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Meeting the Hanbok That Reflects the Wisdom of Life Gained from Firsthand Experiences
Park Sul-nyeo


Hanbok designer Park Sul-nyeo


You might remember the scene from Secret Garden, a hit TV show that aired in Korea a decade ago, where the male lead Kim Joo-won (Hyun Bin) strikes a silly pose and tells Gil Ra-im (Ha Ji-won) who doesn’t seem to realize the value of the sparkly blue tracksuit he is wearing: “You might think this is an ordinary tracksuit, but it’s not. Every one of these sequins was handstitched by an Italian artisan…” Although Ra-im ignores him and leaves, Joo-won continues his passionate speech without even realizing she’s already gone. That is because he knows the true value of his tracksuit and the effort and craftsmanship that went into making it. There is a saying that you can only see what you know. It means that the value of an object is determined by what you perceive. In that sense, for contemporary Koreans, who tend to value efficiency and speed above all and find it difficult to hide their disgust at unpolished and unsophisticated aesthetics, the traditional Korean clothing hanbok perhaps merely represented an outdated style of fashion, or ceremonial attire worn only on special occasions. However, there is an artisan who has strived to break down those walls of prejudice and incorporate hanbok into our everyday wardrobe. She has dedicated herself to making hanbok for 43 years through the painstaking and thoughtful labor of her hands. Here is the story of the hanbok designer Park Sul-nyeo.


Her mother’s hanbok became her destined path

Park Sul-nyeo was strongly influenced by her mother to choose hanbok-making as her vocation. Born as the third daughter among seven children in Seocheon, South Chungcheong Province, she saw her mother dressing up in a hanbok whenever there was a village party and grew interest in hanbok herself.

“My mother used to sell fish, so she would be handling fish all day long. However, on special occasions such as a relative’s wedding or a village party, she always went out dressed in a beautiful hanbok, which left a deep impression on me.”

Park learned how to sew from her mother, and often sat up all night patching up old clothes or making some simple clothes, She loved hanbok so much that, whenever she tagged along with her mother to the market, she couldn’t take her eyes off the window of a hanbok shop. However, she had to put her dreams on hold because of her family’s financial difficulties.

“You couldn’t imagine how poor we were back then. Seeking to reduce the number of mouths to feed, I began working as a domestic servant at a tender age and also worked at a textile factory in Cheonan.”

She was 24 when she came to Seoul after working at a textile factory in Cheonan to help support her younger siblings.

“Everyone said it was too late for me, but my mother encouraged me to follow my dreams. She told me that, no matter how much the world changed, our traditional clothing would survive, and gave me travel expenses despite her tight finances. That’s all I had when I came to Seoul.”

Encouraged by her mother’s support, Park came to Seoul full of hope and rushed to seek a place to work and learn at a hanbok shop, only to be repeatedly rejected for being too old. Nonetheless, her passion and perseverance allowed her to study the craft at a number of private institutions until the age of 26 when she became a pupil of Lee Ri-ja, a first-generation Korean hanbok designer, and began earnestly training in hanbok-making.

“I cut out sleep in order to work. I barely slept for three hours each night back then.”

After five years of barely sleeping and passionately devoting herself to hanbok, Park opened her own hanbok shop in a 350-square-foot space in Gunja-dong, Seoul in 1986.

  • Artisan Park Sul-nyeo's father (Park Sun-gui) and mother (Woo Bok-yeol)
    Artisan Park Sul-nyeo’s father (Park Sun-gui) and mother (Woo Bok-yeol)

  • Park’s workshop is filled with various fabrics, earning it the nickname “the silk storage.
     Park’s workshop is filled with various fabrics, earning it the nickname “the silk storage.“


Despite being a lousy wife and mother

“It was only a small neighborhood shop that I opened at the age of 32, but I had a surprising number of customers who came to me by word of mouth. I would even take on customers who knocked on my door in the middle of the night. It was during those days of hard work that I met my husband.”

On her 27th blind date, she met a tall and handsome public servant who eventually became her husband and went on to have two children with him.

