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Jaybaek Couture: tailored suits with a hint of modernity

  • Published : Mar 8, 2019 - 14:49
  • Updated : Mar 8, 2019 - 14:49

Not everyone gets to turn their passion into a profession.

But fashion designer Jay Baek says he is fortunate to have built a career out of something he’s loved doing since his teenage years: making clothes.

“As far back as I can remember, I just loved clothes very much,” said Baek at the Jaybaek Couture showroom in Hannam-dong, central Seoul, an elegant and simple space inside a gray brick building with a neat monochromatic collection of his clothes on display.

“I would make clothes for myself and my friends simply for fun, with fabric lying around at home. It was my favorite pastime.”

Fashion designer Jay Baek poses at his showroom in Hannam-dong, central Seoul. (Ra Kyoo-yung/The Korea Herald)

Thanks to his mother, who owned a small boutique and designed clothes, he developed a keen fashion sense early on. It wasn’t that Baek preferred expensive or branded clothes, but the designer felt his clothes needed to express his individuality.

“I love the process of thinking of someone, creating clothes and dressing them to make them beautiful, whether that is for myself, my friends or my customers,” he said. “And that is why I started the brand.”

Jaybaek Couture, which began in 2012, centers on custom-fitted apparel, including tailored suits, tuxedos and formal dresses, as well as casual apparel. The brand is still young compared with the goliaths of big fashion houses here, but it is one of the most sought-after names among local fashion stylists for its artistry and precision.

“I want the person who is wearing my outfit to take the lead role in their life,” he said. “That’s the motif of the brand. Whether the customer is an office worker or an actor, I want to tailor apparel that can make the wearer shine by highlighting their strengths and supplementing their weaknesses.”

The creation of modern, beautifully crafted clothes is at the heart of Baek’s vision. “While it’s hard to point out characters of people I design for, I like people who love themselves and who want to discover their beauty,” he said. “Because when you love yourself, you can love others and discover the beauty of life.”

Opposites attract: Hanbok meets tailored suit

Baek designs various items, from sleek suits to leather jackets, silk dresses, and corduroy skirts and bags, to name a few. From time to time, he also designs wedding gowns. When the items appear on display together in his showroom, though, they all share a quality that is distinctive to the Jaybaek line.

“The collection is based on classic, but with a modern tweak,” he said.

As examples, Baek pointed out a puffer jacket with a tuxedo-style collar and some casual items with just a touch of tailoring -- it’s the details that set the garments apart as his work.

“I enjoy mixing and matching the very opposites,” he said. “It brings out the unique charm and fun.”

He is not afraid of tossing elements of the Korean hanbok into modern apparel, such as the wool coat he designed with Korean traditional quilting, called “nubim,” or the leather jacket with the flowing lines and gentle curves of a hanbok.

“As a designer born and raised in Korea, I contemplated long about how to express my identity and originality in my designs,” he said. “For me, rather than making a modern hanbok, I am more interested in fusing a fun twist on hanbok into Western clothes. I think that’s what I can do the best.”

Baek’s art -- that of combining seemingly opposites -- influences how he designs menswear and womenswear, as well as how he dressed on the day of the interview, pairing a tailored suit with cargo pants and walker boots.

Jaybaek 2018 Winter Collection (Jaybaek Couture)
Jaybaek 2017 Winter Collection (Jaybaek Couture)

“I enjoy adding delicate lines into menswear, and a powerful style into womenswear,” he said. “Jaybaek’s womenswear is more solid, while (our) menswear is more elegant.”

He is open to experimenting with new materials. “It would be fun to make a tuxedo out of Korean traditional ramie fabric, or a bow tie out of Korean hemp fabric,” he said.

Well, that sartorial magic has to come from somewhere, right?

For Baek, his inspiration comes mostly from the people he meets and the things that happen each day. He also enjoys being active, dancing and walking around in addition to listening to music, including classics. “I believe I can only make fine clothes when I have a beautiful mind,” he said. “So I try to have healthy thoughts and see beautiful things.”

Lighting up the red carpet

Carrying on that inspiration, he has dressed some of the most-watched celebrities in the industry. From actors such as Park Bo-gum, Hyun Bin, Park Seo-joon, Gong Yoo and Lee Jong-suk and actresses Honey Lee and Kim Hye-soo to K-pop stars like GOT7, SHINee, EXO and, most recently, BTS, many stars wear suits and dresses crafted by him on important occasions.

Just last month, when K-pop sensation BTS took the stage at the Grammys as presenters -- the first time any Korean band has had that honor -- the musicians wore custom suits from Jaybaek Couture and another local designer, Kim Seo-ryong.

“Grateful is the only word that comes to my mind,” he said for the chance to dress the band for its historic moment. “I am also thankful to BTS for choosing Korean designers for the ceremony.”

BTS at the Grammy Awards

When he sees stars donning his attire at important events, Baek says he is humbled and wants to work harder to become an even better designer so his work can light up the red carpet.

Some of Baek’s most memorable moments were at the Busan Film Festival last year and the year before, when a number of A-listers wore tuxedos and dresses he’d designed -- including actor and festival host Kim Nam-gil, as well as actresses Kang Soo-yeon and Moon Geun-young.

Actor Kim Nam-gil, wearing herringbone silk tuxedo from Jaybaek Couture, walks with actress Han Ji-min at the Busan Film Festival in October 2018.

“I was born and raised in Busan,” he said. “Growing up, I remember tiptoeing to see the stage of the film festival from outside on my way to school. Seeing stars wearing my clothes in my hometown, I was overwhelmed with a flurry of emotions.”

He also spoke about what an honor it was to dress seasoned comedian Lee Young-ja last year when, clad in Baek’s signature black tuxedo, she became the first woman to receive the grand prize at the KBS Entertainment Awards. Shortly thereafter, she wore a white tuxedo he’d designed to the MBC Entertainment Awards, where once again she took home the top honor.

“Lee walked into the showroom, saying she wanted to look beautiful for the events,” he recalled. “As I was talking to her and designing the clothes, I was moved by her kindness and sincerity, and I hoped she would win the grand prize (each time). And when she did, I was blessed to be part of that beautiful moment.”

Comedian Lee Young-ja in Jaybaek Couture

Whether they are stars or average people, Baek approaches all his clients with the same attitude. “To everyone who walks into this showroom, I start the designing by falling in love with them first and finding their beauty.

“I try my best each time because I am entrusted with such a noble task -- to make people more beautiful with my touch.”

He wants to reach more customers and is currently preparing to launch a ready-to-wear line later this year. And in response to growing attention from fashion buyers overseas, he plans to take his collection outside Korea. Through his previous roles at fashion houses, he is well aware of the enormous amount of work that will entail.

“We want to enter other markets, hopefully soon, when the time is right,” he said.

When asked to choose his favorite part of being a designer, he simply smiled and said “the final fitting.”

“Putting the final product on the customer still makes me nervous,” he said. “But when I see them smiling, I forget all the tension that built up while I was creating the clothes, and once again remind myself why I am doing this job.”

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)

Watch the interview clip:

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