Beauty of natural dye spreads from Hanbok designer Lee Na-kyong
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Beauty of natural dye spreads from Hanbok designer Lee Na-kyong
  • Park Kyoung-eun
  • 승인 2014.08.31 22:43
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Photo by Chung Yun-jo.
A young girl entering middle school holds a rice cake on her right hand and her sister’s hand on the other. When she curiously goes toward the mill to see the machine running, her right sleeve gets caught into the machine, causing her the price of losing her right arm. Despite such a terrible accident, Lee Na-kyong (’79, Painting) has become one of the most prestigious Hanbok designers in Korea, spreading its beauty around the world.
Lee’s passion toward clothes and paintings started from her childhood. She always loved to draw and make clothes for herself. This led her to choose art as her career path without much consideration.
“I chose to draw for the rest of my life because I could not imagine myself doing anything else,” Lee recalls.
When she studied painting at Ewha, she always stood out among other students as she always worked harder than others and tried out new methods in her paintings to get the best result.
“Even now, I would rather choose to bustle around and keep working rather than just staying in my room and doing nothing,” Lee said.
By the time she was 26 years old, Lee had participated in several western painting exhibitions. Then Lee had the opportunity to debut as a clothes designer at Sejong Center opening stage “Form” costume design.
At Lee’s debut stage as a clothes designer, she used Hanji, traditional Korean paper, as the main material for the costumes, which was officially the first time in Korea. Lee was inspired by a historical record about Hanji armors that Korean soldiers wore when the French army invaded the Joseon Dynasty and another record on clothes worn at puppet shows.
The effect of using Hanji was maximized in the scene where King Danjong drinks poison for his death. Lee had arranged for dark ink to be put under the Hanji costume so that the process of dark ink spreading through the costume with the absorption of Hanji could be clearly shown to the audience. The debut costumes for “Form” became Lee’s starting point of her career as a clothes designer.
Lee always uses natural dyes for her Hanbok as she believes natural dye can uniquely create clear and distinct color with only little amount of dye.
“As I originally studied paintings, I always study various colors,” Lee said. “I found out natural dye can create colors that cannot be obtained in any other way and I think those distinct colors can lead to better artistic effects.”
Lee believes that design can get its fullest meaning only when it is widely used among people and that all inspirations can come from nature and our heritage sites.
“I always tell my students that natural dyes should not be used only in the field of Hanbok,” Lee said. “It can be used in diverse places that we cannot even imagine. Also, I always recommend students to study Korean art history, as all inspirations stem from our own art works.”
Lee opened the first Hanbok shop in Insadong called Aragaya in 1995 that helped her to raise children into successful artists.
“Some people think I named the shop after a Japanese word, but the word Aragaya comes from one of the six Gaya countries in history which were specialized in dealing with fire,” Lee said.
Ara, which also can be pronounced as al, represents sky and Gaya, which can be called as Garam or Garak, means a river. Therefore, the word Aragaya represents Lee’s wish to make clothing based on the energy of land and sky, along with delicacy achieved by fire.
Also, where Aragaya was historically situated corresponds to Lee’s hometown, Gyeongsangnam-do.
“Historically, Gaya was also good at making fine potteries,” Lee said. “I try to figure out exquisite colors and lines from the potteries found in my hometown.”
In 2009 and 2012, Lee was invited to Sarajevo Winter Festival, setting the record of being the only Korean artist invited to the festival by 2012. During the event, Lee had come across various interesting, memorable experiences.
“When I visited the festival, we had our performance at National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Lee said. “While preparing for the performance, we found out that the organizer had provided us a dressing room right next to the world’s oldest bible, so the actors had to change their clothes right next to the precious, ancient artifact.”
Lee held another exhibition this year at Sangam from July 18 to 31 with graduated and current students she has taught in Kookmin University.
 “I am also on the process of preparing for the exhibition in the theme of ‘rain or shine,’ which delivers the message that I will do my best whether it rains or not,” Lee said.
Lee added a final word to Ewha students, emphasizing women’s mature attitude in their professions.
“I think nowadays there are many women thinking ‘because I am a woman’ even at their jobs, which makes women lose their advantages when competing with men,” Lee said. “I hope when they seek their jobs, women should take their jobs seriously and always think they are professionals.”

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