“I was a mother in name only as well as a lousy wife. I stayed up late doing needlework almost every day, while my husband read books while carrying our crying baby on his back. As the demand for my work continued to increase, all the house chores and parenting fell on my husband.”

Park’s husband appreciated her talent more than anyone and later quit his job of 20 years in order to support her full-time.

“Orders kept piling up and I could no longer handle the workload alone, so I begged my husband to help me. After three years of pleading, he finally agreed. I’m so grateful to him, even now.”

Her level-headed and composed husband then became her most steadfast supporter, inspiring her courage by saying, “Even if the demand for hanbok falls, you’ll be able to survive with your skills and solid capital."

“For a while, I even thought about closing the shop because I found the pressure to be unbearable. Every time I was about to give up, my husband urged me to carry on, saying that I should never put down my needle and stay active in the field till the end.”


Remembering the spirit of “Learning from the old to create the new”

Thanks to her husband’s support and encouragement, which acted like priming water for drawing water from a deep well, Park grew to become one of the most renowned hanbok designers in Korea. In the process, she spared no efforts in transforming the quiet, genteel and calm image of hanbok into a lavish and luxurious style of traditional clothing.

“Most people’s understanding of hanbok is limited to jeogori (basic upper garment), chima (skirts worn together with jeogori), magoja (outer jackets) and durumagi (overcoats). I tried to broaden that perception by developing and introducing a more diverse range of items including baeja (women’s waistcoats), winter hats and vests. I also explored ways to make hanbok look more refined and robust by adding a variety of accessories.”

Her efforts to practice the spirit of “Learning from the old to create the new” served as a kind of bridgehead for the popularization of hanbok.

From left to right, singer Park Jin-young, Park Sul-nyeo and singer Rain
From left to right, singer Park Jin-young, Park Sul-nyeo and singer Rain
Photographer David LaChapelle (pupil of Andy Warhol)
Photographer David LaChapelle (pupil of Andy Warhol)
At the P4G Upcycled Clothing Exhibition fashion show. From left to right, Park Sul-nyeo, First Lady Kim Jung-sook, actress Park Jin-hie and singer Sean
At the P4G Upcycled Clothing Exhibition fashion show. From left to right, Park Sul-nyeo, First Lady Kim Jung-sook, actress Park Jin-hie and singer Sean

The endless endeavors of the “President of Hanbok”

“My customers gave me a nickname, ‘President of Hanbok.’ It was an honor that spurred me on to work even harder.”

While sewing can make any rough fabric look fine and luxurious, rough-looking clothes diminish the wearer’s dignity. Therefore, Park always makes hanbok with the mindset of making clothes that can be worn for 100 years.Part of the reason why her hanbok has become so popular today might be that she was able to convey her strong belief in hanbok and compassionate attitude across to numerous celebrities at home and abroad, which then spread by word of mouth. At the Upcycled Clothing Exhibition, recently held as a side event of the 2021 P4G Seoul Summit, she came into the limelight by presenting a collection of hanbok made of eco-friendly materials.

“The slogan of the event, ‘Looking at discards and wearing the new,’ strongly appealed to me. My staff and I were happy to work on the collection as it represented the opportunity to show that our traditional clothing of hanbok could also be made in a unique, unconventional style using various materials.”

Hanbok is a valuable style of attire that embodies the scent, warmth, devotion and memory of its maker, whose true meaning can only be appreciated by the Korean people. The hanbok sewn by Park Sul-nyeo is not outdated and old-fashioned clothing, but contemporary clothing that will ensure that memories of the past endure long into the future. This lofty philosophy compels Park to painstakingly ponder and reflect whenever she makes a new set of hanbok. Although others tell her to take it easy since she has already made it to the top, Park continues striving to promote the beauty of hanbok, as though the shoes on her feet simply refuse to let her stop. Her nickname, “President of Hanbok,” shines even brighter today because of the abundant tears and sweat that she shed and the iron will that she exercised over the course of her growth from a daughter of a poor family into the President of Hanbok.

Contributed by Seo Joo-hee, a Culture Caster of KBS
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