Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Marc Jacobs, on Art, in Interview Magazine

I’m not really well educated—other than an art survey course at the High School of Art and Design in New York when I was, like, 15. I don’t know the history of art, but I got over intimidation from the art world when I realized that I was allowed to feel whatever I want and like whatever I want. That’s what I always laugh about with Richard [Prince]. When someone says, "Why did you do that?” and you say, "Because I liked it”—I think that’s really enough. And when I think about what came before Pop art, I understand that maybe these people were spilling their guts onto canvas through use of abstract strokes and colors and techniques, but that’s not really moving to me. There’s something about what I see every day, and the banal—I mean, what Pop was. I can kind of worship that, and I can look at that and smile, or I can just say I like it and that’s fine. That’s all I really want. I don’t want to work that hard, you know? I like what Pop did, and I think that we live in a world where, on every level, people like what Pop did.

Friday, May 23, 2008

My First Trip to Paris

I had studied French since 5th grade and I had always wanted to visit Paris but had never had the opportunity. I decided that even if I wasn't able to get an internship that summer in Paris, I needed to visit before I graduated. I couldn't find anyone I really wanted to go with so I decided to go alone during my spring break. One of the house masters was a professor in French literature so he gave me a recommendation for a good cheap hotel in the 6th arrondissement, near the Jardin du Luxembourg, called Hotel Jean Bart. The proprietor was an old French man who spoke no English and the hotel was very French. The rooms were tiny but there was a free breakfast that included delicious warm croissants and hot chocolate.

Paris is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities in the world and very pleasant in the spring time. It was surreal walking around the city. I felt safe walking around alone, even at night (although I didn't stay out too late).

Fortunately, during my stay, I was able to schedule my interview with Madame Riviere, the Directrice de la Haute Couture. I made my way to the 8th arrondissement, the ritzy neighborhood where many of the big fashion houses are headquartered, along with fancy hotels and expensive nightclubs. Someone at the boutique housed on the ground floor of the Dior mansion directed me towards the back entrance, where there is a reception area and the entrance to the offices and studios. After a while, Mme Riviere's assistant, Cecile Levy, let me in to see Madame. She gave me a brief introduction to haute couture, somewhat condescendingly as she puffed on her cigarette. She was very thin and dressed in a very French and chic manner. I realized that her haughtiness had probably developed from her job of communicating daily with very rich and powerful women. The interview was more of a formality. While I don't remember much of what was said, I left knowing I would be interning at Christian Dior Couture that summer.

When I returned to Cambridge, I began the arduous processing of paperwork necessary to do pretty much anything in Paris. I had to get the French Consulate to sponsor me for a Convention du Stage ("stage" meaning internship). A new acquaintance told me about a foyer, or residence hall, she had stayed at when she was in Paris the previous summer.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Simple Life

I happened to watch a bit of Nightline last night and one segment caught my attention. It was about a family in Pasadena that has a small farm on their 1/5 acre property and has managed to be self-sufficient. They make money mainly through selling produce grown on their property and also do things like distill their own car fuel from waste vegetable oil and use solar panels for heating. You can watch the segment here.

It was actually quite interesting to me because I've always romanticized a time when people could pretty much do or make whatever they needed, be it food, clothes, tools, furniture, etc. This is one reason I am enamored with Native American culture. As a lass, I was fascinated in school when they taught us about the Iroquois and how they made their own longhouses and tools and clothing and weapons. Sure I understand the importance of the Industrial Revolution and ideas like the division of labor, and I love my Apple products and gizmos as much as the next person. And I don't think I'd ever want to live on a farm for more than a week. But I've always enjoyed being able to make things that you might normally buy, such as greeting cards. When you make something with your own hands, it's more unique and more meaningful because it takes you that extra time to do it.

The segment emphasized the family's frugality, which highlighted another unfortunate consequence of industrialization -- waste. Now, I'm not a big tree hugger (although when I was younger I used to be really into the whole idea of saving the earth through recycling and whatnot, and I used to have this book:)

but growing up in a Korean household, I was ingrained with a notion of frugality. It was cool to see one of the daughters using a hand cranked blender as opposed to an electric one, or seeing her cut her brother's hair (something I've always wanted to try but haven't because I'm afraid of giving my brother a bad haircut).

The whole idea of being "green" is a big trend in fashion now, although often I question the motives. For instance, people are all about clothing made from organic cotton but what would be more "green" would be to recycle garments that are already made. One thing I've done for a while is take old clothes and reconstruct them. At first it started because I wasn't very good at sewing, but I still retain an interest in it because it's good for the environment and often you find outdated clothing at thrift stores that has potential to be interesting if you just shorten the hem or take in a seam. It's a project I'm incubating because I enjoy it but it's very labor-intensive and difficult to scale since you're mainly making one-offs, so I haven't figured out how to make it a profitable venture. I love H&M, but sometimes I wonder what happens to all the clothes that aren't sold, and how they manage to make the clothes so cheaply...

