Jihae An: I want to make men feel like little princesses, because everyone deserves to be a princess
Interview + Photography by Luke Alland, using Leica's Q2 Reporter.
"I have military blood and my mind is like a Marine's. I'm constantly looking at everything as survival because, if I was doing anything else, I'm going to be the best there is. You have to approach it with that sharp mind and zest; to do things to the best of your capabilities."
Jihae An is a tailor by trade as well as craft, and in her own words, "feeling my way through each stitch and life. A focused, first generation immigrant."
We sat down with her at the Regency Cafe in Pimlico, over a full English breakfast, to talk about her progression from working as a cleaner whilst studying at University, what it's like moving to the UK as a kid, the influences on her life, where her glorious Yorkshire accent comes from and how her insatiable love for order crosses over perfectly with tailoring.
Luke Alland: When people envision a stereotypical tailor, it's generally an older, grey-haired gentleman that's been whittling for decades and is now very much set in their ways, both professionally and otherwise. You're not exactly a stereotypical tailor...
Jihae An: "I don't think even think I think of me! The old men, hunched over, asking me why I've come into this [profession], when I'd end up being a hunched over old lady, but yeah, a craftsperson that embodies the craft! I wouldn't say I am an exciting person; I love my routine, I love to know what I am doing and I love to know I am constantly improving. That's the major appeal. I like to know there is a formula for success: get up early, work really fucking hard and evaluate every piece to make sure it gets better every time."
LA: Was tailoring always the goal?
JA: "I actually really wanted to be a wedding dress designer. When I was younger my mum used to draw the outline of them and I'd fill in the details and I loved it. When I got to Uni, I just didn't feel my personality and style was fully formed enough to be able keep up with the fashion industry or that side of it.
"The thing I reflect about a lot is whether I became a Savile Row tailor because I wanted to be accepted as a British person. This is the route I chose, you know, from wedding dresses to this, because this is even more English."
LA: ...and more London?
JA: "...and more London. Yeah. Did I choose the most London-y, British-y, thing that I could possibly think of? I don't know. It's such a subconscious thing. What did I want my identity to become? That I chose this?"
LA: Do you look back on it as if it was a fast pass into being British?
JA: "Yeah, I think it must have, and to be honest I only felt really comfortable with my name recently after seeing everything during COVID with racism towards Asians. I remember distinctly, there was an American politician who had just had enough of people calling her something different, and called people out on it saying, "Do not shorten my name" and I mean, I shortened my name and now I just really like Ji, I wouldn't change it."
LA: So, how did you wind up growing up in Hull?
JA: "Yeah, I mean, I was born in South Korea and I came over to Hull (England), when I was 9, after we'd spent a bit of time in Virginia (America). You can imagine my surprise when it wasn't London. That was the only city I'd heard of. My mum was joking with me a bit at the start saying, 'you're gonna come and meet friends. There are Princes in England!' and I was like, Yep, cool that works for me. I thought I was in London for, genuinely, a week. I just landed in a really alien place, I drank orange squash straight, because I'd never had squash before. That was honestly gross, I then tried salt and vinegar crisps, which was a huge culture shock. It got to the point where I was thinking, What is up with the foul, foul food that people eat here?"
LA: So, it was you with your two sisters and your mum in Hull?
JA: "Yeah, my mum has actually been a huge inspiration of mine. I don’t feel qualified to complain about my life because when she first arrived, she had to enrol at Hull University to renew our visa and study a degree in her second language that she'd only just learned. All the while having a full-time job, three kids, and not enough money to pay the mortgage, but she made it work."
LA: And would you say your dad is a big influence as well?
"My paternal side is a Korean Marine, and for Marines there's no impossible. That's how we lived our life. I think they have this phrase, 'Korean Marines even catch demons', so that was always the mindset.
"I think I get some good and bad, I have military blood and my mind is like a Marine's. I'm constantly looking at everything as survival because, if I was doing anything else, I'm going to be the best there is. You have to approach it with that sharp mind and zest; to do things to the best of your capabilities"
LA: What's your favourite piece you've ever made?
JA: "My friend's wedding suit. When I was in a really difficult place in London, him and his fiancée let me live out of their house for barely anything. It really settled me because they really looked after me like a mum and dad — even though they were younger than me! When I was making it for him he said, 'I'm having the princess moment'. I just lost my shit. It was so special and being the feminist I am, I want to make men feel like little princesses because everybody deserves to be a princess.
"Honestly, I think that's how men feel when they go in the fitting room. You know? Cutters trying to do those power moves on you. They're holding you by the waist and you're like, 'Oh, I'm being held!' and it's those moments, it genuinely makes you feel like you're being very cared for."
LA: You evidently seem to love what you're doing. Where do you think you could go next?
JA: "I feel I'm in a good place with coat making, I'd like to learn cutting and have connections with customers / real people who believe I am the one to be able to understand them, and I can deliver them a product that we're both really proud of. When you have a relationship with the person who's making your clothes, and cutting your clothes, you get that feeling that they fully understand your lifestyle and why you're choosing what you're choosing."
LA: Is that where you see the future going, then?
JA: "I got plan A, B, C, with different contingencies. Disaster planning is my forte. Yeah. And then my partner lives very much in the present, and we balance each other out really nicely. Because, like, he's taught me really to live in the moment. I've just got to a really stable moment. Tailoring has always done a lot to calm my mind, it gives me so much time to reflect during the day because I don't have to think too much about the making of coats. My hands basically just do it automatically. But I suppose I sometimes feel the need to talk to everyone and even though I'm super social, the solitude is so good for me just to reflect on everything."
LA: Ji, it's been a pleasure to catch up, it's my last question. Who is someone that you would absolutely love to make something for?
JA: "My friends really..."
LA: Out of everyone in the world...?
JA: "Yeah! Because they're the real people. I love making clothes for cutters that I'm friends with because I love seeing them wear it. I want to see if eventually they have little rips in it because they've loved it so much and they've worn it constantly. It's the whole romanticism of seeing something ageing.
"Although, I would also say, Colin Firth (my first British Crush) and super lefty female politicians. Deborah Frances White who hosts the Guilty Feminist podcast and taught me so much about being an unapologetic feminist, and Zara Sultana who is a super lefty MP, and I’m into that."