How Sulwhasoo Is Making Tradition Modern Again

The Korean beauty brand has made cultural preservation its mission.

How Sulwhasoo Is Making Tradition Modern Again

“Culture is like the air that we breathe,” says Kim Mina, the senior vice president of Korean beauty brand Sulwhasoo. It may be imperceptible, but we are all deeply immersed in it, every moment of our lives. And just like clean air, culture is something that people take for granted — until it disappears.

This, Kim explains, is why Sulwhasoo has taken it upon itself to be a sort of cultural conservator. “We wanted to identify elements of traditional culture and share it with everyone before it disappears.”

To that end, the brand builds a large-scale exhibition every year to highlight and celebrate aspects of Korean culture that it finds worthy of preservation. Called the Sulwha Cultural Exhibition, the display involves commissioning artists and designers to modernise specific elements of Korean culture, such as folk tales and handicrafts.

This year, the brand has chosen to highlight the intricate patterns and prints that are commonly found in various aspects of Korean culture, with a theme called Micro-Sense: House of Pattern. And yes, there was an actual house involved — sort of.

This year’s Sulwha Cultural Exhibition is themed Micro-Sense: House of Pattern, so they built an actual house inside Amorepacific Group’s headquarters.

The House itself was housed inside the spacious atrium of parent company Amorepacific group’s headquarters in Seoul, and eight Korean artists and designers were commissioned to build it from scratch, complete with a living room, dining room, library, bedroom, and (of course) powder room. Of course, each of the rooms in the House of Pattern were beautifully and tastefully decorated using intricate patterns.

“These traditional patterns are beautiful, but not well-appreciated,” Kim explains. “We wanted to show people that they don’t just exist in your grandparents’ homes, or in a museum. These patterns can still live in a contemporary setting like your home.”

And what a home it would be. The exterior of the house was decorated using colourful printed tiles, the most literal interpretation of the traditional patterns. Sheer fabric panels and cushioned seats inside the House were printed with motifs of blooming botanicals, fluttering butterflies, and birds on the wing; library walls were constructed using repeating patterns of books, and the dining table was made out of a giant screen with aforementioned animals drifting across periodically as polite dinner guests.

The Living Room in Sulwhasoo’s House Of Pattern.

According to Kim, the conceptualisation of the exhibition took about two years, with the most difficult task being the selection of the right theme. “The theme has to be both critical and valuable, and we have to be able to interpret it in a modern way that makes it relevant to the younger generation.” It is the youth, after all, who are most divorced from traditional cultures.

The Craft of Culture

While the Sulwha Cultural Exhibition is Sulwhasoo’s most overt act of cultural preservation, it is not the only one. Every year, Sulwhasoo also creates a special edition ShineClassic collection of products, which draws inspiration from traditional Korean patterns, materials, and craft techniques. The collection also involves collaborating with traditional Korean artisans to create beautiful limited edition packaging using crafts such as porcelain making, mother-of-pearl inlay, and metal engraving. It is only by making these ancient crafts relevant to the modern-day consumer that we can keep them alive.

In total, there are three ShineClassic compacts: the ShineClassic Perfecting Cushion Compact, the ShineClassic Powder Compact and the ShineClassic Multi Powder Compact. The cases of both the powder compact and multi powder compact have been decorated using chilbo, the Korean method of enamelling similar to the European cloisonné enamel. In chilbo, coloured powdered glass is mixed with a liquid medium and carefully applied to a metal frame before being fired in a kiln to create the smooth, glassy enamel finish.

If none of the three compacts catch your fancy, however, then perhaps the extra special edition of the ShineClassic will. Limited to just three pieces worldwide, the compact has been created entirely out of solid silver, to pay tribute to the origins of chilbo technique, which had historically been made using silver frames. The special edition compact was hand-decorated by Noh Yong-sook, the only chilbo master artisan officially recognised by the Korean government.

This year’s special edition ShineClassic compacts feature peonies handpainted using the traditional chilbo enamel technique.
This special edition of the ShineClassic is made of solid engraved silver. Its sides are intricately engraved and its top is decorated using chilbo enamel by Korea’s only recognised master enamel artisan. Limited to three pieces worldwide.

In general, ShineClassic products always feature traditional Korean motifs. This year’s motif is the peony flower, a traditional pattern that represents wealth. The peony is uncoincidentally also a central motif for the Sulwha Cultural Exhibition — because of this year’s theme of traditional patterns, it was decided that the Sulwha Cultural Exhibition and ShineClassic collection should share a debut, instead of the regular separated launches. Naturally, this means that the compacts are also given pride of place in the powder room of the House of Pattern.

Sulwhasoo’s cultural preservation efforts don’t end there. Although the Sulwha Cultural Exhibition is, by nature, distinctly Korean and therefore has limited reach in other countries, Sulwhasoo still extends its cultural preservation efforts to other markets via its Beauty From Your Culture campaign. The campaign usually involves Sulwhasoo creating a collection of limited edition products, with a portion of sales proceeds going towards preserving world heritage sites, or sites of particular cultural significance. In Singapore, the campaign benefits the Asian Civilisations Museum, which has long been dedicated to preserving and highlighting Singapore’s own colourful history as a melting pot of cultures.

This year, the Beauty From Your Culture campaign will be funded by proceeds from sales of the ShineClassic compact. Sulwhasoo has pledged S$20 with every purchase of the ShineClassic Powder Compact or Multi Powder Compact, and S$10 with every purchase of the ShineClassic Perfecting Cushion Intense from 24 October 2019 to 24 November 2019.

The Powder Room in the Sulwha Cultural Exhibition’s House of Pattern has the ShineClassic compacts prominently on display.

As a beauty brand, Sulwhasoo’s skincare and makeup products are heavily influenced by traditional Korean medicinal ingredients and techniques (albeit with a healthy dose of modern technology), so the preservation of traditional cultures comes as a natural extension of its operations.

Plus, if the purchase of beauty products means that more funds will go towards ensuring that our world stays a little bit more beautiful, then all the better.

Micro-Sense: House of Pattern is on from now until the 29th of December 2019, at Amorepacific HQ in Seoul.

The ShineClassic collection is available at the Asian Civilisations Museum, as well as all Sulwhasoo boutiques.

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