The sofa says it all. On its white canvas cover are scribbled hearts, skulls, and signatures in royal blue, rose pink, and daffodil yellow — a graffiti of friendship for this smiling woman in her artfully paint—splashed dungarees. Kim Young-Seong, Fabric Director of Chanel, is Karl Lagerfeld's secret weapon.
Another of Kim’s moodboards features these pantaloons, which are worn under the traditional Korean hanbok
Kim’s moodboard for the fabric development of the Chanel 2015 Cruise collection, which was held in Seoul and inspired by traditional Korean dress
A recent trip to the Korea Furniture Museum reignited Kim’s passion for traditional Korean craftsmanship
Kim’s hanbok moodboard, featuring traditional, vibrant Korean colours
Originally from South Korea, Kim has been dedicated to the Rue Cambon headquarters in Paris for 17 years. She opens the Chanel fabric studio to show me the depth and breadth of weaving originality into the collections. Here are examples of those famous Coco tweeds, the texture so loosely woven that they look like grain sacks, except for the enticing mixtures of strawberry pink, leaf green, and straw yellow. Other fabrics are smooth, silken, and classic, but maybe melded with hyper-modern plastic.
"What I really appreciate in Chanel is the freedom of creation — for me that is really so precious," says Kim. "But with freedom comes responsibility; you have to respect the price, but with the custom-made tweed it is impossible to compromise. It is an amazing company, and with Karl there is total freedom. I ask other people how they work, and they cannot have this kind of autonomy."
She tells me how the two creative minds came together: After working briefly at Karl Lagerfeld's own label, one day Kim was at home when a white-gloved deliveryman arrived and announced, "This is from Monsieur Lagerfeld" and handed her a hand-written envelope. The letter inside read, "Dear Kim, I really want to work with you. Please send me a fax."
What Kim calls "a dream come true" developed from her South Korean childhood, her interest in French literature and language when she was in high school, her art studies in Paris, and nearly two decades heading up a small team dedicated to turning Karl's vision and Chanel's history into modern reality.
"Work hard and be nice to people" reads a poster crawling with colourful crustaceous creatures and pinned with what looks like a postcard from Cuba. The subject of that location, where Chanel's Cruise 2017 collection will be staged this May, is out of bounds. In spite of the impossibility of copying work that has such a depth of creativity and handwork, I am not allowed to see a single fabric relating to the new show. But studying the development of the Chanel Cruise collection, held last year in Zaha Hadid's Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Seoul, is a revelation.
Kim’s influence can be seen on all the house’s fabrics, such as these Chanel tweeds
Fabric sample of a luxurious Chanel tweed
Kim lays out a pile of books she has created in the spirit of the mood boards that can be found backstage at designer fashion shows. But these research images are nothing as simple as past and present photographs pinned to a cork pinboard. Instead, every page of the books shows either images of South Korea - its history, clothing, objects, and vibrant colours — or Kim's inspirations for Chanel. She turns pages that might show the Korean Hanbok — the colourful high waisted, full skirt that is national dress for women — or even the pantaloons worn underneath it.
Echoes of Kim’s Korean research can also be found in this tweed from Chanel’s Autum/Winter 2016 Ready-to-Wear collection
A bias-cut black-fringed tweed skirt from the Autumn/Winter 2016 Chanel Ready-to-Wear collection
"It's so beautiful, the culottes give it volume," says Kim. "Everyone knows the kimono, but Korea as a country is not well known. People know Korean culture as K-Pop (the country's modern music), but what is the colour of Korea? We have many — reds, blues, yellows, stripes. In childhood everybody wears them."
As Kim turns page after page showing footwear, ribbons, multi-coloured fringing, lacquer boxes, hair brooches, and those wildly dressed K-Pop figures dancing amid eye-popping graffiti, I wonder at the amount of work it takes to create one single Chanel collection. Kim tells me she took 10,000 photos when she went with her mother to the Korea Furniture Museum in Seoul, where rooms from the past were re-created, complete with wooden cabinets and carved storage trunks.
"I was in love with our collection; it was created from the heart, we were so emotional," Kim says. "I don't usually have time, but for Korea I had to make it so that people could understand — that there is this kind of hairstyle of old-time American girls and all kinds of jewellery boxes. The Korean men's look is completely different in shape, with long trousers."
Kim elaborates on the "eternal symbols" that she sees as being the visual heart of her homeland and I feel privileged to be able to see inside this creative brain through these extraordinarily vivid images in the books. I ask her if another fashion house would give her these creative opportunities.
"I ask everybody how they work at Louis Vuitton, for example, and they can't have this kind of freedom," Kim says. "Chanel is an amazing company and with Karl there is total freedom," she tells me again. "I've worked in France, in Japan, in Scotland, and sometimes with the handcraft artisans in Korea."
The textile expert introduces me to some of her six-strong immediate team. Everything possible is now done in-house, Kim explains, because ideas are now so confidential that she can no longer send instructions directly to the weavers. I realise how much of the detailed handcraft I must have missed at Chanel over the years, viewing the collections on the runway rather than seeing each individual piece up close. But then, Karl's aim is to give a 'perfume' of his style for each season on the catwalk, knowing that each item is perfect in its depth of detail.
"I hope people understand what I am doing, because generally they don't," says Kim. "They know vaguely how I select, but not how I develop it after all these years at Chanel. Before we didn't have so many collections. Now they are nearly every month. I have to prepare a new story each year for up to six prêt-à-porter collections. I want to bring inspiration and excitement. Karl is the first one I want to make happy to open the new season."
The Second Condé Nast International Luxury Conference runs from the 20th-21st April at The Shilla, Seoul. Visit www.cniluxury.com for more details; follow the Conference on Twitter and Instagram: @CNILuxury; and search #CNILux