An Introduction to Haute Couture

So if you watched my video you would know that the spring semester of my junior year I was busy with a myriad of projects -- costume design for the campus G&S production and designing for Eleganza in addition to keeping up with my VES painting and video courses, plus my other coursework and extracurricular activities (mainly the Korean drum troupe and the band I was in).

Sometime after Contradictions, Michelle and I were in New York and visited my professor, Julian, at his loft in Greenwich Village. I told him about the show and how I was interested in getting an internship in Paris, although I hadn't figured out how to make this happen. He said his friend, who I had met briefly when she came up for our class art show the year before, might be able to help me. He talked to her and she said that she thought that I should intern for a couture house, to really see the epitome of fashion. She was a big couture client and forwarded my resume to the different couture houses.

Before I continue my story, I want to enlighten my readers with the true definition of "haute couture," because before this all happened I was pretty much in the dark and now when I hear some really bad shit described as "couture" I get a little irritated. The BBC actually did a good documentary on it, which you can view here. In French, "haute" literally means high and "couture" means sewing or dressmaking (or seam, depending on the context). As Dior's haughty Directrice de la Haute Couture informed me, haute couture is clothing made by one of a dozen houses, or maisons de la couture, approved by the Chambre Syndicale which regulates the haute couture industry. The clothing is made specifically for the client and is therefore one-of-a-kind. The Chambre Syndicale has strict rules for which houses can be considered haute couture, including the following:
  • Design made-to-order for private clients, with one or more fittings.
  • Have a workshop (atelier) in Paris that employs at least fifteen people full-time.
  • Each season (i.e. twice a year), present a collection to the Paris press, comprising at least thirty-five runs with outfits for both daytime wear and evening wear.
Other well-known houses such as YSL and Lanvin were once couture houses but the couture clientele has been steadily shrinking over the past couple of decades (blame H&M). Garments cost upwards of $25,000 for a suit (I was informed by a couture client that suits at Dior now cost 40K EUROS). The more complicated the garment, the more expensive, and garments can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Haute couture garments incorporate fabrics made specifically for the house, and generally cost hundreds of dollars per yard or more.

The other big component of the cost is the labor. The workers, or "petits mains," at the ateliers of these houses start training when they are in their teens and generally work their way up from apprentices to the head of the atelier. They don't generally get paid a ton, but couture garments can take hundreds of hours to make. A lot of the work is done by hand and whereas many short-cuts are taken in ready-to-wear (or "pret-a-porter"), couture garments are expected to look as beautiful on the inside as they do on the outside. The inner construction is carefully hidden and the littlest details, like the finishing of a hem or a seam, are regarded with great importance.

Clients start with a meeting with the directrice, generally after the haute couture show, or defile. They describe what garments they are interested in -- generally they won't want the garment as shown on the runway. Often the looks on the runway are quite outlandish, to show off the craft and the capabilities of the house. The client might ask for a suit or dress made from the fabrics in one of the outfits on the runway. An illustrator attends the meetings and sketches an idea of what the client wants. The sketches are given to whichever atelier will be responsible. There is an atelier flou, for dresses and softer, draped garments, and an atelier tailleur, for tailored garments.

The client gets a fitting where appropriate measurements are recorded and placed in the client's file. A mannequin that is slightly smaller than the client is taken and padding is added where appropriate to resemble the client's form as much as possible. For instance, if the client's hips are a little wider than the mannequin, the padding is added there. A prototype, or "toile," is made out of muslin of the outfit. The client is fitted with this proto and the appropriate changes are made. They use the muslin because the fabric is so expensive they don't want to mess up on the first round. After this first fitting the garment is begun, though not finished, and with large seam allowances (seam allowances on most garments these days are around 1/2" wide, maybe 1" at the most -- haute couture garments generally have 2" or wider seam allowances). The atelier workers are quite skilled so once the garment is finished and they have another fitting the garment fits the client beautifully. However, if the garment is not correct, the atelier will work until it is perfect. The atelier workers have extremely strict standards and see imperfections that most people, even many dressmakers, might not catch. Also, if the client happens to gain or lose weight in the future, they can always come in and get the garment altered to fit them correctly.

Haute couture is generally a money-losing business (with the exception of Chanel), which is why many couture houses have shut down. Despite the high costs of the garments, it's hard to make money since the fashion shows cost millions of dollars, the cost of French labor is high, and there aren't many couture clients left. The ones that carry on do it for the publicity to maintain brand cachet and prop up the fragrance and accessories businesses that are the true moneymakers for the brand. However, because of the resources available to the biggest couture houses, including the level of crafstmanship, haute couture is truly where fashion and art intersect. This was why I jumped at the chance of getting to witness how this world worked firsthand.

