Balko: Meet The Stylist Behind BLACKPINK’s “How You Like That”
The multifaceted artist’s repertoire includes styling, customizations, art and visual directions for names like BTS, Stray Kids, ITZY, NCT 127 and more
This cover story appears in Rolling Stone India’s K-Music Special Issue, on sale now. Buy your copy with P1Harmony’s cover included inside the edition here.
Kim Tae Young, better known by the mononym Balko, has had a sensationally successful professional run, working in the K-pop industry for over the last decade. One look at her artist resume (which FYI spans across multiple pages) had me in awe of her diverse talents.
Her roster, too, is quite impressive. Name an artist and she’s probably worked with them in some way, shape or form – be it BTS, BlackPink, Ateez, NCT, TXT, Exo, Seventeen, Big Bang, Itzy, Twice, Shinee, MCND, Xdinary Heroes, Day 6, Brown Eyed Girls, Epik High, Pentagon, Rania, Hot Issue, 4Minute, Oh My Girl and many more. So, it goes without saying that Balko’s skills as a stylist, art and visual director, graphic designer and outfit customizer are immensely sought after, both inside and outside of the K-pop industry. Overseas, she’s worked with names like Bella Hadid as Dior’s backstage art director. Kicking off her styling career with girl group Rania back in 2011, she’s most recently been involved as the chief stylist behind JYP Entertainment’s newest boy group, Xdinary Heroes.
In this exclusive interview with our journalist Oysmita Majumder for Rolling Stone India‘s 2022 K-Music Special issue, Balko goes in depth about how she was scouted to be a K-pop stylist, working with BlackPink, her artistic inspirations, and more.
When and how did you first become interested in the world of fashion?
I first came to realize that I liked expressing my own personality while reading manhwas [comics] and working on other miscellaneous personal projects.
As an artist, I’ve always had my own unique sense of style, so I had this tendency to think of the fashion world as something utterly pretentious. However, I eventually came to find beauty in fashion while directing a fashion show by a designer of the Seoul Collection, over a period of four years. I discerned that fashion, too, can be made artistic, just like a piece of art; that fashion is an art indeed.
Ever since then, fashion has become one of my primary work activities.
“Someone who does creative work but can’t be original is, in my opinion, the laziest person on the planet.”
Can you tell us a little bit about how you landed the role of a stylist within the K-pop space?
The job of a stylist was not all that attractive to me [at first], and I was initially working as an art and visual director in the music space. In the meantime, I was contacted to be a stylist for singer-songwriter J.Y. Park, and I thought that since it’s JYP, I could create art that would allow me to explore my creative caliber and push me to create something super fun, while also broadening my scope!
Hence, I took on that role and this is how I started out as a stylist in the K-pop industry.
After years of working with some of the [undeniably] biggest K-pop acts including BTS, BlackPink, Bigbang, Exo, Itzy, Seventeen, Twice and more, the knowledge, skills and expertise that you’ve gained from your time in the industry thus far, has been massive. How would you summarize your industry journey to-date?
First of all, since I’m working in various different departments within the K-pop industry, many people tend to confuse my background.
I first started my career in the K-pop industry by creating custom designs and building special props such as armors, in consultation with the stylist who designed the costumes of numerous artists under the [entertainment firm] YG umbrella, like Bigbang, G-dragon, Lee Hi and Epik High.
Meanwhile, music video directors and entertainment companies commissioned visual directors such as myself to direct videos for acts like NCT and TXT.
I’ve also produced special props and custom costumes for artists such as BTS, and while working as the visual director for such music videos, I once established an entertainment company with help from some acquaintances of mine, because I wanted to build my own artist[s]. Thereafter, I also debuted a rapper-singer named Grace, who appeared on “Unpretty Rapstar.”
Then, as I said before, I became a stylist for J.Y. Park, and later for artists such as DAY6. By the time I started feeling skeptical about my job as a stylist, I became a stylist for BlackPink and got the chance to work on one of the biggest projects of my career so far, “How You Like That” from The Album.
Hence, I chose to stay on this path, and now I am currently working as a stylist for artists such as JYP and Xdinary Heroes.
“I think that the world already has various different kinds of beauty, parts that come together in perfect harmony to create life. I just like to dismantle them, look at those parts and arrange them in new places.”
