Interview: New Thomas Wylde creative head Jene Park’s ‘Made In Korea’ vision

October 23, 2015

She has a point – ”Things worn by G-Dragon fly off shelves. So why aren’t any of these stars wearing Korean brands?” 

Thomas Wylde Creative Director Jene Park (Tae Hong/Korea Times)

Thomas Wylde Creative Director Jene Park (Tae Hong/Korea Times)

By Tae Hong

One late night in 1994, Lubov Azria — of BCBG Max Azria — found her youngest design team assistant on the floor of the then-fledgling fashion house’s back stage room, sorting buttons and patterns and fabrics by size and color and type.

The assistant, a Korean hire who’d spent the better part of her week nights and weekends straightening up a mess of inventory under the radar, barely spoke English but understood the importance of a well-organized back room.

Azria wouldn’t have known it then, but she’d stumbled onto her future vice president.

That designer, Jene Park, would spend the next 10 years at the company, learning the fashion business first-hand from the Azrias, before going on to a role as chief operating officer of another Los Angeles-based label, Thomas Wylde.

Fast-forward another decade, and as of this summer, she is the rock-‘n’-roll-inspired, skull-print-famous house’s new creative director following the exit of brand face Paula Thomas.

What new direction is Park taking the brand?

Well, that’s a difficult question — she’s in a territory both familiar and unfamiliar. She’s no stranger to this company. She helped create its initial vision in the mid-2000s and has never strayed from involvement in the creative process — this is very nearly the job she’s been doing all along, with the difference being that now she’s got the title to go with the deeds.

Not that Thomas Wylde hasn’t seen major changes in the past year: it’s found a new investor (a Korean American, Park notes) and seen the introduction of separate shoe, handbag and Los Angeles-specific lines.

The day after Jun Ji-hyun, left, was spotted wearing this jacket on “Man From Another Star,” Jene Park received emails from all over the world,” which begs the question — “Things worn by G-Dragon flies off shelves. So why aren’t any of these stars wearing Korean brands? (Screen capture)

The day after Jun Ji-hyun, left, was spotted wearing this jacket on “Man From Another Star,” Jene Park received emails from all over the world,” which begs the question — “Things worn by G-Dragon flies off shelves. So why aren’t any of these stars wearing Korean brands? (A scene from “Man From Another Star.” / Screen capture)

Last month, Park debuted her first collection at New York Fashion Week, an event marked even more special by its doubling as the label’s 10th anniversary on the runway.

In a move that she says takes the house back to its initial roots, Thomas Wylde’s goal under Park lies in becoming a quality lifestyle brand and an attractive option for women in their 20s to 40s, a departure from its recent targeting of women in their 40s to 50s.

“Why has a brand like Hermes been respected through so many decades, and by consumers of all ages? Because they don’t compromise quality,” she said. “That was our goal at the very beginning, to have a lifestyle brand encompassing everything from accessories to furniture to menswear. We want to offer products that last 20, 30 years. Women in their 20s buy the same Chanel bags as women in their 80s. We want to be that brand. We want our products to be ageless.”

Heritage holds other meanings, to be sure. Park is draped in pieces from her latest collection inside her Culver City studio as she speaks to the Korea Times, every bit the fashion house creative head, but she’s never let go of her roots, from the regional Busan dialect that seeps into her Korean to her vocalizations on why she’s a proud Korean.

She’s a South Korean native. It was as a 29-year-old, post-college and just off a job teaching Japanese, that she moved to America.

“Koreans are creative and hard-working and smart,” she said. “So I wondered, why don’t we put ourselves out there to become leaders in the fashion industry? A lot of people who immigrate here around the age I came, people who are educated and disciplined, end up working at liquor shops or dry cleaners because of a language barrier. The first generation ends up working hard to make a better life for their second-generation children. My dream was that, as a first-generation immigrant, I could make a name for myself. If I couldn’t speak English, I could make up for it with other talents.”

As she attended a fashion institute in downtown, opportunities fell into place. A scholarship stay at the historied embroidery flagship Maison Lesage in France, where archived samples date back to the 1850s, left a deep impression on the budding designer.

“I saw that place and I thought, ‘I want to do this.’ I want to create something like this as a Korean person,” Park said. “If I could make it that far and be chosen for a scholarship in Paris in such a famous, prestigious place, that meant there was no reason I couldn’t accomplish more of what I wanted.”

The Koreans, she explains, made Thomas Wylde possible.

In the label’s beginning stages, Park was struggling through a search for factories willing to make small-batch samples. Through previous connections, she ended up with a set-up in South Korea.

“Only South Korean factories would help us at that point,” she said. “On the outside we were British-influenced, led by Paula, but behind the scenes, it was the Korean factories that helped get us off the ground. We had no pattern makers in our Los Angeles studio back then. Fashion is 50 percent idea, 50 percent product. The only people who could make our ideas become product were the Koreans. Our labels still read, ‘Made In Korea.’ We’re the only luxury fashion house here that does that — that’s a point of great pride to me.”

Her hope is for that collaboration to extend to collaborations with Korean stars in the future.

Already a popular option with American celebrities — Carrie Underwood’s white, crystal-studded Thomas Wylde dress caused a stir at this year’s Country Music Awards, and Nicole Scherzinger is a brand regular — for its edgy wearability, it’s also been spotted on Hallyu superstar Jeon Ji-hyun, who wore one of its pink jackets on the television drama “Man From Another Star.”

“I didn’t even know what the drama was, but day after the episode aired, I received emails from all over the world,” Park said. “I was so surprised at the amount of star power [Korean stars] wield.”

She hopes to partner with those stars. It makes sense, she says, for Koreans to support Koreans.

It matters to Park, who as a young designer had set out to represent Koreans in fashion design, that there exists no major, internationally-recognized South Korean fashion house despite the influence and spreading popularity of its cultural exports.

“Korean designers have a huge advantage in that they already have infrastructure, smart business people, and the eyes of the world on them. All they need is someone who has a dream. If you don’t give up, dreams will come true,” she said (and, urging young talents to contact her, insisted her email — jene[at]thomaswylde.com — be included in this story), “Talent is 20 percent of the equation — perseverance is the other 80.”

“Koreans are excellent stylists. We’re a creative people. K-pop and K-dramas are sweeping the world. Things worn by G-Dragon fly off shelves,” she said. “So why aren’t any of these stars wearing Korean brands? Why isn’t there a Korean brand for them to wear? That’s my next project, and my dream, to mentor young Korean designers become visionaries behind world-famous fashion houses.”

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