SUWA’s Artisanal Street Style

Young men painted by Suwa at Pitti Uomo 93

Florence, Italy — It’s Pitti Uomo 93 day two and the Les Benjamins FW presentation is just about to kick off in the majestic setting of the Teatro Niccolini, an ancient opera house tucked away on a dark street just steps away from the Duomo. As we take our seats quietly in the crimson red boxes, Seoul-based artist Suwa is milling about with her portable easel tray stained by watercolour paint… trying to find the right spot to connect with people. She decided to sit down next to me.
We chat about Japan vs. South Korea and the excitement of her neighbourhood Apgujeong, a lively, trendy nabe in Seoul that conjures the spirit of New York’s Soho district – full of cafés and fashion forward boutiques. She asks if she can paint me. I accept! I blush and my lips get rigid as I wonder if I should smile, be serious… but I  am drawn to her pristine Korean features and the artistic strokes of her paintbrush, as if she were painting antique Hangul calligraphy instead of a face. I can’t help but look down at the vintage Italian magazine that she is rapidly painting over. The lights dim to a deep purple and she finishes after about a minute. I’m skinnier than I normally look and my face is pleasant, but serious; my arms are folded and, to my chagrin, I look more melancholy than I would ever have perceived. But I accept that this is me in her eyes.

Suwa allows me to take a photo with my iPhone and continues to paint the presentation full of streetwear amid stars and magical strobes of light, illuminated stars and dancers in Punic-War-era golden robes. The show, dubbed “The Ancient Skyscrapers at Night,” conjured images of a Lumier brothers films like “A Trip to the Moon” or Giovanni Pastrone’s 1914 film “Cabiria.” Suwa is rapidly painting as the
models charge the stage and settle into triangular formation.

Suwa at work.  Photo courtesy  of Suwa

Little is known in Europe about this South Korean painter who simply goes by the name Suwa and who is a treasure hunter of old books and magazine pages as the surprising canvas for her subjects. Pitti Immagine invited her to the fair to infuse the street style scene with a touch of emotion, which is often lacking amid the throngs of peacocks who dress up on purpose.

Suwa‘s full name is Suwa Im. She graduated from Parsons School of Design and subsequently worked as a fashion designer in New York City.

Widely recognized in Asia for her fashion colouring books and her fashion 101 app, Suwa is also a well known artist, in her own right, as a painter whose aim is to demonstrate how fashion is a tool for
individuals to represent themselves. She travels around the world – Paris, New York, and Milan to capture the essence of the personalities that are driving this industry like Hamish Bowles and Carine Roitfeld… just to name a few, as well as the curious faces and fashion spectators that make this industry unique.

Here’s our interview:

SC: What is your life like in Seoul? When you aren’t here, what do you do?

SUWA: Basically, I’m an artist. I do make some books, like drawing books. I do drawing too and maybe exhibitions. What else? I’m teaching in school too.

SC: How did you make a name for yourself in the Western fashion world? New York, Paris – how did that happen?

SUWA: I’m not sure what happened there; seriously, I just wanted to draw people in person, not drawing the photos anymore. So, I just came out onto the streets and drew people. That’s what I do.

SC: You make caricatures out of people, or is there an actual likeness?

SUWA: Yeah, I just try to draw the people’s character in it with my style.

SC: Why aged paper?

SUWA: What I have today is vintage paper, Italian and American magazines. This is what I do; it’s very classic, but now what I’m
doing is very contemporary artwork to draw people on the streets. I like the contrast of the vintage paper with the new contemporary people in it.

SC: Who are your normal subjects?

SUWA: So, influencers… bloggers… they dress well and they are sponsored, so they try to be just pretty, like fun too, but you know. And editors like Anna Dello Russo – they are such cool editors with a great eye, so it’s fun.

SC: So you’ve done Hamish Bowles, Anna Wintour?

SUWA: Not Anna, yet. I have seen her only from a distance. She’s got like too many guards and I can’t get through. So many people, and old magazines and editors, things like that. Vanityfair, too many people, it’s great.

SC: Just editors or famous people?

SUWA: Lately, I have been trying to paint other people than just the normal bloggers.  There are so many people around fashion week… like writers and editors, for example, who have an amazing eye and stare. And that stare is so amazing, whether they are young or old. That’s really what I look for.

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