From BTS’ Jungkook’s golden epaulets in the Love Yourself: Answer concept photos to G-Dragon’s graphic Alive Tour jacket; Jessi’s ornately embellished crown in “What Type Of X;” Taeyang‘s futuristic silver armor in “Fantastic Baby;” the balaclava-inspired pieces for ITZY’s “Wannabe” music video; and Ateez’s silver horned masks for the “Answer” music video, just to name a few, you’ve time and again proven your creative genius and unique artistic sense. Tell us more about the ideation process that goes into designing such outstanding, one-of-its-kind pieces. Where do you usually tend to look for the inspiration behind your creations?
For my creations, I try to look at the various facets of my daily life from a different perspective, rather than actively searching for any “inspiration.” I think that the world already has various different kinds of beauty, parts that come together in perfect harmony to create life. I just like to dismantle them, look at those parts and arrange them in new places. It could be parts of life, or even parts of a machine. Or, it could be parts of our culture.
For example, in case of the hanboks seen in BlackPink’s “How You Like That,” I customized most of the materials we had procured, [turning them] into everyday clothes because I wanted to make a hanbok that doesn’t exactly resemble the traditional Korean hanbok. I also researched a few game characters, to customize and build each member’s distinct character, as expressed through their clothing.
You’re the stylist behind some of the most influential K-pop idols [in fashion, or otherwise] of all-time, and are well aware of the pieces you style them in, having the ability to influence fashion trends worldwide. Hence, can you tell us how it actually feels to possess influence of that scale?
To be completely honest, I don’t really think about the scale of influence I may possess. I just think on the lines of making art that I think I’d personally enjoy, or rather art that people could enjoy. In order to do that, first of all, the artists who wear my costumes must enjoy my work, so I always tend to streamline my thoughts to focus on the finer details, and work hard towards developing that angle.
Because of this, I always have this gigantic sense of responsibility towards my work, and thanks to that responsibility, I’m always quite happy and satisfied with the work that I put out.
“I think K-pop styling, unlike other types of fashion, needs something that can express the artists’ natural charms rather than following some pre-established fashion trends.”
You’ve been involved in styling both veteran and rookie groups alike, from Bigbang and 4Minute to Hot Issue and Xdinary Heroes. Are there any noticeable differences when it comes to dressing older idols V/S the newer ones?
In the past, there was a tendency to pursue styling with the focus being more on the own unique style and individuality of the artists. But these days, there seems to be a directional flow of following certain trends. So, it’s a bummer that the styles are now a lot similar.
I think K-pop styling, unlike other types of fashion, needs something that can express the artists’ natural charms rather than following some pre-established fashion trends.
Would you be able to single out any one project that was a personal favorite, or something that you enjoyed working on the most? A project you would consider as your greatest achievement?
The projects that I always like to talk about are the ones I work on JYP with. With J.Y. Park, I can think more creatively and experiment with a wider base of ideas, as compared to other artists, so I’m always excited at the prospect of getting to work with him.
Apart from this, although quite challenging, the work that I was really satisfied with after seeing the end results was for BlackPink’s “How You Like That.” I think that was because it not only highlighted my signature style, but also won a prestigious award.
What about the piece of work that most closely represents you as a stylist?
Yet again, I’d have to go with BlackPink’s “How You Like That.”
What’s the biggest challenge that you face in your line of work?
The biggest difficulty that I face as a stylist is when there is no proper scope of communication with the company.
Also, there are cases where I am commissioned to do some work that does not take into account the artists’ unique charms. I do not like to associate myself with such work.
And conversely, what’s the most rewarding aspect of it?
At the end of the day, whatever I create through my artistic canvas makes the artist feel satisfied. This is especially rewarding to me because, after all, it is always the artist who is the most directly impacted by the results of my creations.
“Jennie is extremely professional-minded, and Jisoo seems to be the most expressive with her emotions. Rosé and Lisa are usually quite girly, but they are also the members who change the most on stage.”
