Born in Seoul, South Korea, raised in Austin, Texas, and educated at London’s Central Saint Martins (CSM) under the late professor Louise Wilson, Rok Hwang has a truly international backstory. The 35-year-old went on to work at Chloé, Louis Vuitton and Celine, where he was one of Phoebe Philo’s first recruits during her 10-year tenure as creative director.
Since launching his label, Rokh, in 2017 and winning the LVMH Special Prize of €150,000 the following year, London-based Hwang now shows in Paris, and has taken the fashion world by storm with his precisely deconstructed creations that draw on an eclectic combination of references, colours and textures. “My collections aren’t for one type of culture or woman—it’s more of a fantasy,” he says.
For spring/summer 2021, Hwang opted for a pre-recorded runway show, shot at a secret location, rather than presenting to a live audience. Inspired by children’s novels and films of the 1990s, the collection—entitled Night Wanderer—is an ode to fictional characters and the vivid imaginations of coming-of-age youths.
Ahead of his show premiere on the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode (FHCM) website on 5 October during Paris Fashion Week, Vogue caught up via Zoom with Hwang from his north London studio and talked about how he arrived at designing womenswear, the importance of trying on your creations, and why he’s not doing a live show this season.
How does your multicultural upbringing feed into your work?
When I was young, I struggled because I didn’t know where I belonged culturally. I didn’t have many friends, so I absorbed the world by watching fun TV and movies at home. When I moved to London, I discovered a new creative environment and adapted quickly. My experience has been very international, so my collections feel multicultural.
Where did your interest in fashion come from?
I actually came to London to play music, but I was really bad at it. During my foundation year [in art and design at CSM], I wanted to do something with my hands, which led me to studying fashion. My interest wasn’t from the beginning, but it grew on me.
At CSM, you did a BA in menswear and then an MA in womenswear—what inspired this transition?
When I was studying menswear, it wasn’t that long ago, but it was more conservative then. I wanted to do something out of my [comfort zone] and explore silhouettes, crafting and construction. Louise [Wilson, the course director] saw my work and thought I would be freer and find it more creatively challenging to do womenswear, so she offered me a position on the womenswear course.
After university, you were recruited by Phoebe Philo while she was at the helm of Celine. What were the biggest lessons you took away from that?
Working in a professional environment gave me a different perspective because you have responsibility with goals and deadlines. When I was a student, it was more of a creative exploration [instead of] a purpose to the design. I got more of an understanding of women and how they dress, and how to translate that attitude into creation. I watched Phoebe try everything on and it opened my eyes. Now I always think, is this something that someone will actually wear?
How would you describe the Rokh woman?
In the beginning, I wanted to represent something that was connected to myself as a daydreaming outsider, but now it’s about making women feel confident, positive and empowered.
What were the biggest challenges for you and your team while working during the pandemic?
When we started working from home, I had to do most things with my own hands and I struggled because it took too much time. Now it brings me joy to cut the garments and to work closely with artisans and craftsmen in a new way that is mutually engaging. Now we are back in the studio and the way we work has changed a lot—it’s become more flexible.
What are the inspirations for your spring/summer 2021 collection?
The title of the collection is Night Wanderer because during lockdown, when I was walking around alone at night, it gave me that infinite feeling you get when you’re a teenager. I was reading lots of children’s fantasy books like Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children [by Ransom Riggs] and watched Tim Burton and Steven Spielberg movies, such as Beetlejuice  and ET . I also collaborated with LA artist Parker Jackson this season, whose artwork is in some of the prints.
Can you describe the key details of the collection?
Previously I worked a lot with tailoring and masculine fabrics, but this season there’s embroidery with chiffon and a vinyl coating on soft fabrics. It’s feminine and romantic, but with an edge to the cut and silhouette. The colour palette starts dark and then goes wild in a fantasy of bright acidics and pastels. We also worked with different multi-patterned checks.
What were the main ideas and inspirations behind the pre-recorded runway show?
I’m directing the film myself and my team are doing the production. We spent a lot of time finding the location because we don’t want anyone to be able to guess where it is. It’s by the seaside and looks like a barren desert, like Mars. We are shooting at night with lots of coloured lights and smoke. I wanted to create a dark teenage fantasy inspired by the characters played by Christina Ricci or Winona Ryder in the 1990s.
Why did you decide to do a virtual show instead of a physical one?
For me, it’s a social responsibility and I wanted to make sure that the health of our audience, team and models are top priority. We kept socially distanced during the shoot and it was outside. It’s an actual fashion show, but we wanted to capture the experience digitally instead.
You’re directing the film and have been shooting the brand’s lookbooks for more than a year. How did this interest in image-making come about?
I’ve been obsessed with collecting images for a long time and started experimenting with lights and shooting on film [cameras]. It became a hobby and I never thought I’d be capturing my own images, but then at one point I was doing fittings and it started naturally. I wanted to shoot the spring/summer 2021 show under my own direction and present my full vision.
What are your hopes for the future of the fashion industry?
I miss talking to people, meeting in real life, and sharing emotion. It’s part of the creative journey. I hope that the world will be open again, so that we can connect together within the industry and share experiences.