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André Kim

An icon of Korean fashion
Seong Hyunjin, Korea Foundation Curatorial Intern
February 15, 2024
Man in Red Shirt and Black hat

King Yeongjo (영조) (1694–1776) Portrait, 1900. Chae Yong-shin (Korean, 1850–1941) and Jo Seok-jin (Korean, 1853–1920). Color on silk; 110.5 x 61.8 cm. The National Palace Museum of Korea. Changdeok 6363

Korean Couture: Generations of Revolution marks the first fashion exhibition of its kind at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Drawing on approximately 30 garments, from early modern aristocratic attire to contemporary pieces by prominent and emerging designers, the exhibition delves into the Korean couture realm and its pioneers, such as André Kim (1935–2010).

This legendary trailblazer developed an eclectic style by incorporating features of traditional Korean clothing into global fashions to narrate the transformative story of Korean fashion. This mirrors the essence of his first name, André, which he adopted in place of his birth name, Bong Nam. A French diplomat gave him the moniker so he would be more easily recalled by foreigners, foreseeing that he would gain worldwide renown: indeed, he is known globally as the first Korean male fashion designer. Born in South Korea in 1935, Kim studied at Kukje Fashion Design School in Seoul. In 1962 he opened his boutique Salon André in the city’s Sogong-dong neighborhood. His fashion show in Paris in 1966 propelled him onto the international stage in cities including New York, Barcelona, Cairo, and New Delhi. Throughout his career, he held approximately 200 domestic and 50 international fashion shows, demonstrating his cultural influence. 

Red top decorated with gold details in asian Korean style
Evening Ensemble, 1980s. Salon André Kim (Korea, est. 1962). Image courtesy of the National Folk Museum. Folk 078705

At a time when gender prejudice toward male designers prevailed in Korean society, he was gaining international success, credited to his keen aesthetic sensibilities and his diplomatic prowess. Kim’s interpretation of traditional Korean art through fashion charmed the global audience, and even garnered attention from celebrities such as Brooke Shields and Michael Jackson, as well as politicians and diplomats. While South Korea was not prepared for globalization, with its gross national product being less than 100 US dollars after the Korean War (1950–53), his design activities demonstrated the impact of national branding in fashion, establishing a foundation for the next generation of designers.

Woman in extravegent dress with different textures
Seven Veil Fantasy, Fashion Show in Cairo, Egypt 1996. Salon André Kim. From André Kim, 앙드레 김 (André Kim) My Fantasy (Seoul: Achimnara, 2010), p. 214

Kim significantly contributed to modernizing couture production by exploring Korean clothing history. In an interview with the Korea Times in 2008, Kim recalled, “I have great pride in my country and Asia, and I wanted to show Korea’s rich cultural heritage.” By the late 1900s, traditional Korean clothing faced a decline in practicality and functionality. Later, Western textile materials and methods conversely gained prominence after the destruction of factories during the Korean War. Fiber manufacturing then became a fundamental national industry in the process of fostering the postwar economy; Kim singularly responded by integrating made-in-Korea textiles into his couture production, thus enhancing their value on the global stage.    

The exhibition features several of Kim’s designs, including three distinctive dress and jacket ensembles, juxtaposed with classical early modern Korean garments. Inspired by historical royal costumes, his fashions boast voluminous shapes, vivid colors, and ostentatious patterns, and prominently feature traditional motifs like flowers, plants, carp, deer, and dragons, frequently incorporating the last to highlight Korea’s national identity tied to royal and aristocratic lineage. During the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), these motifs symbolized authority on royal robes called gonryongpo (곤룡포); while the early robes featured motifs woven with supplementary wefts, they were later embroidered in gold thread on circular pieces of cloth known as bo (보) that were applied to the chest, back, and shoulders of the robes. Kim utilized these motifs in diverse forms, especially through appliqué techniques (sewing a cutout fabric onto a larger swatch), not only to highlight the imagery but also to provide the garments with dimensional depth. In this way, he infused his designs with both the vitality and the symbolic beauty of Korean tradition, pioneering Korean couture fashion. 

Woman sitting on white couch wearing bulky dress with hair tied in bun
Evening Dress Spring 2011, 2011. Lee Jean Youn (Korea, est. 2004). Silk organza. Image courtesy of Lee Jean Youn

Kim’s most iconic ensemble, a seven-layered dress, is embraced in the exhibition in relation to the next generation of designers, as exemplified by Lee Jean Youn (b. 1978). Comprising seven differently colored gowns lavishly decorated with appliqué patterns, this ensemble achieves its full effect as the model appears on the final stage. She gracefully takes off each outfit, creating a visual metaphor of shedding a heavy burden; after revealing the last garment, she conveys a sense of freedom. Kim translated the sorrow experienced by women in the strict patriarchal society during the Joseon dynasty into an emotional theatrical performance. Lee presented an evening dress reinterpreting Kim’s opulent couture fashion and emphasizing his own formative and technical artistry during the finale of his 2011 Spring/Summer Paris Haute Couture show. 

Kim dreamed of establishing a fashion museum in Korea where designers could cultivate their creative potential and advance the development of fashion. Korean Couture: Generations of Revolution aspires to see his revolutionary spirit resonate with the Cleveland audience in the same way his legacy has empowered generations of Korean fashion designers.