Troa Cho is the picture of a quintessential fashion designer, with her silver hair in a Louise Brooks bob and sporting black slim-fit tuxedo-style denim pants paired with a black dress shirt.
Looking at her posing next to her work from the 1980s -- a slinky python print number fit for a sexy diva of the wild disco years -- currently on exhibition at the Culture Station 284 as part of “Mode & Moments: 100 Years of Korean Fashion,” it does not take too much imagination to picture the septuagenarian dressing top celebrities of the day.
The fashion designer, who has dressed the famous and the rich and was the first Korean designer to open a shop on New York’s Madison Avenue, grew up to the sound of her mother’s Singer sewing machine in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province.
“My mother was a great dressmaker and she made dresses for the wife of an American missionary in Suncheon,” recalled Cho at her studio shop in Samseong-dong, southern Seoul, last week. “Mom had hidden away piles of fabrics, very fine ones, when such fabrics were a luxury,” said Cho.
Fashion designer Troa Cho poses with her work (left) on display at “Mode & Moments: 100 Years of Korean Fashion” at the Culture Station Seoul 284 in Seoul, Wednesday. (Yoon Byung-chan/The Korea Herald)
Enchanted by a very fine wool in cream, Cho, an elementary school student at the time, secretly took it out of the closet and began making a jumpsuit for her younger sister. “I had a design in mind and I worked on it stealthily whenever mom was not around,” she said.
When the jumpsuit with an applique at the center and patches on the knees -- she figured this would be practical -- was finally complete, she showed it to her mother, fearing a fierce scolding for wasting precious fabric. Her mother’s response was not what she expected.
“She looked at it and said quietly, ‘You did well,’” said Cho, adding “She was a woman of few words and I considered that praise.”
She knew there and then that she would be making clothes for the rest of her life. “I think I was born with it,” she said.
Her English name, Troa, was given by the missionary’s wife who was a sort of godmother to her. “I was told Troa is a figure in the Bible, a sewing woman,” explained Cho, whose Korean name is Young-ja.
At the age of 25, Cho began working at a boutique in Myeong-dong, the fashion mecca of Seoul, where celebrities, artists and fashionable people gathered.
“The boutique was owned by Choi Kyung-ja who had studied fashion in Japan,” Cho recalled. Choi is a first-generation Korean fashion designer who established a fashion school that is the alma mater of countless fashion designers of the succeeding generations.
“I stood in high heels all day and I took orders for four to five pieces from one customer,” Cho said, designing and measuring customers. “I did good business for them but the pay wasn’t even enough to cover my bus fare!” she said laughing.
One day, Cho asked for a raise, promising to continue working there for the next three years, saying she would quit otherwise. “A few days later she told me ‘no’ and I left the company,” she said.
Having quit the boutique without any hesitation, Cho decided to open her own shop.
“I thought I would do well,” she said. And her confidence was not without grounds. When her customers heard that she had quit the Myeong-dong boutique, they came to her house in Bulgwang-dong, a residential area outside the downtown area, to get their dresses made.
Troa Cho fits a model at her boutique on Madison Avenue, New York City. (Troa)
Eventually, in the mid-1960s, Cho found a rundown place near the Savoy Hotel in Myeong-dong, which she completely renovated with her architect brother. “I can still recall the red mohair coat that was on display at the window,” she said. A famous television personality saw it walking by and bought it off the mannequin.
Business at the Troa boutique in Myeong-dong thrived and it became a gathering place for movie stars and celebrities. Among the famous actresses of the day who came to Cho was Moon Hee. Cho read Moon’s film scripts cover to cover before she started sketching designs for the films, such was her dedication to her work and her clients.
Cho’s talent and strong work ethic brought her much fame and success. Admitting that she does not have a head for figures, she said, “I don’t know how much I made but I must have made a lot. I used to see my bookkeeper, a short young girl, run around Myeong-dong cradling an armful of cash and wondered where she was going,” she said. Most likely, the bookkeeper was carrying cash to deposit at a bank.
Life took an interesting turn when, after more than 10 years in Myeong-dong, she left Seoul to study fashion advertising and promotion at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. One thing led to another and Cho opened a Troa Cho boutique on Madison Avenue in New York City.
While her younger sister carried on the business in Korea, Cho grew her clientele in New York, who included some of the famous names in high society and the entertainment industry. In addition to the Madison Avenue brownstone store, she sold her designs at Saks Fifth Avenue and other exclusive boutiques. She also opened a store in Trump Tower where, among her regular clients, were the actress Liv Ullmann and Ivana Trump, then the wife of Donald Trump, the billionaire Republican presidential candidate. “I changed her look,” she said, adding “good clothes can change your style.”
Cho’s clients appreciated what they called her “classic, sexy, young” style. While she personally preferred strong, vivid colors such as fuchsia and bold flower prints, her New York days tamed her color palette. “I started using a lot of black in New York because working women needed basic things that they could wear every day,” she said.
Cho’s penchant for the sexy yet elegant look is revealed in her fabric choices. “Absolutely no transparent, sheer fabrics. But I like working with fine, thin fabrics that are also strong, that wrap around and envelope your body, like silk,” she explained.
Her booming business in New York kept her away from Seoul for years and it was only in 1989 that she was able to return. And when she returned, she stayed for good, transforming her fashion business into a lifestyle brand business, a new concept that she had witnessed in New York. She expanded her business portfolio to include a casual brand, a children’s clothing brand, as well as a home furnishing brand and a perfume brand. Her brands were carried in all the major department stores and her business generated well over 10 billion won in sales in 1991. Before the influx of imported fashion brands, Troa was a dominant Korean brand.
However, the new ventures proved less than successful and Cho eventually closed all brands but her eponymous Troa brand. Today, her son, designer Han Song continues running the brand in Seoul and New York, with a new focus on modern evening wear.
A pioneer in Korean fashion, Cho said she is incredulous at all that she has accomplished. “I was very impressed with the large turnout of young fashion people at the opening reception for “Mode & Moments” a few days ago. Times have changed and people don’t dress up any more and there isn’t as much demand for clothes as before. So things will not be easy for young fashion designers. But, if you are born with the talent, you can overcome difficulties,” Cho said.
By Kim Hoo-ran (email@example.com