As the pandemic hit and the theatre of fashion week could no longer physically take place, calls for the industry to slow down, take stock and consider its environmental impact and fast-paced production reverberated across social media. "I thought, Great! Everyone’s talking about the same thing," Seoul-born, London-based designer Rejina Pyo tells Refinery29. Then SS21 rolled around in September and nearly every designer on the London Fashion Week schedule produced a virtual show, streamed on YouTube or Instagram. "Wait a minute," Pyo thought to herself, "this [is] the perfect opportunity to change things up." And so she did.
Fashion month has been broken for a long time. The current biannual schedule is modelled on an outdated era when the only way editors and buyers could see a new collection was in person, six months before it landed in stores so that there was time to photograph, review and print publications for their customer to peruse. Now, though, we have the internet, and collections are seen by the world within minutes of being sent down the catwalk.
"People would message me after a show, asking when they could buy something they just saw, and I’d say, 'Ummm...not for another six months!' We’d be showing the spring/summer collection in September, right before a cold winter was coming and nobody could wear it. People aren’t actually interested in which season a piece is from, they just want a beautiful dress or skirt that fits into their wardrobe." Today, Pyo is releasing her SS21 collection just as we emerge from a cold and cruel January in lockdown, as we’re starting to look forward to the longer, warmer and more hopeful days of spring. "It’s exciting to align the fashion calendar with women’s real lives, to be even more involved with them," she says. "I’m not saying we’ll never do a show again – I miss the excitement, curating the music and the venue; it’s such a special moment – but the purpose of a fashion show has changed hugely and, for now, we’re using this opportunity to do something else."
In lieu of a catwalk show, Pyo is returning to the format of her SS18 collection, which saw her collaborate with a variety of women – mothers and jewellery designers, writers and painters – to showcase the clothes. This time around, artists Conie Vallese and Cassi Namoda, and musicians Soyoon and Kwamie Liv feature in the campaign, which will be released in the coming weeks. "I wanted to introduce our audience to these amazing artists from around the world and show the collection in context rather than quite removed on a model. Both personally and as a brand, I’m not just interested in fashion – I love every aspect of life. I want to know what this inspiring woman is reading, what she’s eating, how she’s being inspired." What’s providing Pyo with artistic sustenance in lockdown? "I started oil painting in my garden shed! I love reading old issues of World of Interiors and Architectural Digest. My husband is a chef and we wrote a cookbook together, Our Korean Kitchen, so whenever I miss home I cook Korean food."
Creating clothes which genuinely align with real women's lives is what Pyo does best. It’s what set her apart from her contemporaries in 2017, when she debuted her first collection at London Fashion Week SS18, three years after founding her eponymous label. It’s what has gained her cult status both within and outside the industry, made her Greta dress and Olivia bag repeat sell-outs and seen her pieces imitated by the high street season after season. Whether it’s her ability to infuse collections with a nod to the past – a dagger collar here, a bowling shirt there – without succumbing to vintage pastiche, or her knack for creating an It bag, Pyo’s dedicated following has come to anticipate several aesthetic codes. For us, it’s her eye for colour. "When people ask me where I get my colour inspiration, they almost want me to say, 'Yes, I have this trend forecasting book I work from!'" she laughs. "It’s very instinctive and personal but I like what happens when you put two colours next to each other – each combination is different. An aubergine purple next to a mint green isn’t the same when it’s put next to a butter yellow. It’s like they have a conversation, it’s a chemical synergy, like they’re dating each other."
Serving up a generous scoop of escapism, Pyo's SS21 collection vibrates with zingy hues made to be worn with a sundowner. From Californian poppy orange and Granny Smith green to flame red rust, even the more muted colours – think buttermilk yellow and gentle olive – make an impact. "This collection reminds me of punchy Italian granita and gelato," Pyo says. Is that the first place on her wish list when international travel is safe again? "I think my mind is always there!" she laughs. "There’s never a moment when I’m not longing for southern Italy; the food...even the colours look different. I love seeing how Italian people live their lives away from the tourist spots."
Travel is at the heart of the collection for another reason, too. Pyo spent the start of the pandemic in her husband’s native Ireland but soon travelled to Korea to be with her own family and work on the collection at her business’ second base. "We didn’t realise how long we would be staying, and the situation got worse here, so we ended up there for almost four months." Having spent only two weeks at a time in Korea since she left 13 years ago, the change of pace "was quite an experience" but it was the people she was with who inspired her the most. "I spent so much time with my family and childhood friends – who in turn have children – it felt like going back to my childhood almost."
A childlike playfulness is always present in her pieces, whether it arrives through an unexpected colour pairing, a kitsch print or an off-kilter silhouette. How does Pyo avoid taking herself too seriously? "It’s what’s differentiated our brand from the beginning," she muses. "We were always very inclusive rather than exclusive. Life is too short to be serious all the time. I admire how kids are carefree and free-spirited – they’re the best artists in the world." Even during lockdown, the literature that inspired the designer is centred on children: The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did) and How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. "They’re about how to become better communicators, but it’s amazing, when you read them you realise you’re not communicating this way with your partner, friends or colleagues either."
Alongside a sumptuous and unexpected use of colour, one of Pyo’s calling cards is her dexterity with contemporary tailoring. From SS18’s fuchsia zoot suit to the sharp satsuma blazer that stole our hearts at Resort 2021, her tailoring never sits in antithesis to her hyperfeminine dresses, but in agreement with them. This collection features an oil-slick navy relaxed jacket and cropped trousers, plus a breezy natural linen midi skirt suit. "I’m inspired by how the people I know wear tailoring," she says. "Tight-fitting or relaxed, feminine or boxy, suit jackets are so empowering – if you’re feeling 'meh' you can put one on and feel like a power woman."
Did Pyo maintain formalities during lockdown or give way to loungewear like the rest of us? "When it first happened, I thought, What’s the point? and stayed in my most comfortable clothes. Then it hit me, I became really sluggish and not very inspired. I realised I need that excitement that comes from dressing myself. It changes your attitude, even how you sit. Dressing for myself and not for others is what got me motivated again. Life has changed so much for many of us, but the ability of fashion to transform you and transport you somewhere else? That feeling can’t be taken away."