Inside the process of modernizing a hanbok legacy

Leehwa Wedding & Traditional Korean Dress brings the formal Korean attire back in style by introducing a modern touch.

Photo of a woman in a white dress that has a modern strapless top and a flow-y bottom characteristic of hanbok. She is wearing a veil and large earrings as she looks back toward the camera.

A cascade of shimmering fabrics decorates the shelves of a small shop located in the depths of Koreatown. Amidst the steam from an iron stands shop owner and designer Laura Park, who sews past midnight every day to dress her customers in custom-designed cultural extravagances.

Leehwa Wedding & Traditional Korean Dress is a devoted custom hanbok shop that designs modernized versions of the traditional Korean clothing for special occasions. For each garment, Park tailors the tiniest details, from fabric, pattern and colors, to correctly dress the customer. Hanbok, written as 한복 in Korean, is typically worn for weddings, birthday celebrations and holidays like Chuseok — Korean Thanksgiving — and Seollal — Lunar New Year.

The formal Korean attire consists of jeogori, baji and chima. Jeogori is a wrap-around jacket bound by longer fabric straps that is an important part of every hanbok. Men typically wear baji, or loose trousers secured by straps around the waist, and women wear chima, or a high-waisted long skirt.

Park said she pursues a fashionable spirit, strives with a fervid passion for creative designs and abides by a humanitarian mission to educate and share her culture from a modernized perspective with the rest of the world.

“Fashion, passion, and mission,” said Park. “I live by these values.”

The task of selecting materials and color only marks the beginning of Park’s process. Though many mothers and daughters often seek Park’s touch to celebrate weddings in particular, Park never fails to take note of whatever special occasion her customers request her services for so she can ensure its design suits the festivities.

“Hanbok for celebrations are worn on occasion,” said Park. “This means my every needlework and attention to detail must make the customer’s special day even more special.”

However, a hanbok’s beauty is not finalized until properly worn. Park takes pride in physically dressing the customer, from tying the jeogori to fastening a norigae, or a pendant that hangs from the jeogori or chima in an embroidered knot. She ensures that her customers understand the hanbok they wear, adjusting every crease and fold.

When the pandemic pushed Park to an entirely online setup, she took a chance and began designing masks, necklaces, earrings, hairpieces and handbags. While she had fewer in-person customers, Park worked away under the lights of her shop, her hands busily creating unique custom handcrafts that aligned with her hanbok.

Park comes from a family of artisans in South Korea who sold fabric. She continued her family legacy when she moved to the U.S. 30 years ago.

It wasn’t easy at first. Hanbok was an obsolete, plain clothing filling the suitcases of elderly Koreans immigrating to the U.S. Its true elegance failed to prevail in the streets of Los Angeles as people began to push aside culture and tradition. Hanbok was considered attire for the older generation that was rarely brought out of the wardrobe.

“I was 20 years old when I first came to the U.S.,” said Park. “I had no friends and couldn’t speak English either, but business isn’t about great speaking skills. It’s about always being ready to learn and proudly showcasing my work to my customers by letting them know what a hanbok is.”

A photo of a woman wearing a white dress with a silk ribbon top half and a flow-y bottom half.

Park felt obligated to restore the profound beauty of the hanbok, but reinvigorated the vibrant colors with her own design twists to make it modern, comfortable and appealing for all generations — including Asian Americans like Jeanne Jo.

Born and raised in the U.S., Jo is half-Korean. To her, modernized hanbok like Park’s designs are a vague concept. While she grew up around Korean traditions thanks to her Korean family members, she has huge gaps in her knowledge of Korean culture.

“I have fond memories of hanbok because my grandmother wore them, but I haven’t had one since I was a little girl,” said Jo. “I would wear them for special events if they were easier to find in the U.S.”

Making hanbok accessible is one of Park’s goals. By taking apart clothes to study needlework and enrolling at Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, Park took her journey toward learning fashion design seriously.

Language was a huge barrier, but Park realized that her keen determination to popularize hanbok with a modern twist could attract both Korean and foreign customers. She found her way into doing so by expanding into modern street and wedding attire. Combining a touch of Western elements in comfortably fitting chest lines, she transformed the jeogori for bridal hanbok.

“Visuals matter for hanbok,” said Park. “They allow hanbok to become a renowned, familiar type of clothing, not some ancient attire from a faraway land.”

This visually appealing approach attracted a non-Korean customer base that now makes up 80% of her orders. These customers visit Park’s shop with scrapbooks of hanbok designs to discuss their wedding plans or learn more about the cultural value of hanbok.

“She’s spreading the culture by [inviting] everyone to enjoy and understand Korea,” said James Park, her husband, a Korean American who initially did not know about hanbok. “Many people visit the shop for their wedding preparations, asking for specific hanbok designs and more advice, which really shows that hanbok is growing popular.”

Park never stops taking inspiration from everyday things to create new designs. She adds Korean influences to a plain T-shirt by incorporating a vibrant stripe from hanbok patterns. By drawing from trending clothing styles, she transforms a gray hoodie into a hanbok-influenced design with a single dragon emblem.

Sydney Augh, a Korean American, is a student from Atlanta who learned about modernized hanbok upon visiting Leehwa. However, she feels concerned about the shop because she does not want Korean culture to lose its traditional value by way of appropriation.

“I think it is better to preserve the hanbok as it is, without any modern adaptations,” said Augh. “Too much alteration can lead to other cultures using hanbok designs not knowing it originates from Korean culture.”

Nonetheless, Park works to ensure that her modernized hanbok never lose cultural depth, adding animals and flowers of cultural significance to represent royal dynasties in Korean history. She names outfits after traditional Korean names like Okjeong and Sundeok.

“I embroider a tiger patchwork into a shirt to symbolize the mind of a king,” said Park. “I make sure my dresses are comfortable but still adhere to the traditional wrap-around style just like the women wore them in the Goguryeo dynasty.”

She believes culture is susceptible to transformation and progress. Park ideates ways to include glimpses of Korean culture into our everyday accessories, clothing and lifestyles because she does not think influence is limited to a single culture or design.

“I believe I can make a 100% foreign customer base in the post-pandemic era,” said Park. To her, a single hand-sewn mask showing off vibrant hanbok-influenced designs can be enough to spread Korean culture widely and propel a prominent rise in hanbok popularity.

From the time she immigrated to now, Park has seen her community face tough times in the U.S., from the L.A. uprising in 1992 to the 2020 onset of COVID-19. Through it all, she focuses on the tiny yet busy needle of her sewing machine, forging connections between Korean and American cultures one thread at a time.

“I am not a mere Korean,” said Park. “I am a hanbok designer.”