Muse Xuyoni

An Interview with Working Class Hero CEO Yoojin Kwak

The clothing that brings out the best of you by Working Class Hero CEO Yoojin Kwak


Uisikju(의식주), this three-syllable compound Korean word, which interprets as what I wear, what I eat, and where I reside are basic elements of a human life. Among them, 'ui', which means clothing, is placed before 'sik', which means food, and 'ju', which means residence. It hints at a cultural expectation of the need to dress well. Clothes serve us two main purposes: first, to protect our bodies, and second, to express our identity within relationships with others. Just think of all the brand-new designs that appear on the shelves every season, and you'll realize that choosing what to wear is not only an essential part of being a human being but also an unspoken way of expressing yourself.

Working Class Hero, which has been in business for six years, makes workwear. In a capitalist society where labor is an indispensable act, work is directly related to your identity and self-esteem. Well-made work clothes can help you feel good about yourself when you're working. We met Yoojin Kwak, the founder and CEO, who, with careful and considerate craftsmanship, makes clothes that make you feel most like yourself.

Working Class Hero launched in 2018, so you’re now in your sixth year as a brand. What have been the brand’s main accomplishments?


Yes, indeed I launched Working Class Hero, a Seoul-based designer workwear brand, in 2018 and have been running it for the past six years. Along with various ready-to-wear products, I have been commissioned by companies of various industries such as hotels and F&B to make workwear to meet their needs.



I found the brand name quite interesting. I guess you could say that as a labor worker, I found it a little comforting. Tell us about the naming of the brand:


The brand name comes from the song "Working Class Hero" by John Lennon. When translated into Korean word-by-word, “working class” in a capitalist society can be a bit of a strong expression, but we thought that music is the most accessible culture that people can enjoy without the political context. We wanted our brand to serve the similar role of delivering friendly emotions as music does. We also wanted our clothing to help working people achieve their various personal goals in career.



Before Working Class Hero, you worked for a brand. I wonder if your previous experiences were the reason why you decided to break into the new field of workwear.


I worked for a domestic women's clothing brand for about 10 years. I left the company to go to graduate school, and when I went back to being a student again, I thought about the confidence and identity that labor gave me. I realized that I wanted to make clothes that could be worn for a long time, not just to keep up with the trends every season. These thoughts led me to start a workwear brand based on what I do best, which is design.



I'm also curious if the brand identity has changed over the years.


Working Class Hero aims to make stylish workwear, not just usual workwear-style apparel as you might imagine. I've had a lot of experiences over the past five years, and they flash before my eyes now.

There have been many trials and errors, but compared to when I first launched the brand, I feel that the social atmosphere and perception of workwear have gradually changed. There is now a lot more empathy for my idea that you express yourself through your work and that the clothes you wear to work can be an effective form of self-expression. I'm seeing more and more people wanting to add a touch of professionalism or flair to their workwear.



You've made workwear for people in a variety of professions, from farmers to writers to pastry chefs. How do you understand and embody their work?


When you're making ready-to-wear, you want it to be used in a variety of different professions, so you try to choose the most ideal and versatile way to make it work. Of course, research comes first. And when I'm working on a specific job or commission, I try to understand the client's needs first. Depending on the profession, there are so many different details that are required. In such cases, I first make design suggestions. Then the functional side of things starts with listening to the stories of the workers who will actually wear them in the field. I thoroughly collect criticisms about their existing workwear and hear their wishes and feedback including preferable materials and details.



How long does it take on average for a project to be commissioned and completed?


It depends. Sometimes it's as quick as three or four weeks if there are brand guidelines, and other times it's six months if we're digging deeper into the details. It's totally unpredictable until you start.





What made you decide to work with Xuyoni? How did it align with Working Class Hero's goals?


Working Class Hero lately has been working with sustainability issues such as eco-friendliness and going organic. Everything that surrounds us is finite including time and the environment. When I was first approached by Xuyoni, I felt that we were on the same page in that regard.



If labor is social, meditation is personal; it seems they might fall into different categories.


On the surface, yes. It may be different from the regular workwear we're used to as we’re designing meditation attire that enters the spiritual discipline. But I believe that in order to do something properly, you first have to figure out what you really want. This means you have to establish a relationship with yourself first. In that sense, the emphasis is on how to translate each person's unique characteristics into clothing. If my previous work focuses on the moment of working, Xuyoni’s meditation attire is about the stage of self-reflection before work. I felt that the two areas correspond to each other.





Did you approach this project any differently?


With Xuyoni, I revisited the method I used to apply when I worked for fashion brands in the past; I came up with the idea by imagining the atmosphere of the situation in which the garment would be placed. I would create an imaginary muse in my head and imagine this person who is having tea and meditating. After materializing the space and the look in this way, I started looking for references and communicating with Xuyoni’s CEO.





Where did you find the inspiration for this design and what's important to you in your process of creation?


When I talk about my brand or workwear in general, one of the expressions I often use is "ceremonial.” I guess you could say that clothes play a big role in our lives. I personally believe that when a person is doing something in a certain situation, wearing matching clothes creates a synergy.

I kept in mind that such synergy is also needed for tea drinking and meditation. For the references, I used old Asian imagery and borrowed elements from traditional Korean clothes, Hanbok. For the top, I wanted to incorporate Working Class Hero's signature design elements and make it easy to open and wear, but not too see-through. In the end, I wanted it to be comfortable and easy to wear, so I reduced all the exaggerated elements. I made sure the pants flow with the body without any restrictions as you take a seat and meditate in them.



The act of savoring tea and incense is perhaps the most intimate personal ritual. What kind of energy can “meditation attire” give you?


I think it allows you to focus more on yourself in your own privacy. I anticipate it to be an aid to self-discovery during meditation. I hope Xuyoni’s attire will successfully reenergize you when you return to your ordinary routine.



It struck me that Working Class Hero's website features real people with real jobs. Even if the clothes weren't fancy, I could feel a sense of vibrancy and vitality in the people wearing them.


As I mentioned earlier, I worked in a fashion company for about 10 years before launching Working Class Hero. I did a lot of photo shoots, but usually, professional models are photographed in a standardized atmosphere, and I was skeptical about creating such processed images. I thought it was meaningful to shoot with people who actually wear work clothes for labor. We thought that the documentary approach that can reveal reality rather than staged images is in line with the direction that the brand is pursuing, so we used people who are not professional models but actually work in various jobs. We will continue to pursue this direction in the future, while also shooting with models that help customers understand the brand.



Even though the process was difficult, I'm sure the people who participated were happy to see the results.


Yes, they were. I remember everyone was so happy when they received the final images. We once went to a farm in Jeju for a shoot. I photographed the parents of the owner of the farm, and I tried to avoid staging as much as possible and just captured moments of their hard work in our clothes. The workers’ aura that cannot be pretended in combination with our workwear produced the most beautiful results. It is at this time that I became certain that proper workwear can bring out the most honest and truthful aspects of people. I felt rewarded that I was making clothes that made someone feel the most like himself or herself.





It seems the same will be true with Xuyoni’s meditation attire- that it will make you feel like your true self.


Yes, and I think that's why the result turned out so satisfying. Whether we are working or meditating, we feel most fulfilled when we are truly ourselves. For the Xuyoni project, I approached it differently from the projects I've been commissioned in the past, and that's why I enjoyed it so much. I was able to be myself as a designer and be my most authentic self. It also allowed me to envision a new look for my brand. Expanding into other areas, new opportunities or experiences. I think it will be a memorable project in many ways.



Editor: Juhwa Moon

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