The scene: a poverty-stricken rural village in post-war Korea. Amid the hardship and desolation, an unlikely character, dressed in an immaculately tailored Western suit, sweeps into a fabric shop and starts sifting through the silks. “Oh beurifool,” says the visitor, a designer named Andre Kim, in his broken attempts at English. “Very elegance!” “Much fantasy!” Exasperated by the fop’s antics, a local everyman yells, “Hey, Kim Bong-nam!” a pointed rebuke using Kim’s hokey, old-fashioned given name that promptly cuts the hammy Kim down to size.
Besides being a funny scene in “Ode to My Father,” the smash hit Korean film from this year, the dialogue is a telling reference to the late, high profile designer’s public image and legacy. Kim is the comic, glamour-seeking foil to all the other poor, hard-working villagers in the film – his dandy suit and supercilious English phrases as unwelcome and out of place as his faux English name. And in real life, he embodied Korea’s love-hate relationship with Western culture after the fratricidal war in the 1950s.
For Koreans, his name has always been a contentious emblem of the designer’s lifelong crush on all things West. In fact, it was only a few years before his death in 2010 (aged 74) that he revealed his real name – not voluntarily but through a court appearance. He was born Bong-nam Kim, the son of farmers in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, on the outskirts of Seoul. But after a chance meeting with a French diplomat during his twenties, he changed his name to Andre. “It’s more romantic and poetic,” the designer had said.
His admiration of the West however, stretched far beyond his name. In the 1960s, he began to make a name for himself by designing Western-style clothing for Korean women, when information from abroad was scarce. He was one of the first Korean designers to use fashion shows and mass media to publicize his collections. And his clothing gained an influential fan base as it dovetailed with Koreans’ craving for the luxury and sophistication of the Western world.
It’s now rare to see Koreans wearing hanbok (traditional Korean costume) except in traditional wedding ceremonies or national holidays. But at the time Kim was starting out, well-tailored Western-style clothes were as rare as hanbok is today. Wearing an Andre Kim design became a symbol of a modern, sophisticated lifestyle. Korea’s most sought-after actresses and ambassadors’ wives became regulars in his shows – both as models and as front-row guests. And soon, the Andre Kim brand became synonymous with a romantic notion of luxury in Korea.
On the back of domestic success, the West soon took notice as well – this recognition becoming the foundation of Kim’s lucrative design empire. In 1966, he became the first Korean designer to hold a fashion show in Paris, in which the French paper Le Figaro described him as a “magician from fairyland.” In his heyday, he designed household appliances, wallpaper and even a credit card with Kookmin Bank. In 1982, Kim received the Cultural Merit Award from the Italian government and in 1997, he became the first fashion designer to receive the Korean Presidential Culture and Art Medal. Influenced by its large Korean-American community, the San Francisco city government even designated an Andre Kim Day in 1999.
While the ’60s saw Kim start out designing well-tailored, functional yet whimsical clothing, the ’80s brought out the heavy-handed, over embellished design beast in him. Kim’s aesthetic continued to turn more extravagant during his later years, as his signature became baroque, almost Rococo-style clothes in bright colours and Renaissance motifs. Case in point – after a visit to Korea, Michael Jackson asked Kim if he would be his personal dresser. Kim was even invited to design dresses for the Miss Universe pageant. “I love the Oxford accent – it is very dignified,” he told a New York Times reporter once. His catwalk shows often ended with a wedding cake-like, multi-tiered wedding dress on show as “Ave Maria” played in the background.
But by the 90s, Korea was no longer the impoverished country of Kim’s youth, when the secluded “land of the morning calm” had had a per capita income less than half of Ghana’s. By the 90s, Korea had become one of the world’s ten biggest exporters, with a savvy, cosmopolitan public exposed to global culture. Just as Kim’s Western-influenced glamour and attitude was alien to Koreans during the ’60s, the designer and his clothes had become strange, out of place and out of date in a now wealthy, internationally savvy Korea. His voluminous chiffon dresses embellished with gilt, lace and loud colours, which had once captivated Korea and the world, were now just an embarrassing reminder of Korea’s past obsession with the West.
Although the designer – famous for working seven days a week – diligently expanded his brand to include a wide range of products including eye wear, jewellery, underwear and golf wear, his influence in Korea’s fashion industry kept diminishing, never living up to the glory of his early years. The shift in Korea’s socio-economic status soon turned Andre Kim the fashion designer into a pop culture celebrity, a caricature of a frivolous fashion designer from a bygone era.
Kim soon became a fixture on comedy shows, where he was frequently mocked. With his signature white space suit uniform, thick makeup and pretentious English catch phrases, Kim was now a comic, estranged figment of an awkward past and an easy target of ridicule. “When I watch TV and see comedians mimicking me, I feel embarrassed,” the designer once said during an interview.
The local fashion industry was equally harsh on the designer, as he became an embarrassing reminder of post-war Korea’s infatuation and inferiority complex regarding the Western world. In a country where Psy’s “Gangnam Style” succeeded by poking fun at the Western-influenced, materialism of the manicured Gangnam set, Kim’s extravagantly gilded wedding dresses – which had so perfectly symbolised the tacky, nouveau-riche aesthetic of a country racing toward affluence – now seemed hopelessly gauche.
Upon Kim’s death five years ago, the Korean press, which had never shied away from ridiculing him during his life, dubbed him Korea’s first modern designer and an unofficial ambassador of Korean fashion to the world. Whatever Kim’s failings, he helped announce Korea’s position as a coming power, and showed Koreans that they could emulate and, eventually, take on the established powers in the Western world.
All of this explains why the scene from “Ode to My Father” carries such a tender poignancy. For all its success in smartphones and the boom of K-pop music across the region, Korea has yet to produce an international fashion figure anywhere near as prestigious as Kim, let alone the industry giants from neighbouring Japan. The message from the scene, as most viewers understand, is evident: all these decades later, it’s still not quite clear whether Korea is closer to being Andre or Bong-nam.
Jainnie Cho is a writer living and working in London. She has contributed to Monocle, Intelligent Life, The Times, The Debrief and Because Magazine online. Before that spent several years working at the Korea JoongAng Daily newspaper. She can make a mean bulgogi and has excellent taste in stationery.