Joyce Ko: 9-5


editor: Mari Al-Midhadi

date: Jun 04, 2019


Joyce Ko is an American fashion designer and recent Parsons Fashion BFA graduate. From Los Angeles, California, she is a second generation immigrant from South Korea currently residing in NYC. Joyce’s thesis collection “9-5” is a parody on professional dress codes and the regimented office life. The collection was born from the anxiety of graduating and entering the workforce, as well as her memories of seeing her parents adhere to the 9-5 lifestyle. Her work pokes fun at the “seriousness” of the professional workplace, with garments that capture embarrassing fashion mishaps in the office routine - your heels getting stuck in a grate, or your dress getting caught in the subway doors. In honor of the Fourth of July – this country’s 243rd birthday, we chatted with Joyce about her family, lunchbox shame, her design processes and the American dream.

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Did you know that you would choose fashion before coming to New York City?


I did apply for fashion. My parents were initially against it. They told me, “if you go to art school, there’s just gonna be crazy people, and it’ll be difficult to find a stable job.” In the end, they kind of gave in and told me “it’s your life, it’s something you want to do, so go to Parsons, let’s see what happens”, and that’s how it came about. But when I came here in freshman year I was interested in different kinds of design. I was looking into architecture and product design, but I decided to stay in fashion, I think because I began to really hate it. 


Why is that?


Actually, my first year professor Ori showed us a documentary which everyone ends up watching called “The True Cost”. Throughout the whole film I was holding in tears to save myself of the embarassement, and said to myself, “damn I fucking hate fashion. I cannot believe I’m in this shit”. And I thought, okay this is a reason to stay in it, because there’s so much that can be done. The documentary basically unveils the reality of fast fashion. It’s crazy to say that the majority of people don't have an understanding of this. And it’s also sad to say that it’s a privilege to know what actually goes on behind the scenes of how your clothes are made. I even asked my mom before I told her about everything, and she didn’t have a clue about how the factories were being managed. It shouldn’t be me just shutting it off because I was disgusted by it but rather it be the motivation of being a part of something that can be greater or that can start a conversation. I guess that’s what really kept me in fashion. 


What’s your perspective on sustainability?


I was hung up on the idea of “sustainability” for the first three years at Parsons. I had a difficult time approaching it, because I kept falling into the very stereotypical look and ideas surrounding this word. My personal understanding and practice of sustainability, now, is quite simple-- it is to design with purpose… essentially, to stop making crap just for the sake of it. So even if it’s not made out of recycled plastic or biodegradable materials, there is an idea of sustainability behind your design process, behind your ethics as a designer. Having a meaning behind the actual product itself, whether it be a narrative, or initiating a conversation with your customer or your viewers. It doesn’t really necessarily have to pertain to a “sustainable” look. 


Could you tell us more about your family background.


My parents came from South Korea, my mom came here when she was in high school, a bit earlier than my dad. My dad came here a bit after and got married to my mom in the U.S. So, they’re both immigrants.  Basically, my grandparents dropped everything they had just to bring their children here for a better education in America. To them, there was never a thing called ‘your dream’, because it was more about survival. For their generation it was more about how do you put a roof over your kids’ heads, how do you feed them, how do you provide the best education for them? It was never about what they wanted to do. That was also a part of the beginning of my thesis, thinking about how there is such a separation between how our generation has the privilege to go about our own passions and pursuits. Thinking about how my parents’ lives were shaped through me and the circumstances they were put in. 


What was the initial inspiration for your thesis collection?


I was thinking: What the hell is gonna happen once I graduate? Am I gonna be forever doomed to this office life, which my parents lived out? Basically, since I was born, they lived the office routine, they came home late and left really early for work. My mom is an underwriter for an insurance company and my dad is an electrical engineer. They went to work before I even woke up. I guess it really did some damage in my childhood years. Reflecting on that, I was thinking: Am I going to be doing that? Working in a cubicle and drawing tech packs and CADS for the rest of my life?!

So you started with the concept of the doomed office life.


Yeah exactly, the doom of falling into that humdrum scheduled life and forever being this one position or being known as a salary. From there, it became this project of building a narrative, and the narrative itself informing the garments. In a sense, each garment acted as a short vignette. For example, a jacket from my collection tells of an instance in which you’re running into the train and your blazer is twisted around your body and gets caught in the train door. The garments then circle back to the American idea of what ‘success’ looks like, and conforming to this very strict and professional work life image.


Do you think 'The American Dream' has a lot to do with fitting a singular idea of work life?


No, not necessarily. A lot of it has to do with this constant hunger for more, and trying to constantly thrive, which is of course good, but it conjures the question of to what point is it “good”, is it to a point where you jeopardize your personal life or your relationship with family and friends, putting that on hold just so you could gain financial success and power? I feel like to too many people, that may translate as the “American Dream”. 


Walk us through the development of your thesis collection.

*Joyce reads an excerpt from her journal* 

This is a story of a mundane 9-5 work life.