The first hurdle was an interview with Dior's Directrice, a Madame Riviere. I missed her while she was meeting with clients in New York (she flies all over the world to meet with clients and do fittings since some clients don't have the time or simply can't be bothered with flying to Paris) since I was in school in Boston, so it was decided I would interview with her at the Dior headquarters in Paris, during my first trip to Paris ever.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Living In A Video - Part 2

Sometime during the spring semester, a major Korean broadcasting company, MBC, approached the Harvard Korean association, looking for individual students with "unique" backgrounds to cover for their upcoming documentary on Korean Ivy League students. Since there weren't many Korean students at Harvard who were as involved in the arts as me, my name was one of the ones given to the documentary crew. Since I was in the middle of learning about videomaking, I thought it would be an interesting experience, so I agreed to be one of their subjects. They ended up following me around as much as possible, although University policy prohibited them from entering certain spaces, like Lowell Lecture Hall, where Eleganza rehearsals and the performance took place. (I ended up letting them use some of the footage I used for my own video). It was amusing to see the finished product. In a few instances, they embellished certain details to make things more interesting or dramatic, and said stuff that wasn't entirely true. Since I happened to do a lot of random things I got more screen-time than a lot of the other students featured. What made me happy was that my grandmother who has had multiple strokes and pretty much sits at home all day watching TV got a kick out of the documentary, and ordered a copy so she could watch it every day.

I visited Korea a little while after the documentary aired and a couple people recognized me because of my distinctive eyebrow ring. Click here to view it (unfortunately, I can't figure out how to embed it) -- it's mostly in Korean but there are some bits where I'm talking in English that are humorous.

Living In A Video - Part 1

Within Harvard's VES concentration there are two tracks: studio and film. I was a studio concentrator, with a focus in painting. However, VES concentrators were required to take a "crossover" course, or a course in the other track, so I took an intro video-making course called Life Stories, taught by Alfred Guzzetti. Since there are a lot of technical things to learn in filmmaking, the course involved learning more of the fundamental elements -- how to use the camera, log and capture clips, and edit. We also discussed the process of telling a story. Alfred tried to teach us to be very selective in editing and critical in deciding what needed to be presented to tell a comprehensive and compelling story. Often we were limited by what footage we actually had, and I learned that through editing you can construct an alternate reality.

In the video course, we did three projects. The first involved asking someone to tell a story while you captured it on video, and then using simple edits to streamline the story. I asked Peter Emerson, a resident scholar at Kirkland House (the house in which I lived for three years) and who lived in our entryway. It became a bonding experience and Peter has become a mentor figure for me over the past several years.

For the second project, we were asked to create a video diary.

For the final project, we were able to choose the subject of our video. I was wrestling with my fear of uncertainty in pursuing a career in fashion, so I announced to the class that I would be doing a video which explored this subject. Luckily, one of my classmates, Nancy Chang, didn't have an idea for a project so we worked on my idea together. Nancy had taken a couple of photography courses and had a good eye. The video centered around my involvement in Eleganza as well as my quest for an internship in Paris. Some of it is a bit embarrassing to show now, five years later, especially since it's a very basic project (remember, this was an intro course), but the video has sentimental value. We spent many long nights editing the project, coming out when the sun rose.

Here it is:

Friday, May 9, 2008

Contradictions - Part 4, Reflections

Despite how successful the show was, I found it difficult not to get caught up in all the things that didn't go right, the little flaws, and what could have gone better. Things like how we should have raised the ticket price or the whole CD mishap stayed on my mind. But those things are what keep you moving on to the next project, and overall Michelle and I were very satisfied with the results of our hard work over those past several months. It was the first time we had undertaken something of that scope while having pretty much complete control over the project. Whereas Michelle had handled more of the business/administrative aspects, I had handled more of the creative side of things, including the direction of the production. The show was exhausting but left me wanting to continue being involved in fashion projects. I became involved with designing for the spring Eleganza show.

I also started thinking about what I wanted to do the summer after my junior year. Harvard fashion shows were fun but I knew that if I wanted to work in fashion I would need to do build up my resume professionally. I didn't want to repeat my experience with my previous internship, and I knew that if anything, the other fashion houses based in New York would probably be less interesting. I wanted to go to Paris and witness the highest echelon of fashion -- where fashion truly intersected with craft and artistry. I wanted to see haute couture. I had never been to Paris and knew that I needed to go before I graduated from college. I had wanted to do study abroad (I had taken French starting in middle school) but couldn't go in the fall because of the show (and Harvard wasn't very supportive of study abroad programs) and I didn't want to go in the spring because a well-known painter, Sue Williams, was coming to teach an advanced painting course.

