Representing the creative future

Goom Heo on preparing for the unknown as a young brand

The South-Korean designer talks authenticity and the challenges that emerge with a prolonged pandemic in the time of Brexit

For many, the pandemic has proven to be a test. For Goom Heo, it was a feast of fascination. “I wanted to extract this collective feeling of horror that has risen from the pandemic and work it into the collection,” Heo admits. For her latest collection, Heo drew upon the masterful manipulation of light and shadow in Robert Wiene’s 1920 silent horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: a realm of warped perspectives, stylised sets, and dancing shadows that creep upon elaborate cubist backgrounds, together with the flurry of frost she feels when confronted with one of Phillip Jackson’s phantom-like sculptors.

Born and raised in Jinju, South Korea, Heo spent a year studying in Illinois as an exchange student before enrolling on the Foundation course at Central Saint Martins. Heo graduated from BA Fashion Design with Print in 2017, winning the prestigious L’Oréal Professionnel Young Talent Award with a collection that paraded Heo’s whimsical vision of menswear, layering scarlet-hued shorts over a Prince-of-Wales suit jacket. The same spirit streamed into her MA collection, featuring fitted leotards, adorned with delicate, flowing chiffon and playful plastic codpieces. The collection was deserving of a second L’Oréal Professionnel Creative Award, resulting in her becoming the first designer to be bestowed with both prizes.

Since swooping into Fashion East’s nurturing nest in 2019, Heo has produced multiple collections that are disruptive, strangely sensuous, and at the forefront of what is new. Heo’s new Autumn/Winter collection marks her first time combining womenswear and menswear, a natural evolution for Heo, who perceives her clothes as unisex: “My focus is more on the wearer’s individual character and style.” Heo encapsulated the essence of our fearsome and frail times, fusing precise tailoring with fluid drapery. Hooded silhouettes breathed and crawled up the wearer, engulfing the body in shadowy layers.

But the process of constructing this collection was not without its scares. Delayed fabric, Covid-related shortage of staff, and the early implications of Brexit, all posed new challenges. Yet, Heo’s motivation for her work did not dwindle. She is about to launch her e-commerce website, and after successfully collaborating with photographer Trinity Ellis this season, she wishes to work with more Asian creatives. But for now, Heo is embracing the idea of uncertainty and the artistic possibilities that can arise with it. “It’s not the fear of the unknown, it’s the anticipation of what’s next,” the designer muses. “In this industry, you can’t predict where you will be next month.”

GOOM HEO AW21 FITTINGS

Autumn/Winter 2021 was your first time combining womenswear and menswear in one collection. How did you decide to expand to womenswear, and was it hard for you? 

It wasn’t a difficult decision for me. Obviously, I am a menswear designer, but I wanted to show how my designs are also suited to a female figure. Also, a lot of buyers and stylists actually shoot my designs with a female model, as the clothes are so versatile. This season, I wanted to show how the collection could be menswear and womenswear at the same time. But I don’t necessarily see my clothes for a specific gender, my focus is more on the wearer’s individual character and style.

“I don’t think I have felt the full effects of Brexit yet because my designs are not mass-produced. ” – Goom Heo

You showed your latest collection at LFW. How did you find the experience this season? What were the hardest moments heading to the final day of filming the showcase?

I think the most challenging part was the process of making the collection. The absence of a team member due to coronavirus over Christmas, attempting to navigate remote working, and delayed fabric as a result of Brexit, were all situations that posed challenges. I had three interns who I really wanted to involve in the process, which I was able to when we were allowed back into the studio, and we were very vigilant with maintaining social distancing and minimal contact. My collection was a statement on the need for preparation in the face of the unknown, and felt I was in the midst of the unknown with this collection.

Are you concerned about the future implications of Brexit and what effect this may have on your brand? 

I don’t think I have felt the full effects of Brexit yet because my designs are not mass-produced. I see other designers who are struggling with the early implications of Brexit – it’s definitely economically harder as designers are losing money with delayed fabrics and international orders.

“When we first started the research for the collection it was centred on horror; the focus wasn’t really on the fear you experience when faced with the unknown.” – Goom Heo

You say this collection is “a statement on the need for preparation in the face of the unknown”. Where did this concept come from and what does it mean to you? It seems very apt for our present reality.  

When we first started the research for the collection it was centred on horror; the focus wasn’t really on the fear you experience when faced with the unknown. It was very much visually inspired by the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, directed by Robert Wiene, and the sculptures of Phillip Jackson. The sculptures are vast, they exude this foreboding and quite frightening quality that I wanted to reflect in the collection. I was unable to go home to South Korea over Christmas due to our current situation and I had to stay in London. I was really questioning if I could create this collection, but we were all able to adapt to remote work and finish the collection.

GOOM HEO AW21 PROCESS

“My interns would have one design each to develop into a toile, I wanted them to be involved throughout the process, from starting the toile to finishing the actual garment. From my personal experience interning, it feels really good when you watch your hard work come to fruition, so I wanted them to enjoy that feeling.” – Goom Heo

Can you talk us through the process of making the collection?

