Designer Seo Seung-yeon (Image courtesy of the designer)
One of the main distinctions of K-pop idol artists is the magnificent visuals on the stage. Star-studded with shining jewels and elaborate patterns eliciting those of middle age royals, the stage outfits turn those singer-performers into “idols,” and their presence becomes a fantasy for fans to cherish and indulge.
But K-pop idol singers, once considered just a young trend in the Korean music scene, were not always so spruced up with luxury, and it would not be a stretch to say the start came with South Korean designer Seo Seung-yeon.
A high-end wedding dress designer since 1991, Seo remembers the start was with K-pop powerhouse S.M. Entertainment’s girl group Girls’ Generation back in 2015.
“Stylist Seo Soo-kyung came to me with the concept of the album ‘Lion Heart,’ saying, ‘We need to make a stage outfit of the utmost luxury. There must be fringes, and as the members use their legs much, there should be slits on the sides, and the necklines should all be differentiated according to the shapes of each member’s face,’” Seo recalled in a recent interview with the Korea Herald.
From such a precise request, designer Seo fathomed that the dresses will not end just as a one-time costume made with cheap, affordable materials, but something to last, both physically and in the minds of the people who see them.
“I knew we had to use the details, materials and textiles which have never been used before (for K-pop idols). The dresses worn in ‘Lion Heart’ were made from incredulously expensive materials, all done by hand from the start to end. Hence, they look beautiful even until now,” the designer said.
The iconic designs of Seo, making use of ornate beadwork, lace and silk, can be witnessed in many of the performances and music videos from some of the biggest K-pop groups and artists following Girls’ Generation -- from BTS to Twice, GOT7, Monsta X, IU, Chungha and Psy.
The most recent of her works was with S.M. rookie girl group aespa.
“I was actually hoping to work with aespa. And the style director called me up and told me that my dresses will come at the most important part of the song,” Seo said.
A super-rookie group that soared to stardom upon debuting in November 2020, aespa is a group with an intricately plotted storyline incorporating futuristic elements and avatar characters that build their own universe.
(Left) aespa "Savage" (S.M. Entertainment) / (Right) "Savage" outfits designed by Seo Seung-yeon. (Image courtesy of the designer)
“What hit me fresh was the pale tone of the overall color concept. You’d expect warriors bracing for battle to be donning very strong, vivid and dark colors, but no. Looking at our gowns, he asked for something pale like them, in the tone of peach, ivory or light beige.”
Debuting with the single “Black Mamba” followed by second single “Next Level,” aespa has told a story of four bold women who have entered the avatar world to reunite with their artificial intelligence companions and to defeat the notorious villain, Black Mamba.
“Aespa is a group with a story, and for this album, they’ve become warriors, ready to destroy Black Mamba. But they weren’t just any ordinary warriors nor were they pretty princesses. Each of the members’ special powers must be depicted through their styles,” Seo explained.
The key was with the details that portrayed their fight skills -- Karina, the rocket puncher, Winter, the armamenter, Giselle, the linguistic prodigy, and Ningning, the genius hacker.
“I think my strength was with defining the fits and silhouettes. All four costumes have different silhouettes. Giselle’s bold shoulder line on the top, coming with an unbalanced overskirt, Winter’s clear-cut unbalance skirt that shows the pants below, Ningning’s bustier that comes with pants covered slightly by a chiffon overskirt and Karina’s minimal yet powerful details -- these are all ideas from my experience in designing stage outfits and wedding dresses,” Seo said.
An endless process of designs and decisions, one of the aspects that makes designing dresses for K-pop idols all the more fun is her tight teamwork with stylists.
“I think one of the best parts working this time was the clear directions for the concept. They enabled me to better understand and realize the exact concept, rather than holding back on my ideas. It’s still difficult, but rather than chasing a given idea, I could reinterpret it and create my own results from it.”
Her first time designing for a K-pop idol was with Girls’ Generation in 2011, when she made the dresses for the nine-piece act for their Mnet Asian Music Awards red carpet in Singapore. A decade has passed since, and she now works with more K-pop idols, female and male, but every project has been a new challenge for Seo.
An image taken during Girls` Generation`s "Lion Heart" performance in 2015 (Yonhap)
“Not just those of K-pop idols, but all stage outfits need to be made differently for every artist and the environment in which they perform are also different every time. Working based on such responsibility to make the best outfit for every moment, it doesn’t get easy with time. I’m put under an extreme tension and stress, but I suppose that makes the satisfaction in return more explosive.”
