Jungle Rose by Lee Kyung Hwa


Even before the digital age, she has been creating meticulous patterns on fabrics, stroke by stroke. With over 30 years of experience, her impeccable brushwork continues to live on modern day computer tablets and photoshop canvases. We interviewed textile designer Lee Kyung Hwa, who lived through an age when women were repressed, Asians faced substantial obstacles to success, and technology advancement thrived, is persistently creating her own radiant designs day after day.

Lee Kyung Hwa - Head Designer of Lee Kyung Hwa Textile Design
A 'maestra of patterns', Lee has continuously created designs with a keen sense of detail, staying on top of the latest fashion trends for over 30 years. In fact, Lee has expanded her abilities to digital platforms, refusing to fall behind the fast-moving industry. Hence, Lee Kyung Hwa's patterns are enduring, captivating and elegant.


Q. What was your experience like working with straps instead of textiles?
A. On textile, patterns are strictly repeated on a rather larger canvas. Straps, on the other hand, are unusual circumstances; layout is limited, and the designs have to be done in the 'all-over placement' method for the irregular patterns to blend together.
Q. From the designer's point of view, what distinguishes this strap from others?
A. I chose to express classic motifs in very traditional methods. Roses, leopards, thick green botanic elements are nothing new, but that's what makes them feel very vintage.
Q. At the same time, something feels a bit mysterious and strange.
A. You're right. The most interesting aspect of <Jungle Rose> is the hint of oriental qualities, despite the fact that the design doesn't include any particular motifs.

Q. Oriental qualities?
A. It comes from the style of drawing. The contrast is elaborate and the outlines are very distinct, while the colors are vibrant. It’s not lightly sketched and the technique of the pattern makes it look rather weighted and embroidery-like. The pattern surprisingly compliments the dense texture of the leather quite well.
Q. Among the other MUTEMUSE straps, which one did you like?
A. <Rainy Flower> caught my eye. The design has the poetic, European ambience, perhaps because the designer is British.

PART 2. Past & Now

Q. In an interview back in 2010, you mentioned that you were still designing by hand. What made you switch to using computers?
A. Interestingly, it had to do with 9/11. The incident heavily affected the fashion industry around the world. Camouflages were in at the time, but anything reminiscent of the military completely disappeared after the attack. I wasn't an exception and wasn’t getting project offers from overseas. I was forced to drastically downsize the studio and had to let go of a number of my employees.

Q. Was there a more specific reason why you started working on computers?
A. I was short-handed with work one day, and my daughter suggested me, "Computers could let you be so much more productive." I was motivated and started learning right away. I figured it would take like a week, but I was obviously wrong (laughs).
Q. Picking up Phoshop couldn't have been easy.
A. It was excruciating. Staring at my age made it even harder. I had trouble keeping up with the class. I had to keep telling myself, if it took a year for the students in their twenties to learn something, it would take me five. Same with tablets. My younger daughter told me, "Even I had trouble getting used to those things. How will you ever manage?" I was so motivated and practiced harder, to the point that the parts of my hand that touched the tablet were covered with calluses and blisters.

Q. How did the transition affect you?
A. Work process became 4-5 times faster. Before, I had to mount the textile onto a frame, do the sketches to mix, and apply each pigment individually. It took hours to dry and corrections were nearly impossible. I still draw the details and elaborate motifs by hand, but I transfer the drawing onto the computer to adjust the colors and placement.
Q. Do any of your older clients ask for hand-drawn pieces?
A. They don't notice the difference unless I tell them that I used Photoshop. (laughs) Even though my works are done on computers, they still look hand-drawn. Even now, brands ask if I have digital files of the designs. I sure do.
Q. Do you miss the hands-on process?
A. Not at all. Tools are bound to change as technology advances. In the end, learning how to use the computer turned out to be one of the most rewarding achievements of my life. Never hesitating to learn and grow is probably the proper way to set an example for your grown-up children who are no longer dependent on you.

Q. You're probably the only Korean textile designer from your generation.
A. It's possible. I can't think of another Korean textile design studio that has been in business since we have. Patterns are also available much faster and cheaper nowadays...

PART 3. In the World

Q. Over the past 30 years, you've sold countless designs overseas. Any memorable moments throughout your career?
A. There was a brief period when Manhattan was flooded the patterns I had designed. Several variations of a design based on a single motif had been sold to different brands (laughs).

Q. Which brands have you worked with?
A. Well... there are far too many for me to keep track, but I do remember that Christian Dior and Victoria's Secret used my designs. One of my overseas clients who recognized my designs gave me a piece as a gift.
Q. You've also participated in the world-renowned textile design expo, INDIGO in Paris.
A. At the time, I was the only Asian designer to have participated in the Indigo expo in Paris over 16 times. During the first few times I attended, very few designers and buyers approached me; they seemed reluctant to speak to an Asian woman sitting by herself. Then, I was slowly accepted among them and they started coming up to me. I also greeted those who recognized my designs, so overall it was a rewarding experience.

PART 4. As a Woman

Q. <Bad Girls>, one of MUTEMUSE's straps, is designed with the quote, "Good girls go to heaven, Bad Girls go everywhere." Having graduated from FIT, wouldn't you call yourself a woman who has 'gone everywhere'?
A. At the time, the fact that a woman wanted to work towards a degree, while accompanying her correspondent husband overseas was unheard of. On top of that, my children were young. So people, including the other Korean wives of my husband's co-workers, weren't too nice about it. There were those who judged me by my race. Jealousy and discrimination all came at the same time. More so, I had to sign a pledge to my family that I would give up the degree if I failed to graduate in time.. (laughs)
Q. That's amazing. It's more attractive for women to pursue their dreams and to be outspoken rather than being pressured to be nice and submissive all the time.
A. I wasn't aware of those sorts of things at the time, so I drove myself harder. I didn't want others saying 'With enough time, shouldn't it be easy for everyone to handle their studies?", so I was never behind on household chores either. I couldn't let the opportunity go to waste with all the opposition I had faced.
Q. As a 'maestra' and female designer, you've dedicated yourself to textile design for over three decades.
A. Some people joke about me being an 'intangible cultural heritage' (laughs). Others wonder if the process has been difficult or tedious. It may be hard to believe, but my work always feels new to me. I look forward to going to work every morning. Trends are always changing, and I feel like I'm going along with the shifting waves of fashion. We live in a world where even 80-year old ladies start new chapters in their lives, so I believe there's a lot left for me to do. It's still just the beginning for me.

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