engaged in an intimate and private zone. My aesthetic is focussed on a mature woman and my mother is my mature idol,” she reveals. “Mature women like my mother have accumulated a closet across the various stages and moments of their lives; I find it fascinating, I can see characteristics that an individual has amassed,” says the designer, continuing with: “My mother always wears stockings whenever she goes out to work, but the looks she wears in public are very different from what she wears at home. She likes clothes that are made from intimate, comfortable, fragile fabrics, like silk. At home, she dresses in a very feminine manner, but wears more tailored, masculine garments when she goes out. Through my collection, I really wanted to express the unclear boundaries between these two styles of dress.”

Some of the greatest challenges Seohee faced with this collection were technical in nature: the sheer fabric she relied on was only sold as stockings, which had to be cut apart and sewed together in order to fit larger patterns. And then there was the designer’s fixation on cutting the perfect patterns, an approach rooted in her experience of fashion education in South Korea, which kept her from turning to draping as her first option. “I am not good at this kind of process, and this was my big problem,” she confesses, laughing. “This delicate, elastic fabric is designed to be draped on the body, so nobody cuts patterns from it. This part was quite difficult for me, but was also really fun in the end.”

Delicately decoded, playing with layers of semi-transparent underwear fabrics and softening the rigidity of tailored jackets, the silhouette encapsulates notions of dressing as well as undressing. “Whenever we undress or dress we can see deconstructed details, such as asymmetrical and twisted shapes,” she explains, adding that she enjoys working these warped motifs into her designs to create a “mature, sensual, intimate and secretive aesthetic.” In terms of materials, Seohee states that her “designs focus on maximising the dynamic tension between the body and clothing.”

Photography Minjong Kim

Elasticated jersey, stocking fabrics, soft cotton and thin polyester are applied to jackets in ways that embrace the body, almost suggesting its natural continuation. Allied to the sense of intimacy that the fragility of the materials and shapes convey, it creates a subtle conflict between what is personal and what is revealed, between what is intimate and what is bared to the public. The feeling of invading an intimate space is followed by the need to maintain a certain distance to be able to respect it. “Exposing the body is my proposal of a way to obtain a harmony between the body and its surrounding space,” she says. It’s clear, then, that the beauty of Seohee’s work lies here, in the combining of an Eastern notion of concealing skin with a Western view of fearlessly showing it, a pale, intrinsic encounter of perceptions from which the spectator cannot escape.

The designer’s plans for the near future are to stay in South Korea and to continue developing her work—though she doesn’t necessarily plan to stick to making undergarments. Her main intention is to carry on pursuing a vision that employs intimacy to combine under and outerwear, or in her words, “to communicate the female body and shape, and the relationship between the skin and the space that surrounds the body.” Whether it’s lingerie, outer garments or something in between, we know that Seohee’s personal moments of intimacy in her room will continue to spark philosophical ponderings, and maybe to inspire that sense of not wanting to be anywhere but in your own room. After all, it is perhaps this sense of the most private intimacy of dressing and undressing that Seohee wants the woman wearing her creations to feel, candidly unconcerned with a viewer’s thoughts.