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Imaginary National Costume

A photo project by Jenia Kim and Masha Demianova

Designer Jenia Kim was born in Tashkent, but she has lived in Moscow for almost twenty years. Two years ago, she returned to her hometown to start working on a new collection dedicated to the ethnic and cultural identity of the local Korean diaspora, which emerged due to the deportation of the Soviet Koreans to Uzbekistan in 1937.

EastEast presents a collaboration between photographer Masha Demianova and Jenia Kim, in which the designer’s memories of Uzbekistan and Korean traditions are inscribed into a dreamy visual landscape. It is complemented by a conversation between Jenia and EastEast editor-in-chief Furqat Palvan-Zade, also a native of Tashkent, about the changes that have taken place in the city, the reasons for her return, and the process of creative searches and material production.

Furqat Palvan-Zade:Do you miss Tashkent?

Jenia Kim:I really miss its warm weather and mountains, that’s true. Although I have pretty much stayed in Uzbekistan for the last two years. Longer than in Moscow.

FPZ:You left the country many years ago. What is your first memory of the city? Tell us about a few things you associate with your childhood.

JK:We moved to Moscow in 2001. I really didn't want to go away—I could even say that my parents took me by force, but, of course, for the sake of my own future. During the first five years, I lived constantly looking forward to my summer vacations—the time when I could travel back. And every autumn when I had to return to school I cried. But as I was growing up, I felt less and less drawn to Tashkent.

I often thought about the benches in my yard, the glass-wool-wrapped pipes along the river near the garages. The field I used to hang around in a lot when I was growing up—first playing there in the dust, making balls out of it with my saliva, and later—waving goodbyes to boys I dated. I remembered the terrible road we took roller-skating on rattling wheels, and the relief we felt when riding on the presidential highway. I remembered little bazaars where one felt like all the sellers were your family, the well my grandmother used to sit on every day, selling gum and single cigarettes and big pigodis (stuffed pies, a Korean dish popular in the Russian Far East and Central Asia—Ed.) that we ate during our school breaks. I also remembered taxi drivers in white Nexia, Damas, and Matiz cars, narrow streets with low houses, melon and watermelon on the tapchan (a type of outdoor furniture popular in Central Asia, it combines a large bed capable of holding up to eight adults with a table for meals—Ed.).

The most vivid memory of my childhood is Broadway (a pedestrian street in the center of Tashkent—Ed.). On almost every day my mother had off, we used to go to the Alisher Navoi Theater and then take a walk along it. For me, those outings always felt like little holidays. The street was full of artists and street cafes with oilcloth curtains at the entrance, at cafes my mother got roses as presents, and on our way home we bought trinkets.

FPZ:How did it feel to return to Tashkent after such a long break?

JK:Actually, I used to come to Tashkent rather often, and I still have many close relatives living there. When my grandmother was alive, we used to visit her with the whole family—our tradition was to meet every two or three years. But when I returned not on vacations, but to spend some time actually living in Tashkent, I was surprised to see how much it had changed: new buildings appeared, as well as new city lights—at places where I had never seen them before, new supermarkets and coffee shops…

I was also very much surprised to meet local creatives. I returned there a completely different person, you know, eager to discover some like-minded people. And the chances of finding those treasures around the city turned out to be rare. There were not as many creative people as in Moscow. I was very excited to get to know everyone who had something to do with any kind of creativity—because one needs to have a strong spirit and a love for art in order to develop something there. First, I was very impressed because I had little hope that I would meet someone, but six months later I realized how sad the situation actually was and how much the city was suffering from cultural stagnation.

FPZ:And in general, what do you think about the city now?

JK: In some ways Tashkent has become more comfortable—for example, now one can find European cuisine and coffee shops around. But at the same time, it has become fake and faceless. In the past, everything was real and now we have Alucobond everywhere (metal panels used for covering the walls of buildings.—Ed.), which annoys me a lot. I know that soon I will not feel anything while walking around Tashkent’s streets because nothing is going to be left. Thus, I try to come here more often before it becomes an “Alucobond city.”

