North Korean-born designer tells stories of fellow defectors through fashion - Korea Times
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North Korean-born designer tells stories of fellow defectors through fashion

Kang Ji-hyun, left, and Marie Boes, founders of social impact fashion brand ISTORY / Courtesy of ISTORY
Kang Ji-hyun, left, and Marie Boes, founders of social impact fashion brand ISTORY / Courtesy of ISTORY

By Park Han-sol

For North Korean-born Kang Ji-hyun, her chance sighting of a foreign tourist at Mount Paektu at the age of 15 forever changed her life.

What started out as a routine family trip to the mountain became her first time spotting an actual foreigner outside the television screens and textbooks. What caught her eyes wasn't his height or his unkempt beard ― but his ripped jeans.

He must be a beggar, she immediately thought to herself, asking her father why in the world a homeless person would be walking around Mount Paektu. Her father, after some thought, told her that the tourist's clothing must be a sign not of his status but rather his choice of style.

The fact that the ripped outfit, an immediate indication of homelessness in her country, could be a fashion item was a newfound revelation for Kang.

But in North Korea, social and academic barriers as well as strong opposition from her parents prevented her from studying and charting a path toward fashion design. As her passion continued to grow, her eyes eventually turned to the outside world.

"I consumed a wide range of content from films, dramas and magazines from South Korea and the U.S., where diversely styled clothing made regular appearances," the 31-year-old designer told The Korea Times. "These worlds, once I started being aware of their existence, fascinated me more and more. And I began to think that what I can't study and achieve in my home country would be a possibility beyond its borders."

ISTORY's elbow-patch shirt inspired by Kang's life-changing sighting of a foreign tourist at Mount Paektu in North Korea / Courtesy of ISTORY
ISTORY's elbow-patch shirt inspired by Kang's life-changing sighting of a foreign tourist at Mount Paektu in North Korea / Courtesy of ISTORY

Kang defected to China in 2009 and came to South Korea three years later. Without much hesitation, she majored in clothing and textiles at Hanyang University. Last year, she enrolled in the entrepreneurship boot camp Asan Sanghoe, launched by the Asan Nanum Foundation to help North Koreans resettle here, as well as helping them alongside young South Koreans and foreigners find a way into the business world. It was there that she met Marie Boes from Belgium. And together, they launched their social impact fashion brand ISTORY.

ISTORY aims to tell the real stories of North Korean defectors through fashion. Based on the interviews she conducts with each North Korean refugee, Kang sketches a pattern, a visual encapsulation of the unique life story that defines who they are.

The pattern then turns into elbow patches on a shirt and a decorative print on a tote bag. There is also a QR code printed at the back of the neck on the shirt, which can be scanned to read the detailed meaning behind each design in English and Korean.

The company's first product is based on Kang's experience on Mount Paektu. From the story of an electronics repair service worker to an aspiring film director, a total of nine defectors' lives have been captured in ISTORY's growing inventory.

Nine elbow-patch shirts, each carrying unique stories of North Korean defectors, designed at ISTORY / Courtesy of ISTORY
Nine elbow-patch shirts, each carrying unique stories of North Korean defectors, designed at ISTORY / Courtesy of ISTORY

Kang believes the best way to bring an end to social discrimination against North Korean defectors is to share their stories, dreams and struggles through the medium she knows the best.

"The South Korean media, from news articles to even entertainment channels, tends to depict only a fraction of the resettler's life or identity," she said. "And that fraction is often provocative and politicized, further contributing to the prejudices that already exist because they speak differently or do not know enough about South Korean society."

ISTORY's goal is to share all 35,000 narratives of the North Korean defector community.

"Eventually, when we have told all of their tales, we want to expand our project to focus on other minority groups whose voices have been equally marginalized."


박한솔 hansolp@koreatimes.co.kr


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