Quickly dissolving dilapidating into madness. 

These are my fears of descending into the greedy, gluttonous & desperate pursuit for wealth and success.

I imagine life quickly turning into a single, grave beat. This rhythm reverberates within my hollow skull; hypnotizing me into a trance of illusions, and eternal tragedy. 

I am reduced to a position, a title, a salary


From there, it was the idea of the schedule always being the bedrock for someone who is successful and having this strict work life all set up for you. I began by transcribing my own “schedule” for what might be a parody of my 9-5 work life. Then, I composed this symphony of sounds to accompany the schedule. From there it became this interpretive motion piece. These line works informed different aspects of the design later on, but they were also very crucial in building the narrative, thinking about every malfunction, or every moment of extreme embarrassment which can fuck up your perfect work life. It could happen in the middle of a meeting or on your way to work. 

Looking into the archetypes of professional dressing, why do we think this is deemed appropriate for the office and why is it not. Those were the early developmental stages of the design. Thinking of these very specific moments like I must sculpt my body every morning, or having a wedgie feeling like my pants are crawling up my asshole, but I must resist. 


Then the collaging goes back to the very same line work but also synthesizing the narrative with it. I also looked into different parts of the body: what does your face look like if you are always smiling or trying to please your coworkers?

So basically this whole collection is based on eternal tragedy or your work life turning into doom. It was a total of six looks and the accessories follow a very similar process of utter embarrassment and very specific moments of unveiling.


Tell us about this office chair look. 


The idea of this one is being eternally doomed to your office chair. So there’s like a whole structure on the bottom made out of an actual office chair.

Why was embarrassment something you were drawn to?


With professionalism, there is a lot of ego, so that split second of embarrassment which you face breaks that. Having something that you don’t have control over happen in the middle of an extremely serious meeting or on your way to your high rolling job. That really fucks up your ego, and bringing those two things together to have a play on this satirical 9-5 parody. 

In your thesis work, you also linked back to your parents and your upbringing. Is that a strong part of your message as a designer? 


I went to high school with a majority of Americans so we didn’t have a lot of international students. Coming here it was different because everyone’s from a different culture and you get to experience and listen to where they’re from. It also makes me reflect, I’m Asian American and when I’m sitting next to other Koreans, I feel like the odd one out. I’ve never had a specifically strong desire to really portray that through my designs or as a designer, as it is just simply a part of me. My design comes more distinctly from my personal experiences rather than me trying to ostensibly show or display my culture. 


You talked a little about how your parents would leave before you went to school. Weird question, but did you cook breakfast for yourself? 

My dad is really big into cooking, so he would cook breakfast for me and leave it on the table. So before I went to school, I would eat that. Food in a way is his way of communicating his love, although I never really saw them a lot. Still, these are things they would do for me. 



Food is a way of showing love in many cultures. Did you ever face any awkward moments growing up eating culturally different food?


That whole lunch box thing is so real. It’s kind of crazy because a lot of people joke about it, but it really happens. My parents would pack me Korean food, even just fried rice for school. But let’s be honest… kids can be cruel, and when you bring that to school and open it they would be like, “omg, is that made out of dogs?” As a kid, you don’t know how to defend yourself or your own culture, you’re kind of helpless. You’re so easily swayed by other kids around you, because that’s what really matters to you. It’s a shock but it also makes you want to suppress your own culture, which is really sad. I think it’s good that today there’s more of a conversation with kids about diversity and culture, but definitely as a kid that was something that I went through. There came a point when they stopped packing me lunch, because I only wanted to get cafeteria food to save myself of the embarrassment. I wish I knew back then what I know now. 

How do you celebrate the 4th of July?


When I was with my family, it’s kinda funny because we do the very American barbecue thing. Literally we have a pool, barbecue, and you can’t get more American than that. I think that’s the most American holiday that we celebrate besides thanksgiving. It’s a really weird moment, because you’ll see white neighbors barbecuing, and then we have our asian family barbecuing.


What does "The American Dream" mean to you?


I never really distinguished it as “The American Dream”. There isn’t a specific title or position which I’m trying to pursue, but I think it’s a state of mind and the state of being comfortable with myself as a designer and having the luxury of expressing myself without having to answer to someone else. Being an independent mind. Rather than my American dream being to make over six figures or being rich and famous, I think it's contentment with myself. 


That’s something we’ve noticed a lot of second generation immigrants feel, as opposed to the first generation who had concrete goals like being a homeowner, having a car, etc.

I think a lot of that does come from privilege. We were already born into being comfortable, so we don’t have that desire to obtain something so grand. I think being able to focus on your own passions has a lot to do with coming from a place of privilege.


Future plans?


Who knows, maybe I will be working a 9-5! Ironic, but I think that’s part of the whole process, and that process might look like me getting that job, absolutely hating it, and quitting it. However, I would be totally happy with having that as a part of my life and as a part of this crazy journey.