Once I failed to hold my tears when passing by another plastic building. I really hope that someone will be able to stop this, and people in power will see the beauty of what belongs to them. This is largely why I have chosen dowry as the topic of my collection: I wanted to show that a modern collection can be made of Uzbek materials and techniques. I truly believe it is beautiful.

FPZ:Tell us about your labor collective. How is your production organized in Tashkent? Where did you find seamstresses?

JK:I returned to Tashkent in 2018 having decided to take a break from design. I was even considering the possibility of closing my brand. It was not an easy period for me: I lost my dream and had no idea of what my life was about. I could not do anything but meditate or drink. In Tashkent, I came across seamstresses and started sewing again, together with them. No big plans, just for myself. And it helped me to find my calling.

First, I found an embroiderer who gave me the contact of a woman who dyed fabrics. Then I traveled across Uzbekistan—to Samarkand, Nurata, and Angren—searching for good tailors. I used Nexia cars to move around—well, not so comfortable, but very memorable, I should say. Then I started sewing my collection at a production facility that a friend of mine had suggested, but we failed to find a common language. I started looking for tailors again—this time through OLX (an international online service that provides spaces for ads.—Ed.), called numbers I found in ads. Setting up the process took me about six months. There are still a lot of difficulties, but I see the progress. Now everything works like this—in the workshop or with homeworkers I make technical drawings and embroidery patterns that are sent to Angren and Nurata, pieces are then sewn in Tashkent or Moscow. Well, I should say I still do not know where I want to be based, so there is no permanent production yet.

FPZ: So, you're their boss, aren’t you?

JK:No, I'm not their boss, this is an open relationship. I’d rather describe us as partners because they are still on their own. They sew a lot of my pieces, but remain independent, because I can leave at any time. In Moscow, I had tailors and designers who worked for me, and I was responsible for them. I'm not sure if I'm ready for this in Tashkent, as I lack stability. Now I want to study in Antwerp, so I cannot take responsibility for people.

FPZ:Tell us about this photo shoot. Together with Masha you were planning to come to Tashkent for a shoot, but the city went into lockdown, right?

JK:I really wanted Masha to take pictures of Korean-Uzbeks. While doing research, I met people who were connected with Korean culture. My latest collection is about the search for identity, about the self-identification of a person with my background. This is a long way towards the formation of a Korean-Uzbek woman's own language, because I would be the very person to create it, but it just does not exist. I don’t think other Koreans from this area understand me, no one seems to be concerned about the fact that we must express ourselves in our own way, but for me it is really important. I look at it with an artist’s eye, imagining how people could come up with their own costume. This collection is not a final result, but a search: in it you find Korean hairstyles borrowed, for example, from films, or forms inspired by Korean architecture. All this does not belong to us, but I’m trying to mix it with my childhood memories, Soviet materials, and my silhouettes in order to get something I could identify myself with.

Through these photos, you can feel the life of Koreans at different times and trace the path that brought them to Uzbekistan, where their life became a series of feasts at which numerous stories from the past and present are discussed.


Creative direction: Jenia Kim
Photography: Masha Demianova
Style: Stacey Batashova
Hair and makeup: Julia Rada
Model: Yumi @ UTRU Talent base
Production: Svetlana Bevz
Production assistant: Elizaveta Dmitrievna
Photography assistant: Paul Lehrer

Special thanks to Ivan Markovich

All clothing J.KIM

Translated from Russian by Olga Bubich

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Masha Demianova
Photographer based in Moscow. Before turning to photography, she studied journalism and worked as a photo shoot producer. She has taken photographs for Dazed, i-D, Vogue, Metal, Purple among others.
Jenia Kim
Fashion designer, who lives in between Moscow and Tashkent. Founder of the J.Kim brand.
Furqat Palvan-Zade
Editor-in-chief of EastEast, independent curator, researcher, and filmmaker. Since 2014, he has worked on the syg.ma project – a community-driven publication and an expanding online archive of texts on society and art. In 2023, he started a Ph.D. program at Yale’s Slavic and Eurasian Languages and Cultures department.