Removing her dark, oversized sunglasses which she had kept on for the photoshoot that just ended, Im Seon-oc remarks that she doesn’t want to be rude wearing sunglasses during the interview.
Clad head to toe in her own black top and pants, her petite figure exudes a strong presence. When the sunglasses come off, it is impossible not to be struck by the swaths of black across her eyelids that extend out to her temples. It is her signature look, along with her sunglasses.
Twenty years in the cutthroat world of fashion, Im is now a fixture on the Korean fashion scene in which designers are often passed over for the next hot talent within a couple of seasons.
Perhaps not having been a hyped-up fashion person is a blessing in disguise. Im has been able to develop her ideas and grow the business at her own pace. She now enjoys a cultish following among her fans, although her brand PartsParts may be off the radar of most fashion houses.
Her loyal clients appreciate the modern boxy silhouette, the clean lines and the pared down palette of three to five colors any given season -- black, white, red, beige and gray with pops of bright colors as accents. But to have any kind of staying power in the fickle world of fashion, brands need something that is uniquely their own. PartsParts found it in its fabric.
Designer Im Seon-oc poses at her store, PartsParts, in Buam-dong, Seoul on Jan. 17. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
“I worked on developing the fabric for six years,” says Im referring to her unique fabric that is produced locally and exclusively for her. It is a mix of polyester and ground stone powder, she explains. “It is quantum material,” she says.
Hiking wear were all the rage in Korea when Im hit upon the idea of using the material to make hiking pants.
“It had good tension, it was functional fabric,” she says. “I decided to turn it high-end.”
The fabric is a work in progress -- she continues to improve it.
“For winter, I laminate layers of the fabric for better insulation. For summer, I use a lightweight weave to keep the fabric cool,” she says, explaining how fabrics are differentiated during processing.
Hanging on the racks, the winter coats look like they are made of neoprene -- the stuff used to make wet suits -- but they are incredibly light.
Pieces from the summer collection are thin and light, shiny and slinky yet incredibly sharp. Some people think that all her summer pieces are made of silk, she points out with a laugh. But they do not wrinkle, making them perfect for busy women who are constantly on the go.
Im’s interest in painting, installation art -- she was an aspiring artist and admits that had she gotten into Hongik University, her life would have taken a different path -- and her background in design and graphic design all continue to influence and inform her work. She has designed costumes for musicals, dance productions and has held museum exhibitions. In 2016 she won the Red Dot Award in 2016 for communication design.
She had been working at a fashion company as a graphic designer when she took a monthlong course at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York in the late 1980s.
“It was a culture shock,” she said. As hard as it is to imagine today, overseas travel for Koreans was liberalized only around the time of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and many Koreans got to travel outside the country for the first time then, an eye-opening experience.
On the way back from New York, she stopped by in Japan where she happened to pass by a fashion school. Inspired by the very cool-looking students, she decided to study fashion merchandising in Tokyo. This was time when Japanese fashion designers such as Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo were taking Paris by storm with their aesthetics.
At the famous Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo, she ended up learning to make clothes as well. “You had to learn to make clothes first,” she recalls.
Upon returning to Seoul after four years, Im worked at a fashion house where she worked on brand launching. When the company went bankrupt 31/2 years later, she opened her own store in Garosugil in 1996, years before the sleepy stretch of road became trendy.
“I was a member of the second, third generation of Korean fashion designers who grew fast in the early 2000s,” she says. Today, Im is one of the few designers from that period who remain active.
Im has had her share of difficult times. “After my company went bankrupt, I began to look for a slow paced place,” she says. That is how she restarted in Buam-dong almost nine years ago – once again years before the area became yet another hip cafe and restaurant area. Today, many of her clients are well-heeled, older women from Pyeongchang-dong, a nearby neighborhood known for its wealthy residents who work in the arts.
Im is also a practical designer, who came up with the concept of “zero waste” starting with her fall-winter 2012 collection which featured only one type of fabric and one pattern. “Using different color combinations, many variations are possible,” she says. “A square can be made into many different variations,” she says.
Zero waste also means minimizing cutting. “There is really too much fabric that is discarded,” she says. The 100-piece collection presented for the fall-winter 2012 season resulted in only three plastic bags of fabric remnants, which were then recycled into different products, such as bags. “It really starts from the stage where designs are being ‘built,” Im says, likening it to Lego blocks. “They can be assembled, disassembled and reassembled,” she explains.
A shrewd businesswoman as well as an innovative designer, Im says, “A designer must have a calculator. It is impossible to have a fashion brand without a business mind.”
Im advises young designers to start creating knowing what must be made. “You have to do both fashion and merchandising. Both are equally important,” she says. She also suggests that designers adapt themselves to today’s fashion scene, noting that the old curriculum taught at schools is no longer relevant.
“Young designers must acclimatize to the SPA-dominated industry. They must produce saleable items. SPAs are not enemies, designers should make things that can be sold to SPAs,” she says.
Im’s design philosophy of “creating innovative, progressive pieces with realistic sensibilities that you (customers) turn to even 10 years later,” is reflected in the innovative ways in which she shows her collections. She stopped presenting her collections on Seoul Fashion Week runways way ahead of her Korean peers, turning to streaming video to reach her audience directly or presenting a street fashion show around her Buam-dong store, with models strutting down the closed off street.
During the upcoming Seoul Fashion Week period at the end of March, Im will be trying another novel approach. She and four other mid-career designers will be opening a three-day showroom for buyers and press only, allowing her to avoid the chaos of runway shows crowded with students and public that have come to characterize Seoul Fashion Week. After all, fashion is about business as much as it is about creating beautiful clothes.
By Kim Hoo-ran