As I became more involved in the Korean fashion world as a photographer, and even included Andre Kim in a photo book about Korean street and runway fashion, I noticed that many people seemed to have referring to Andre Kim as a sort of joke, one that had become as cliché as it was now irrelevant. Some people even wondered why I included him in my book. Even in the contemporary designs he was often commissioned to make, say for elite private schools or Korean Airlines, there was always a hint of a snicker when his name was mentioned, accompanied even by some elements of subtle homophobia.
There is the constant denial of his gayness -- which anyone who interacted with him closely knew to be a fact, and not a vicious slur or accusation, but a mere fact -- which continues today. In the end, it is additionally a tragedy that someone who was obviously gay, or at least someone out-of-sync with a cultural of heavily enforced heteronormativity, was never able to "come out" lest he pay a heavy social price. He was never able to see a Korea that would accept him for whom he truly was, however he might have defined that identity-wise. Or perhaps he was quite lucky, in that he fit well inside the stereotype of the harmless gay male fashion designer, which allows everyone to kinda "know" but not have to talk about it in polite company.
But the point of this essay isn't that we didn't know enough about certain details of his life, or that there is some other Andre out there that we never knew; the real point here is that it seems that Andre Kim, as the man and idea, was so ubiquitous that many people either forgot, or never even knew, why the man is so important. It's because the man was an integral part of the birthing process and identity of South Korea itself that maybe a lot of people took him for granted.
Kim was like the funny old uncle who insisted on wearing old suits that were in fashion when he was a bachelor, but just can't seem to let go; the one who told off-color jokes at Thanksgiving that the kids didn't get and the more responsible adults at the table didn't find appropriate; he was kind of embarrassing, but was still family. And by the time Funny Old Uncle dies, you realize you never knew him. He was just that funny old uncle to you, but you realize he's not around anymore, and you missed the chance to know him.
Before abandoning this metaphor, it must be added that Andre Kim was Korea's funny old uncle who was really, really famous but few really knew why. And Designer Kim had carved out a space for himself so safe and inviolate -- especially in reserved Korean society -- that his eccentricities inevitably became his signature and came to the fore, overshadowing his real historical and social significance.
See, America's Funny Old Uncle, who died just last year, was also awash with not just eccentricities, but outright weirdness. He was not just the Funny Old Uncle who wore and said the wrong thing at the family reunion, but he was the Funny Old Uncle Who Touched Us Inappropriately. The difference with Michael Jackson was that his cultural significance wasn't from a different America, someone who existed outside of most of our lifetimes. For all his idiosyncrasies, Michael Jackson's cultural significance in both American and world culture was clear -- and he was still making music up until the very moment he died. And we know I don't mean this figuratively -- MJ literally collapsed and died while making his next piece of music for US. And no matter how much we winced at his embarrassing public gaffes, or even the possibility that he was a sex offender, the power of his fame and significance in his field made us forgive him. Or at least kind of look the other way.
Korea's Funny Old Uncle enjoyed that kind of privilege, to some extent. He was not nearly as eccentric, but then again, he could scarcely afford to be. Conservative Korean society had given him his place to express himself, but there are limits. What if he was outed, like Hong Seok-chon had been? What if he had a public sex scandal, or the question of his having adopted a boy become a subject of conversation? Did the power of his cult of personality really have the power to withstand a real scandal? The point is: Would people even remember WHY he was important or HOW he had become Andre-Kim-pronounced-with-a-comical-French-flourish enough to even cut him some slack?
I think some of that is coming out, as we offer him accolades as the first male fashion designer, the first Korean to take a fashion show to Paris, and the recipient of a request from America's Funny Old Uncle (and then-King of Pop) to be his personal fashion designer. But his fame in fashion aside, Andre Kim is even more than that.
Kim and his stardom are built into the social and cultural DNA of Korea itself. Several weeks ago, when I first heard a rumor of cancer and Kim's hospitalization, I asked a few random Korean friends, "Can you imagine Korea without Andre Kim?" Upon thinking about it, they remarked that this would be really sad. Because South Korea has never existed WITHOUT Andre Kim. He's one of the old school; he really is Korea's Funny Old Uncle, even as most other seminal figures in Korean public consciousness are Founding Fathers who are long since gone, or have been disgraced into the unconscious: Syngman Rhee, Pak Chung Hee, Chun Doo Whan.
I'm not making a false comparison here. Andre Kim really was Korea's first international celebrity, he was one of the few Koreans whom the international world talked about, and probably the only one who was not an actual statesman.
And he knew who was buttering his toast. One reason Andre Kim loved Americans so much -- and he really did, as me introducing myself as an American to him before a 2008 fashion show caused him to personally escort us to the front press seats and have the usher give us special privileges attests to, and this is just one of many similar such stories -- was because the US was his only true patron when such a thing was truly needed.
What the Korean media forgets, even when they show old footage from his 1960's fashion shows, with white folks in the audience smiling and clapping appreciatively, is that fashion shows were OUTLAWED under General/Chairman Pak's martial law and lists of "austerity measures" ostensibly designed to make Korea a cleaner and better place. Andre Kim didn't present fashion shows overseas just because he wanted to -- he HAD to. The footage shown in the reports I've seen were all taken from his shows on American military bases, the only place he could have them IN Korea.
Which is WHY he became an international fashion designer -- he was unable to be one here in KOREA. So, Andre Kim was very much a sign of his times. And very importantly, he was Korea's first international superstar, a Korean of some renown outside of his home country who was not a statesman or diplomat. He very necessarily was above the common man's concerns in a society that had banned fashion shows as part of martial law's austerity measures; he existed outside of the limitations of petty everyday life because he was one of a very few Koreans who COULD travel overseas; he was a huge part of a popular culture that was very, very small, in comparison to the power of the government dictatorship. There was a very small and powerless civil society, popular culture was controlled and highly regulated by the state -- there was little room for play here. Pak Chung Hee had just gotten started trying to ban rock music in the mid-1970's, and had successfully just illegalized marijuana.
So when the King of Pop himself is asking Andre Kim, during the early 1980's, to become his personal designer -- that's HUGE. To both Andre Kim as well as Korean pride. And Kim turned him down! As international as he could have -- might have -- become with such an opportunity (and others), he remained based in Korea, remained a true son of Korea. He could have done what many Japanese designers have done and just become based in Paris, or Milan. As the personal designer to the King of Pop himself. As a designer with the international connections to leave the little dictatorship, relatively backwards and restrictive society that Korea was and blow up overseas. Or at least, establish a comfortable living somewhere else.
But he didn't. And given that, I don't think that the young generation of fashionistas and designers I've come into contact with should have been calling him a "joke" or even an "embarrassment" to Korea or Korean fashion, when it was Andre Kim who had such a huge influence on Korean fashion, when it was Andre Kim who kept the very idea of a "Korean fashion" world alive at a time when fashion shows were outlawed and even the idea of conspicuous consumption frowned upon.
I just wanted to say that. There were too many fashion people snickering and apologizing for the existence of Andre Kim up until his death, and I think it's important to point that out, in this time of fair weather Andre Kim acolytes. More than almost any other Korean celebrity, Andre Kim was both a big baller in his field, and also internationally known in a way most contemporary Korean stars could only dream of, even today.