One of those challenges for Seo was when she worked with the world’s biggest boy band, BTS.
Her start with the K-pop phenomenon was with reforming shirts of one of the members, Jimin, in 2018.
“Jimin had solo performances where he danced, and the style director wanted to put him into very ornate shirts. They brought me shirts straight from his wardrobe and asked me to bedeck it with elaborate beadwork. And that was the beginning (with BTS),” Seo said.
Going on to tailor clothes for other bandmates, including the jackets Jungkook and Jimin donned as they accepted the top honor of the 2018 MAMA in Hong Kong, Seo accompanied BTS on the band’s way to megastardom.
As BTS held world tours, the group needed fancier, eye-catching clothes. They also had many solo performances, and Seo supported them with special outfits for each own.
In 2018, she designed suits the band wore in their Love Yourself Speak Yourself Tour in the finale in Seoul, later designing clothes for “On” and “Black Swan” as well.
BTS` "Black Swan" (BTS Official Facebook)
“On” was yet another fresh challenge for Seo, putting the band into combat clothes made not from armor, but flexible materials such as fabric and knitwear
“The difficult part was with finding the precise materials for the concepts. For instance, even the beads weren’t those I’d used previously for female garments, but those closer to metal studs found on actual armor,” she explained.
Yet again pushing herself beyond previous limits and finding new possibilities of creativity, the consequent outcomes were beyond satisfaction.
The fit for men, especially male idols, is different. “As I specialize in female garments, I could give it a more elaborate touch to the details, so it’s coworking (with the stylists),” she said.
The specialty of Seo’s designs may be the ornateness in both the decoration and the textures themselves, which, regardless of their extreme extravagance, do not seem excessive.
“I think the elaboration is not what I use to express myself but to emphasize the visual strong points of the person. My philosophy is to make sure that the face of the person shines even in the midst of such splendidness. When people come to our studio they’re mostly taken aback at first because of the extravagance in decoration, but they take home one of the fanciest ones because it makes them stand out in their own ways.”
Seo’s ability to make the one person stand bright on stage in their own colors has brought her many lasting partnerships among renowned performers. She goes back many years with Grammy-winning soprano Jo Su-mi, whereas the nation’s biggest K-pop female soloist, IU, has recently joined Seo’s list of regulars.
(Left) IU`s "Strawberry Moon" (EDAM Entertainment) /IU`s "Strawberry Moon" dress designed by Seo Seung-yeon (Image courtesy of the designer)
Designing the dresses for IU’s milestone project album “Lilac” and her prerelease “Celebrity,” Seo also took part in the styling of IU’s most recent single “Strawberry Moon.” IU will do her first live performance of the song at the 2021 Melon Music Awards next month in Seo’s dresses.
It would be the hope of any designer that their creation is a special, singular product, worn to be remembered forever by people, and this too was why Seo started her career as a designer.
“My memories of clothes go back very far. I was only 7 when I wore my first off-the-shoulder top, and remember wearing suede pants even though it was uncomfortable. I still remember the feeling I had when I wore my first pantaloons jeans in the sixth grade,” Seo recalled, her eyes shining.
But the good always come with the bad, and what drove Seo to who she is now was one of her worst memories with clothes.
“Back when I started my career, to become a designer of a big fashion company, you had to be a good fitting model. But I didn’t have the body shape they required. I came to question why only people with a certain body shape could become a designer and put in all the efforts into making pretty clothes special,” she said, adding she now feels grateful for such stumbles as they have enabled her to dig her own niche.
It wasn’t all jewels and gems at the start, however. Starting with designing the bridal wear of her close friends, Seo gradually expanded her collection to establish her own brand, Denicheur, in 1991. The brand now stretches as long as the dresses many women dream of wearing in the brightest moment of their life.
“Even then I made unconventional designs, such as two-piece wedding wear. Straying from then-common ball skirt lines to better-fitting ones. I also refrained from using only white and attempted silver, gold and other colors. Using only white was painful for me. Combining different designs and colors turned into pieces that brought me joy.”
Seo continues to evolve along with the expansion of K-pop in the global music scene, and her journey until now has been natural for her, the designer said.
IU`s "Lilac" (EDAM Entertainment)
“Although making collections for the masses every season is also worthwhile, completing something in a very short while, seeing the results with my own eyes and having it recorded through pictures and videos all become sources of energy to continue (designing K-pop idol outfits),” she said.
“I think artists select my designs because they embrace fantasy. And I believe that fashion must hold fantasy, so that people who wear them can remember that moment.”
By Choi Ji-won (email@example.com