How a Korean boy is making the case for gender-fluidity in fashion

How a Korean boy is making the case for gender-fluidity in fashion

Few fashion designers are as utterly misunderstood as Subin Hahn. The South Korean boy, 25, who is described by his peers as an icon-in-the-making, is tackling the fashion world with one goal in mind: creating a new kind of unisex. 

The unisex movement in fashion started in the 1960s, when designers began blurring the lines between traditional gender norms in clothing. Most of the garments, however, were tilted towards the classical “masculine” style of the moment, causing the female suit trend to become extremely popular. While many designers today are certainly more progressive and inclusive when it comes to sex and gender roles, unisex fashion has not necessarily caught up. Current unisex lines promote the idea of removing gender from garments — which is the exact opposite of what Hahn hopes to do with his gender fluid brand. His belief is that people of all genders and all sexes should feel comfortable wearing his clothes, not that individuals should put aside their identities when embracing fashion. 

Hahn is a fine artist at heart, one who is inspired by Disney’s happily ever afters, romantic piano pieces and passionate musicals. His father, a big-shot priest, runs his own Baptist church in Seul. Due to this, Hahn was raised as a devout Christian — a fact which has influenced his art in many ways. Though the rules were strict in the Hahn household, the designer’s mother, an illustrator, always encouraged his artistic expression, and eventually learned to embrace her son’s unique identity. Subin Hahn is gender fluid — not in a physical form, but in his soul and vision. His garments, he says, aim to create a world where people’s sex is irrelevant to their appearance and style, yet celebrated by the clothing they choose to wear. Men and women are one in the same, and all is fantasy. 

“I’ve been a huge fan of Disney princesses ever since I was a young kid,” he recalls. “I’ve always wanted to wear dresses and feminine elements, but it wasn't really accepted in the society, or even in my family.” 

Hahn is slim and pale, with sleek black hair and cherry pink lips. He is in his twenties, and yet he refers to himself as a “boy.” Though his designs are loud, exuberant and Hollywood-worthy, he is reserved and plain in his demeanor. Despite his talents, he prefers to remain out of the spotlight, wearing casual cotton tees and jeans during his downtime, and portraying a quiet image so unlike his magical creations. He has much to say, but speaks with a soft, almost musical voice — a trait that he says is seen as a weakness in Korean culture. 

Hahn says that while his parents never questioned him about his love of “feminine” clothes, they didn’t understand how he could consider himself a boy when dressing “like a girl.” He says that even now, five years, one college degree and two collections later, he still faces the same problem — now in the fashion industry. 

When Hahn debuted his first post-Parsons collection this New York Fashion Week, he was surprised to see some critics label his clothes as “drag” instead of high-fashion. “There are still people who are not really accepting of this kind of clothing,” he says, “but I’m prepared for the challenge.” 

Hahn's design process is as unique as him. While his gender fluid style is always present, his themes change depending on recent Broadway performances, music compositions, paintings, sculptures, dances or films that have inspired him." His two all-time favorites? “Beauty And The Beast” and “The Little Mermaid.” In his Wall Street studio, he even has a series of photos of him as a toddler sitting in front of a board covered in “Snow White” stickers and holding a Disney princess book.

“After 25 years, I finally have my own yellow dress,” he wrote on his Instagram after debuting his first official collection this Summer. 

Though his designs can be playful and somewhat childlike, there is also an ecclesiastical element to them. Former supermodel, Debbie Dickinson — who is now Hahn’s PR representative — says that even in the way he chooses to pose his models in his look books and arrange the lighting in his photoshoots, there is a clear sense of holiness and spirituality that he cannot escape.  

“It’s not obvious, but it was my intention to create this beautiful world with diverse people — this heaven or utopian society that I envision based on the description in the Bible of heaven,” says Hahn, who often posts Bible verses on his Instagram. “I just want people to see my clothing and visualize that fantastical world.”

The young designer tries to maintain a sense of “ethereal” beauty in his pieces, often using materials such as silk satin and silk organza to create delicate movement and light. While in some ways, his approach to lighting is very classical and divine, his use of multi-media is every bit avant-garde. Hahn begins his design process by making a large-scale illustration using watercolors, markers, fountain pens, stencils and spray paint. He then modifies the images in Photoshop, and prints out the final pattern on silk. To go with his work, he also collaborates with musicians, dancers and other creatives. For his thesis collection at Parsons School Of Design, he worked with a musician who produced an exclusive album for his runway show — the classicism and softness of the melody perfectly complimenting the flow of his graceful dresses. 

Though gender fluidity, cartoon princesses and Christianity may not seem like an obvious mesh, Hahn has found a way to create an entire brand using elements of each — and the fashion world is finally responding. 

Dickinson, 60, said that when she first discovered his designs, she realized they had an aura of fine couture that she hadn’t see since her days on the Chanel Paris runways. “It's one of a kind, it's the highest level of fashion,” she says. “It’s the lines, the design, the draping, the technique.” Dickinson is now working with Hahn to get his latest collection into retail stores such as Barney’s. She says they will begin with a small production, but eventually hope to build his fashion house in the city, in order to share his fantastical designs with the world. 

Hahn knows his goal is not a simple one, but he’s never been one to take the easy way out. Before he arrived at Parsons, he spent a year studying fashion design at a university in Seul. There they taught him technique and business skills — but creativity and passion were lacking. He also spent two years in the South Korean army, trying hard to discover his path. Eventually, he made the move to New York. Parsons fashion professor and award-winning costume designer, Marie Genevieve Cyr, says that when he first stepped foot in her classroom, he showed her a massive stack of drawings he made during his time in service — and she was mesmerized. 

Hahn’s vision is something that must not go unnoticed in the fashion world, says Cyr. Other than being mesmerizing, it is extremely personal, as his search for gender identity is ever-present and translates into every one of his dreamy garments. Then, when he adds the element of Christianity, it becomes that much more interesting, as he often references the Bible and his idea of the “afterlife” when creating vibrant sketches for his prints. 

“Fashion is not just a clothing line [for Hahn]. He created a whole universe,” says Cyr.