Is white a colour? The answer has to be yes, as you gaze at shades of white from translucent ice to double cream. The effect is not only of a changing colour, but also texture, creating a poetic effect - as when a white cotton shirt is the centre of whirls of tulle or frills of chiffon.
Jin Teok is the fashion magician who works different dimensions – and has done for half a century. To celebrate her exceptional design career, she has an exhibition in Seoul – “Anthology: Jin Teok, Creation of 50 Years”, at the DDP (Dongdaemun Design Plaza), the futuristic building designed by architect Zaha Hadid.
Rigid metallic scaffolding offset by filmy organza drapes make a striking backdrop to clothes that have changed with the times, yet retain a clear personal vision.
The show starts not with white - nor Jin Teok's occasional black - but with vivid red, mixing denim and silk, embroidery and quilting. The result is a blood-red apron over a full denim skirt or a flower-embroidered top in the spirit of the traditional South Korean Hanbok.
The neutral colours then develop as shades of sandy beige or cream, often with plain cotton layers leading downwards to a silk underskirt.
I liked the way that this designer is as clear with words as she is with clothes. “Calm” led a description that developed as “organza, stitch, faint, handcraft, tailoring, pastry, Victorian”. This described pale dresses from Spring/Summer 1999, while the red outfits from 1995 were labeled in bold letters with a single word: “Blood”.
Jin Teok is able to shift her approach from complex layers of raw fabric tied up like a parcel with cotton string, to cut-out leather and lace. And just when you think that she might be heading towards abstraction, there is a firmly-cut, black lacy leather top and the words: “Avant-garde. Darkness. Black. Solitude.”
I am honoured that this designer chose to use the words I had written for her 50th anniversary book and to display them at the exhibition in South Korea. Here is what I said in the foreword.
Jin Teok: Like a Poem
White has never been considered a colour; it is a neutral shade that offers peace for the eyes – and the mind.
This definition seems especially valid in the vivid, vibrant world of K-Pop, with all its wild colours and patterns. White retreats into the background, a canvas for the energetic art of South Korea today.
But Jin Teok has a different approach. In her fashion, white is in the foreground. With the different textures of slithering satin, crunchy mesh, the lightest chiffon, dense lace and the smoothest silk, the designer’s vision is of white as a colour. To understand her imagination and skill, you need to touch her creations so that they appeal to the senses. Just sliding my fingers across the fabric allows me to appreciate her sensibility - even when I keep my eyes shut. Jin Teok’s clothes are like a poem. They speak from her soul, sometimes as a whisper, occasionally with a shout, always with grace.
I remember seeing her collections in Paris. They stood out for their elegance and style in a chaotic fashion world, when Grunge had created a culture of ugliness combined with an overt sexuality that often became vulgarity.
Today, fashion can be noisy, with so many people dressing to be noticed, photographed or to stage a selfie, that clothes that speak quietly are an exception.
Beauty is another word that has gone out of fashion. For true beauty, there needs to be an aura of stillness. The words “pretty” or “attractive” suggest a different attitude that requires an interaction, a reaching out to others.
The new millennium brought us the wonders of digital technology, which has produced an orgy of pattern and colour for fashion and the opportunity to buy online 24 hours a day. The K-Pop that I see today in Seoul is electric with energy.
In this culture of MORE! – more sound, more colour, more fashion, more relentless noise – Jin Teok has offered us, for half a century, something uniquely precious: the still, small voice of calm.