AnOther has partnered with 1 Granary to create a series of Emerging Talent pieces, celebrating some of the most exciting upcoming creatives working in fashion design today.
“I went through the normal teenage time: listening to heavy metal on max volume, skateboarding and having a garage band, then I got into ska and reggae...” Korea-born, US-raised designer Rok Hwang is reminiscing about his teenage years, spent living in his family’s caravan in Austin, Texas, watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cartoons on a small TV with poor signal. At the age of 18, he opted to move to London to study at Central Saint Martins, graduating from the womenswear MA programme in 2010. The rebellious 14-year-old he’s describing may now be a distant memory but threads of his formative years slip back into the youthful, deconstructed garments he creates at his brand ROKH, which launched its inaugural collection earlier this year.
Hwang’s business strategy is a decidedly smart one: to create a solid brand with the best team possible. “Being talented as an individual is very different to building a successful brand. A brand takes structure and needs systems – and this takes more than a single person.” This observation is undoubtedly the result of the time Hwang spent working for major fashion labels, such as Céline and Louis Vuitton, after completing his studies – experiences that instilled in him a practical and substantive understanding of fashion’s backbone before going it alone. His first commercial release, for A/W17, has already secured 30 international stockists – a remarkably strong debut for a designer who’s just starting out. Hwang explains that he worked hard, and without haste, to develop a firm vision for ROKH, and confirm strong partnerships, prior to launching. “I wanted to wait for the official press launch of the brand and build anticipation from the industry,” he smiles. “I am not in a hurry.”
Somehow, this approach feels particularly timely; a reaction to our hyped-up culture where prototypes are teased on Instagram well ahead of a product’s release, alongside an inundation of inspiration and research images, which can potentially deflate a new collection before it even launches. “There is so much repetition in terms of imagery,” Hwang says of his decision to avoid such publicity stunts. “I wanted to step back and really focus on the value of the image, as well as the construction of garments. I still believe that the quality of the collection is the most valuable thing.” It is a sincere outlook, indicative of a designer who wants everything he creates to be relatable.
Hwang is similarly shrewd in his understanding of the digital age and its reflection in how we dress. “I think culture these days is so mixed up,” he notes. “People don’t really stand for, and dress according to, one thing they believe in. I often see people with so many fashion references mixed into one look, and I believe this is definitive of our generation.” And it’s true – access and exposure to information and different cultural stimuli has never been more prolific. All such things considered, a desire for genuine, no-fuss, wearable garments is perhaps the biggest draw for fans of Hwang’s work. So how did he decide on his elegant, deconstructed aesthetic? “It’s not easy when one has so many options to choose from,” he ponders. “But from the start I had one thing on my mind. I knew that if I could develop my own language and sense of originality, then ROKH would have a voice one day. It’s like choosing what to read from a bookstore – it may be a similar genre [to one you've read before], but from a different writer.”
The genre in ROKH’s case is luxury, a concept Hwang finds hard to define and struggles to reconcile himself with. “I think it could almost be translated to time these days. It is not just material or construction. Application of taste and in-depth study in designing a piece could also be equated with luxury,” he says. “But at the same time, the term luxury feels increasingly blurred and tasteless.” For Hwang, the pursuit of luxury seems instead aligned with the search for an honest connection with the garments themselves and the experience of wearing them. This idea manifests itself in his design process. “I really start designing during the fitting,” he explains. “I need to touch and feel the garment. Sometimes it takes more than ten attempts to redesign one style. It’s during this process that I feel the right moment has arrived; I will stop, and that will be the final touch.”
The designer is equally grounded when it comes to his inspirations, frequently finding beauty in the everyday. “Extremely normal situations inspire me: walking home from work, talking to a friend – scenarios that are presented to you in the most unglamorous way. I’m always thinking about those things, and how to translate them to my collections, to make them improvised, unscripted, raw.” This very real mindset begins and ends with Hwang himself. “I think I am the most ordinary person,” he laughs. “Nice warm dinner is my happiness, and the occasional McDonalds.”