I always start with research, determine the mood, and what utensils I will require to execute this idea. However, for this collection, I wasn’t completely certain of the idea, but I knew I wanted it to have a dark theme. I did my own research and also asked my interns to do the same. We eventually compiled all our research together, it was clear that the emerging theme was horror. From there, we began to expand this theme with more detailed research, contemplating shapes, textiles, colour, and graphics. My interns would have one design each to develop into a toile, I wanted them to be involved throughout the process, from starting the toile to finishing the actual garment. From my personal experience interning, it feels really good when you watch your hard work come to fruition, so I wanted them to enjoy that feeling.

How do you decide on your casting? 

The models are a really important part of the collection. While I was at Fashion East I had a casting director who would assist me in creating my vision. When I see the collection, I usually know instantly the type of person I would like to model the collection on. For my latest collection, we used all Asian models, not because I’m from Korea, but I just thought this collection would look really great on Asian models. It really depends on what direction we’re going for with the collection, not just casting the most notable models in the industry, because if they’re not compatible with the tone of the work, there’s no point in having them for the show.

How has growing up in a small town in South Korea informed your approach to design? Would you ever consider developing your brand in South Korea?

I always want to go back to see my family and friends. I always have fun in London, but the more time you spend here, the more you miss your hometown, your country. I feel more comfortable there, and everything is so much easier than living here in London. South Korea is a place I will always go back to, but for now, London is better for me and my brand to develop. There are more opportunities and support here for shows, I would like to stay here for a bit longer and see how it goes, you never know what’s going to happen.

I never planned on going into fashion design when I was in Korea. I had a really free and unrestricted childhood, and I think that has helped guide my path into a creative career. I was the one who was really bad at drawing, we would get a couple of hours per week at Korean High School where we would draw, but it was too short to develop an idea on what creative direction I wanted to go in. I just never thought I would go into fashion because I never considered it. When I came back from studying in Illinois, I watched this documentary about the world’s most famous fashion schools. The documentary featured Parsons, Antwerp, The Fashion Institute of Technology, and Central Saint Martins. After watching this I was like: “Oh, I need to go to fashion school.” I had to convince my parents that I need to go study fashion now otherwise it’s going to be too late, luckily it worked out!

“Making my designs commercial is important for sales, but I don’t want to be in the mentality where every piece has to be commercially successful.” – Goom Heo

GOOM HEO AW21, Photography by Trinity Ellis

As a young designer breaking into the industry, are you cautious of making your designs commercially viable? How does this influence your process?

Making my designs commercial is important for sales, but I don’t want to be in the mentality where every piece has to be commercially successful. It’s quite surprising when you think a design is not sellable, but buyers still place an order. I think it’s more important to be authentic and to design what you love and leave it up to the buyers to make their own decision. We are trying to make T-shirts for the website, in an attempt to reach wider audiences. It’s always really great to hear what buyers have to say or Lulu Kennedy; everyone at Fashion East is willing to give you advice, which is really informative.

“There are great supportive schemes for young designers and students now, but I wish people in the industry had a wider appreciation of young talent, it’s easy to credit students’ work when it is used for a shoot. ” – Goom Heo

What are the pros and the cons of running your own brand?

I think the most significant pro for me is watching the collection grow, how it develops from a preliminary idea into a physical piece of clothing. It just feels great when you finish the collection, it’s the adrenaline of like, “I’ve done it”. The cons are definitely money, it’s the same for any other industry, but it is really hard to keep up as a young designer. I have so many other expenses, especially bills.

From your experience of the industry since your graduation from CSM, is there anything in the fashion industry that you would like to change?

There are great supportive schemes for young designers and students now, but I wish people in the industry had a wider appreciation of young talent, it’s easy to credit students’ work when it is used for a shoot. Luckily, I get lots of support from The British Fashion Council and Fashion East, but there are so many talented individuals that are not being awarded with the support they deserve. But I am noticing that there is increasingly more support now for students than there was when I was studying for my BA, so I think the aid is definitely improving.

How important are interns in aiding your practice? 

Interns are so important, it’s valuable to have someone who completely trusts your work and to have the extra help. I know interns are really struggling to find a placement with the pandemic-induced restrictions, so I try to help by offering internships. An intern I had last season studied a Masters at The Royal College of Art. She was unable to use the sewing machines at her university, so after we had finished for the day she would use the machines in our studio, which really helped her.

“I have no idea what is next, but I am enjoying the feeling of not knowing what’s going to happen.” – Goom Heo

Can you tell us what is next for you? 

I’m going to continue to develop my own label. We probably will be working on the next collection very soon, we are actually about to launch our e-commerce website, which I am very excited about. I’m really motivated to continue expanding my brand and grow with my team. This was my last collection with Fashion East, so I am currently in the process of applying for sponsorships. But it has been great working with Fashion East and their support was amazing, it feels really rewarding to have them trust your vision without questioning its direction. So, at the moment I am just trying to figure out how I can do next season.

I have no idea what is next, but I am enjoying the feeling of not knowing what’s going to happen. It’s not the fear of the unknown, it’s the anticipation of what’s next because, in this industry, you can’t predict where you will be next month. So now I’m focusing on finishing the production from the last collection, and then I am going to have a week off to figure out what’s next.

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