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Cheyul CEO ties modernizing heritage to Korean luxury

By Choi Si-young

Published : May 22, 2024 - 13:56

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Guests pose for a photo after a tour at Cheyul’s flagship in Sinsa-dong, Seoul. (Choi Si-young/The Korea Herald) Guests pose for a photo after a tour at Cheyul’s flagship in Sinsa-dong, Seoul. (Choi Si-young/The Korea Herald)

The CEO of a Korean luxury handcraft brand, Cheyul, believes that modernizing traditions while keeping the spirit behind them alive is key to delivering true “Korean luxury.”

“We have shipped our armchair set adorned with mother-of-pearl as far away as Africa,” Lee told a gallery of foreign diplomatic missions during a tour of Cheyul’s flagship in Seoul’s Sinsa-dong on Tuesday.

That armchair set is one example of how the company has put mother-of-pearl to modern use, bringing Korea’s traditional handcrafts beyond their traditional applications.

Mother-of-pearl, used for boxes during the Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392), is the signature material featured on most of Cheyul’s handcrafts.

Handcrafts at Cheyul (Cheyul) Handcrafts at Cheyul (Cheyul)

“It’s a modern touch of design which you don't find in the normal ones that you see in Insa-dong,” Maria Castillo Fernandez, the European Union ambassador to Korea, said of Cheyul’s cupboard inlaid with mother-of-pearl in beige. The color and design stood in stark contrast with those at Seoul’s go-to place for “traditional souvenirs,” according to the diplomat.

Fernandez said she found fascinating the way Cheyul blended modernity while “keeping traditional elements of Korean handcraft.”

“I am excited every time I see how much potential exists in this cultural heritage and how we could translate that in our modern life,” Greek Ambassador Ekaterini Loupas said.

Lee added, “artisan spirit” should be kept intact, however.

The 36-year-old CEO likened her job to growing a Korean Hermes, the French luxury powerhouse. Overseeing about 30 artisans, Cheyul has a separate team of designers with workshops, some of which are outsourced.

“Major luxury brands have artisan spirit at their heart,” Lee said, noting she has established a good rapport with her artisans since 2008 when the CEO launched the brand with her older sister, Lee Ji-Eun, who is the executive director.

“The difference is those were born in the 19th century, when we come from the 21st century,” Lee said, suggesting her late start does not render Cheyul any less qualified than its global competitors.

The Tuesday tour was organized by the Corea Image Communication Institute, a nonprofit that works on promoting Korea’s global profile.

Handcrafts at Cheyul (Choi Si-young/The Korea Herald) Handcrafts at Cheyul (Choi Si-young/The Korea Herald)