During the fall semester while we were preparing for our show, I had been continuing with my VES coursework. I had taken an intermediate painting course with the woman who would become my thesis advisor, Nancy Mitchnick. She was/is an excellent painting instructor and we developed a rapport. Despite the show, I did well in her painting course (logging in the hours necessary), and was luckily able to use one of the projects for that class for my contemporary art theory course as well. Nancy also attended the show with her huge dog, Olivia, and was impressed by the work we did. It was during that class with Nancy where my painting skills really began to solidify, although they still have a ways to go. She made us work hard and gave us exercises that weren't fun to do but taught us how to paint. Here is a painting, one of a series of three almost identical paintings, that I did for her class.

Michelle remembered it and wanted to borrow one, so this photo was taken of the one I've loaned her for her apartment. My mom wants me to get another one framed for her living room.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Contradictions - Part 3, Showtime!

Whenever you plan something involving the cooperation of many people, shit gets complicated. for our show we had a couple dozen models, a few different performing groups, and the MCs, not to mention all the different designers and individuals loaning us clothing. We had to dismiss one of the models early on because she kept missing rehearsals.

I'm a bit of a control freak who has a hard time delegating responsibility. Somehow I imagined that Michelle and I could be everywhere, taking care of everything. Fortunately, we had the assistance of many people -- our roommates, Helen and Candice; their and Michelle's boyfriends who were also my bandmates (Geoff and Lee); a girl who magically appeared out of the woodwork to become our number two, Sarah Johnson, who now has her own jewelry line (SISU) and site for designers; and other volunteers -- Stephanie Tung, Luz Gonzalez, and Mollie Chen. Plus countless other friends and strangers who became our friends who helped in various different ways -- the experience not only helped me meet tons of wonderful people, it made me realize how many people at Harvard were just plain nice. (Or maybe they were just excited about the girls in bikinis?)

The show happened in the evening so late in the afternoon we got all the models at Pforzheimer Hall. Sarah had a couple of friends from out of school who volunteered to do our hair and makeup. We had done a rehearsal the night before during which most of the furniture had been rearranged (and during which I almost lost it, screaming and cursing -- not one of my finer moments).

There was a small space we had blocked off as our "backstage" where the models would change. At Harvard there are exclusive men's clubs known as "final clubs," Harvard's version of fraternities. Our buddies through the bathroom door were in one called the Fly and our show occurred right after new members, dubbed "neophytes" had been admitted into the club. These boys, generally sophomores, were subject to mild hazing, and were recruited to help us with setting up. Also, an hour before showtime, we had them man different entrances to the dining hall so we wouldn't have gate crashers.

The first show started at 8pm and I remember when 8 rolled around being surprised that the time had gone by so quickly. Nevertheless, we were more or less ready and I signaled to the MCs and the sound and lighting people to start the show. My parents had driven up to see the show, as well as Michelle's parents. They had brought our old video camera and one of our friends videotaped and photographed the show (although we hadn't really thought too much about documenting it so the lighting wasn't suited for photography). Everyone was a little nervous and there were a couple of outfits that never made it to the stage and some of the order was changed around when people didn't make their changes in time.

However, overall things went smoothly. Alexis, one of the MCs, and Jamin, one of the models, who were also good friends, even improvised a segment based on Zoolander, which had come out the year before. They did a "walk-off."
Jamin taking his turn.
Alexis, trying to get the audience's support.

Things were going well, that is, until our last segment, swimwear. Geoff and Lee alerted me that somehow our CD with the soundtrack had gotten stuck in the back of the player. I started freaking out. I had chosen a Caribbean steel drum track for the segment and listened as the MCs awkwardly tried to keep the audience entertained during the increasingly longer pause while the boys tried to get the CD out of the player. Alexis brought out Teddy, one of our models/his "hetero-life-partner." Then he pulled his trump card. He called up my dad to the stage. My dad, seeing his beloved daughter in trouble, told his favorite joke in his thick Korean accent. (It's pretty bad, trust me.) Embarrassment took over my anxiety but I also appreciated the effort and the audience seemed to like it, especially those who knew me personally.

Ultimately, we decided to use one of the performers' CDs as the swimwear track and the show finished without any further trouble. Geoff, who had once run long distance in high school, ran all the way back to the river (where we lived -- there's a mile or two distance separating the houses in the "Quad" and the houses by the Charles "river"), burned a new copy of the soundtrack and raced back just in time for the second show.

With one successful show under their belt, the models became more comfortable, improvising different poses and acting more playful. Both shows had sold out and many people tried to come backstage after the show to congratulate us.

saying thank you

After the show, our friends helped us clean up and then of course, we went to the Fly club for the after party. It was a long night but very satisfying.