Believe it or not, I’ve actually waited for almost two whole years for an opportunity to discuss this next subject with you! So let’s talk about my favorite creation of yours, Blackpink’s customized, contemporary-style, cropped hanboks for the “How You Like That” music video. The moment those outfits were unveiled, the entirety of the K-pop fan community lost their minds, irrespective of whether they were fans of the group or not. The hanboks not only sparked nationwide debates around their controversial nature, but also became apparel worthy of international recognition. Besides, they also ended up popularizing the hanbok trend both inside and outside of Asia, even setting off a series of successive renditions within the industry itself. I, too, was absolutely enamored with the designs at first glance. Can you tell us more about the off-camera process behind the ideation, sourcing and customization of these outfits?
The idea of utilizing hanboks first came from BlackPink member, Jennie.
While preparing the costumes, I didn’t go for the traditional variety of hanbok. I kept the core spirit of the hanbok intact, and fused it with elements of traditional Korean styling to create the final hanbok-inspired ensembles that you saw in the music video.
From what I’ve read, every member’s hanbok also had a unique concept behind it. For example, Rosé’s was inspired by military officials, and Jennie’s paid homage to Joseon-era scholars. Can you elaborate on this idea, with regards to Jisoo and Lisa’s pieces as well?
Originally, Jisoo tried the traditional clothes of cheolik [hanbok inspired by Mongol clothing], like Rosé, but thereafter modified her costume to exude a more Gothic mood. This is because I felt that her outfit would look cooler and more fitting for her if it was a mix of the more traditional Korean, and Gothic styles.
On the other hand, Lisa was not a Korean member, hence I wanted her look to embrace her roots and pay homage to her rich cultural heritage. I styled her by blending traditional Thai elements with a classic Korean vibe, and in doing so I matched [her look] with a pair of funk walker boots in the music video.
You’ve just mentioned that Jennie had a significant influence over the incorporation of these hanboks. With regards to this, can you detail for us the process of working with the Blackpink members? Are they always this closely involved in the group’s stylistic decisions?
Working with BlackPink always involves a lot of active exchange of opinions and detailed inputs from the members themselves!
Since the four members happen to be the ambassadors for various high-fashion labels, they tend to take a lot of interest in their costumes both on and off camera, which is why they are always thinking about and planning their outfits well in advance.
“The reactions of the audience, I believe, create the truest, most accurate sense of legitimacy or credibility that any creative artist can have.”
As we know, all four members of BlackPink are trendsetters in their own ways and possess an exemplary fashion sense. However, which member would you say is the most involved in their fashion and/or the most passionate about it?
All the members are extremely interested in fashion, but especially Jennie and Rosé seem to be the most into it.
If I have to point out a clear difference between the two, Jennie seems to be more interested in fashion as a trendsetter, and Rosé seems to be more interested as an artist on stage.
Lastly, can you tell Blinks [the Blackpink fandom] a little bit about the members’ off-screen personalities?
All four members are more laid-back, outgoing and cheerful than you’d think! Jennie is extremely professional-minded, and Jisoo seems to be the most expressive with her emotions. Rosé and Lisa are usually quite girly, but they are also the members who change the most on stage – definitely the most transformative of the bunch.
The problem of plagiarism is a pressing one that plagues not just the K-pop industry, but all avenues of art creation. You faced a similar issue last year with a hanbok design that was “heavily borrowed” from the one you created for Jisoo in “How you like that,” and it was donned by one of the members from another well-established girl group. How important is originality to you, when it comes to creating art?
Honestly, I’m not good at finding ideas in others’ content. Hence I don’t even look at anyone else’s work, but my own. Of course, it’s great to hear that you were influenced by my work but ‘homage’ and ‘plagiarism’ are two very, very different things. So, if you take more responsibility for creating your own art, such situations won’t arise at all.
“‘Homage’ and ‘plagiarism’ are two very, very different things.”
And being in the public eye, do you consider it to be a limiting factor to your art? It may just so happen that something that’s been fashioned from scratch by you, harnessing the power of your own creative caliber, has already been done before somewhere else in the world. In which case, even if that creation remotely resembles your own, people may start to question the integrity of your work. Your take on this?
I don’t think that it’s a limiting factor, rather it is a factor that can expand my idea base a little further. If you can’t be original, then there’s no reason to do any creative work, or just anything else that requires creativity in general.
