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Carolina Herrera’s New Korean Kat for a New Year

December 31, 2010

Happy New Year’s Eve, everyone!  This year has been a busy one for Millinerium (you can read my January 2011 newsletter here, which opens with a few paragraphs summarizing our amazing growth over 2010.)  Projecting into the future is never easy but I couldn’t help but think of the future as I was browsing Spring/Summer 2011 collections and came across Carolina Herrera’s line.

Korean-influenced hat by Albertus Swanepoel with obi-style vest/belt

Intrigued by the direction she’s taking for 2011, I wondered if her line was directly influenced by world politics or if she’s just ahead of the curve with her designs.  Not easy to pigeon-hole, her designs are simultaneously modern and retro; what really caught my attention was the Pan-Asian influence, notably Japanese and Korean cultures.

Pan-Asian look with Japanese and Korean influences

I’m a milliner.  So naturally the first thing I notice in anyone’s collection are hats.  Ms. Herrera’s hats for S/S 2011 are of a singular profile, made from straw (it appears), changing only in their color and keeping it minimalistic with earth-tone hues and a very narrow hat band as the only trim.  NOTE 3/14/2011:  I just discovered over the weekend who the milliner was for Ms. Herrera’s hats and must give him due credit – Albertus Swanepoel was the genius behind the chic chapeaux on Ms. Herrera’s catwalk.

lovely sage green hat by Albertus Swanepoel

But the shape of the hats is unusual and somewhat specific – tall, narrow stovepipe crown with a wide, relatively flat brim, in proportions that form almost a right angle where the crown and brim meet.  While this profile is vaguely reminiscent of some European hats – namely Puritan hats – the pairing of Mr. Swanepoel’s stark hats with Ms. Herrera’s Asian-inspired clothing is clearly a nod to Korean culture.  Ironically, all her models wearing this style hat were women, yet the traditional Korean kat is worn by men.

traditional Korean "kat"

I’ve also been seeing more “obi belts” in fashion lately – belts inspired by the Japanese obi, the wide sash worn belted over kimonos.  I was unable to find any examples of the obi in Korean traditional dress.  Korean clothing tended to have empire waists tied with a simple sash into a bow, minus any obi.  Between the hats, the obis, and the abundance of wrapped tops and skirts, Ms. Herrera has created a fashion mash-up combining Korea, Japan, and European cultures.  Most interesting.

Now to tie it all into a larger context.

Given the North Korean attack on South Korea this year, I’ve been wondering if another war is on the horizon.  Not to sound all doom and gloom, but North Korea is playing with some serious fire lately and it seems like they’re trying to provoke the world, daring everyone else to prove their “us-versus-them” attitude is based in reality.  (A fine example of how we truly can make our own realities, no matter how wacky they may be.)  Whenever a culture rises to prominence on the world stage – even if it’s in a negative light – people tend to become intrigued by that culture and its history.  This usually leads to some people being influenced by that culture and blending elements into their own lives.  The discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 is a prime example – after that discovery, demand for all things Egyptian rose dramatically, which impacted everything from textile prints to colors and commercial design, among other things.

Korea is no exception.  I think there’s a possibility that we may all be seeing more of Korea’s ancient culture and it might be a good idea for us to educate ourselves about their traditions, values, and perspectives.  (Let’s face it, we can all benefit from learning more about our neighbors.)

While researching Korean historical costume to validate my hunch (or prove that I’m crazy), I discovered the dearth of reference books on Asian costume in general, and Korean costume specifically.  Most fashion books in print appear to cover European costume exclusively, as if no one ever existed anywhere else on the planet.  That really bothers me because it seems disrespectful to the people not represented.  Plus, I use historical fashion as inspiration frequently and this lack of information means innumerable missed opportunities for new designs.  I can’t be the only designer who feels this way.

But even progressive fashion books that bother to look beyond Western culture only seem to cover India, China, and Japan… no mention of Korea anywhere!  How strange is that?!  So I was excited to find this website that shows some of the process of making the traditional Korean kat.  The website was created by two people in Switzerland who may or may not be of Asian descent.  I may email them to see what other pearls of wisdom they can offer….

traditional Korean kat with shorter brim

I think Ms. Herrera and Mr. Swanepoel have provided a good wake up call for those of us working in fashion to explore way beyond what all our books and instructors likely have taught us in Western countries.  There’s a global treasure trove of ancient headwear techniques and styles to uncover!

No matter what happens politically between North Korea and the rest of the world in 2011, this ancient culture reminds me to explore new ways of thinking about hats and their makers.  What a great way to start the year!

Happy New Year!

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