The Designer Series: Sunny Chang (Part 2)

 
Sunny Chang in her showroom in Olympia, Washington, January 2019.

Sunny Chang in her showroom in Olympia, Washington, January 2019.

 
 

“When I make [a dress] it’s so quick. Just one or two days. I don’t eat anything, I just keep going. Hard work,” Sunny reluctantly confesses. It is the general expectation of a modern couturière that they should deliver a dress of moderate complexity within a month of their initial meeting with a client.

This depends on the number of scheduled fittings, availability of materials, volume of concurrent clientele, and any number of other factors. But generally speaking, a dress of moderate complexity should take an individual 20-40 hours to produce over the course of several days in a typical atelier setting. Which is why Sunny’s work ethic, focus and speed—characteristics shared by some of the most skilled craftspeople in fashion—are so impressive. And why her reluctance to confess this ability was at first, frankly put, bewildering.

After graduating college, Sunny began making plans that many in this industry have made since they first discovered their true path in life: Moving to New York in pursuit of attaining their wildest dreams.  But like all whom ventured into the unknown before her, life happened in entirely unexpected ways.  And in Sunny’s case, it took the form of a military ball that would entirely alter her trajectory.

It was 2004, and only a handful of months after the United States invaded Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction.  The war would have a devastating and lasting impact on the Middle East—and indeed, the world itself—creating conditions that would embroil many nations in a state of unrelenting strife and seemingly unending occupation and instability.  For the people of South Korea, there existed then, and exists to a lesser extent even now, a constant if subtle and unspoken reality that flows like an undercurrent throughout daily life.


 
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/ KOOˈTÜRĒˌAIR / | NOUN (FEMININE)

A Fashion Designer and construction specialist responsible for the creative direction, manufacture and sale of apparel and accessories tailored to a client’s specific measurements and requests. In practice, an independent Couturière in the Pacific Northwest may also be the Creative Director and Managing Director of a fashion house or brand. In this sense, they are the chief creative and business force within their company, setting both fashion direction and business goals, and are involved in every aspect of the client’s experience from the initial meeting to the final deliverables.


SOUTH KOREA : A BRIEF HISTORY

Since the early wars of the twentieth century, tensions had been high between the formerly united Korean peoples.  The Japanese occupation was harsh, and the expansion of Communism was viewed by the United States as the greatest threat to global security.  With the formation of the nation of South Korea and the establishment of the demilitarized zone after World War II, tensions in South Korea remained high for fear of invasion from a North Korean army, and by extension, Communism itself.

South Korea faced a decades-long battle for political and ideological independence and stability, involving multiple constitutional revisions, military coups and political assassinations.  To this day, allied forces maintain an active military presence.  However, with investment in new technologies, comprehensive educational reforms, its addition to the United Nations in 1991 and its first freely elected civilian president in 1993, the country began a trajectory that would see it becoming the #16 Best Nation for Business according to Forbes.com—ahead of the United States, which came in at #17 on the list in 2018. 

For Sunny and many others of her generation, this tension was less felt as it was perhaps overlooked, the way one does with a chronic pain that cannot be readily alleviated.  Life moves forward with a new normal the way it must, and the divisions many families had carried over the generations soon faded from memory.  And so the normalcy of the dichotomy between war and peace would become a theme inexorably interwoven into the fabric of her, and indeed, her nation’s tapestry.

Yet it is the love Sunny has for her family that fills the spaces in her memory.  And South Korea has grown to become an economic and creative force on a global scale, largely owed to the application of the people’s unbreakable spirit and the readiness of its government to take on the immense task of investing in its people.


A STITCH IN TIME

Sunny remembers the first dress she ever made as belonging to one of the formative events of her early life.  Although she earned her degree in Fashion Design, she had yet to develop a business plan or formalize her brand identity. Whether consciously aware of it or not, the dress represented her next step toward achieving these goals.  It also represented her first opportunity to imprint her creative voice onto a garment as meaningful to her then as are the gowns she makes for her clients now.  

At the time, Sunny made the bold move of dating a U.S. soldier stationed in South Korea.  A charming and very kind man, she quickly grew to love him for the content of his character.  Though when pressed, she confesses their journey began as many surely do.

“My husband’s parents [thought] that we met at church, but it’s not [true].  We met at a club in Korea.  We fell in love the first time [we saw] each other.”  Sunny’s cheeks grew a shade of rouge as she held back playful laughter.  It was clear her feelings have only strengthened with the passing years.

And the time came for a military ball, which has been and remains a customary practice for the U.S. and much of the world.  Sunny was invited to attend.  “Korean people don’t have [many places] to wear these dresses.  So [the military ball] is special to me.”  Invigorated by the opportunity, she knew this was the right moment.

Sunny designed and fashioned her own dress from heavy satin and lace, creating a tiered skirt that flowed cleanly into a strapless tube top with a clean décolletage.  Simple, elegant, and timeless.  “I always imagined I was going to be a princess,” she whimsically recalls.  And with that first dress, her dream drew closer to reality.

It wasn’t long thereafter that Sunny stood opposite her then boyfriend in another dress that was deeply meaningful to her.  It would be on the occasion of her wedding, and in 2005, her then U.S. soldier-suitor would become her husband in what could easily be described as the culmination of a fairytale romance.

Even better, the newlywed couple received news that he was ordered to New York.  The universe had aligned in every way that she had always dreamed it would.  In 2006, they said their goodbyes to family in Korea and ventured off in pursuit of the unknown.  And they would quickly find it.

 
WHEN I MAKE A DRESS IT’S SO QUICK. JUST ONE OR TWO DAYS. I DON’T EAT ANYTHING, I JUST KEEP GOING. HARD WORK.