If an idol showcases unoriginal or controversial outfits for a music video or performance, the stylist team behind them faces the brunt in most cases. Conversely, when the styling is done immaculately, stylists may often not receive their due credit, and their efforts tend to get sidelined. Do you agree or disagree?
Someone who does creative work but can’t be original is, in my opinion, the laziest person on the planet.
I think that this can happen when you get too used to your surroundings, i.e. the situation that you’re in, and hence pay less attention to your work. And if these controversial things happen repeatedly, fans will of course start to take notice of the inconsistencies and insincerity in your work.
The reactions of the audience, I believe, create the truest, most accurate sense of legitimacy or credibility that any creative artist can have.
“For my creations, I try to look at the various facets of my daily life from a different perspective, rather than actively searching for any ‘inspiration.'”
Do hate comments still bother you, or are you the type to accept both love and hate as a part and parcel of your job?
Of course, I feel hurt whenever I receive malicious comments, but on the flipside, also come to think of it this way: fans only react like that because they saw my work, and actually spent time thinking about it. That’s another way to look at it.
I believe that the fans will surely come to like and appreciate my art better, if I work harder and more diligently.
Besides receiving so much love from the fans for your innovative work in globalizing traditional Korean fashion, you’ve also been awarded K-pop’s ‘Stylist Of The Year’ for 2020, alongside co-stylist Park Minhee. If you could just pause and take a moment to reflect on everything you’ve accomplished so far, would you say that you’re proud of who you’ve become, or of how far you’ve managed to come today?
I always want to be happy and content in life. I look forward to living a jovial life and staying humble, rather than being proud about my accomplishments or who I’ve managed to become today.
We’d like to hear your thoughts on the significance of fashion in K-pop. How do you think the elements of styling and visual direction in K-pop are unique compared to overseas fashion trends? Also, how has K-pop fashion helped South Korea stand out in the global pop space?
More often than not, pop singers tend to focus primarily on certain special concepts in their albums, concepts that cannot easily be imitated by fans in terms of the fashion.
On the other hand, K-pop more often seems to incorporate styles and costumes that fans can seamlessly follow. So, K-pop is a space where fans can easily access the styles that their idols are seen donning, which in turn makes it unique and stand out.
“I believe that fashion with a story – wherein fashion itself becomes a character – is ideal.”
I’d now like to ask you some more questions on the personal front. Firstly, what was your childhood like? Give us some backstory into your past.
My childhood was full of manhwas and imaginations. I liked to enjoy my alone time and every day, I used to recreate my favorite stories.
I was told that I was a playful, fun-loving kid.
What’s your MBTI [Myers Briggs Type Indicator, a personality test]?
I’m an ENTP [debater]. Hence, I am more realistic than I’d originally thought.
Can you tell us what your own, personal fashion aesthetic is like?
I think the most important aspect of fashion is comfort; fashion needs to be comfortable when worn. Even a simple, casual look is pretty fashionable for me, in that way.
I believe that fashion with a story – wherein fashion itself becomes a character – is ideal.
Apart from fashion, what are some of your other interests? How do you like to spend your free time?
Well, fashion actually amuses me the least [as a hobby] as compared to all of my numerous other areas of interest.
Rather, I am much more into animation, movies, paintings, literature and games, and I apply the ideas that I obtain from them to fashion. Hence, I always spend my free time watching movies, reading books, or driving somewhere I haven’t been to, to try and keep myself continually inspired. These are some of my interests.
Can you predict one fashion trend that you think will be big within the industry this year, or maybe something you’d like to see more of?
Since it’s no fun to predict trends, what I personally want to explore and experiment with this year is a lot of cyber hip-hop styling.
“What I personally want to explore and experiment with this year is a lot of cyber hip-hop styling.”
Who’s your personal style icon?
My style icon is Japanese singer Sheena Ringo. This is because each of her albums always exhibit a new and fresh look, with unique, perfectly woven concepts.
Do you have any favorite artists, designers or labels that you admire, on an international front?
I don’t really have any favorite designers or brands. However, I really like and admire the artworks of Henri Rousseau, Frida Kahlo, and Mattise.
Where would you like to see yourself in another five to 10 years?
In another 10 years, I should step down from fashion, and return to the realm of art/artwork to work hard on it. That will be great, won’t it?