Posted by Irene Ojo-Felix | April 5th, 2022’s Icons:
Soo Joo Park
When you think of the Asian American experience in modeling few have ascended to the top of the industry as distinct as Soo Joo Park. Ever the chameleon as is required of all muses, her edgy beauty floats between jet black locks, platinum blonde tresses, and even a smidge of bubblegum pink, catching major brand loyalty from Chanel, Jean Paul Gaultier, Moschino, and L’Oréal Paris as their first Asian American spokesperson. Born in South Korea and raised in the States, it was an unexpected start for Park who got recruited “later” than most — an after college scouting in California catapulted her to the east coast and the major European markets before a big break in her first couture season. Now cultivating a musical career that is taking her to the center stage of fashion’s biggest venues, Park seems bent on reclaiming her inner power. So what does one learn after more than 200 runway shows, 50 covers, and countless editorials and billboards? “This industry can whisk you away from you who you are, where you are…but you’re in it for the thrill. You have to love what you do to last a long time.” For this special Icons shoot shot by photographer Peter Ash Lee, images come alive as we speak with the icon about her trajectory so far, the lessons she’s learned working with the biggest names in the business, and unleashing her alter ego.

Model – Soo Joo Park
Photographer – Peter Ash Lee for
Stylist – Herin Choi
Hair Stylist – Erol Karadağ
Makeup Artist – Sena Murahashi
Manicurist – Eri Handa
Visual FX – JeeJee | Florist – Yuky Hwang
Photo Assistant – Sam Williams | Styling Assistant – Alana Sardo | Hair Assistant – Clarissa De Jesus | Makeup Assistant – Elle HaeIn Kim

Editor and Introduction – Irene Ojo-Felix
Production Manager Sasha Grinblat
Editorial Assistant – Anire Ikomi | Social Media Contributor – River Rodriguez
Special thanks to Elite New York City

Above: Top and shorts — Mark Gong. Leg Warmers — Angel Chen. Shoes — Rui. Choker — Chanel. Rings — Bernard James.

Dress — Issey Miyake

What drew you to the industry and wanting to become a model?
I was discovered in the early 2010s while living in San Francisco. I was at a vintage store in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, an area known as the epicenter of the counterculture movement in the 1960s. I used to go there on the weekends to go thrifting, vintage shopping, and go to the bookstore to find books and fashion magazines. One day, while in a vintage store, this lady came up to me and asked me how tall I was and how old I was.

As an introvert I was a little taken aback by such boldness from a complete stranger—I had no idea why she was asking me. She turned out to be a model scout and gave me her business card. I recognized the modeling agency as one of the more well-known agencies so I contacted her a couple of days later and I started working my way through. I never thought that I was going to become a model; I definitely didn’t think that it was going to be my livelihood for over a decade! When I started, the call for diversity, acceptance, and individuality was not as stressed. It wasn’t like it is now.

Top — Vaquera. Dress (pink and red) — Terrence Zhou.

You hinted at a fashion self-education. Did you try and learn about the players and clients?
Yes, I always loved fashion growing up. Dressing up dolls, drawing my dream outfits…ever since childhood I unconsciously dreamt of a life in fashion. In elementary school, I would do fundraisers and school book fairs to buy subscriptions to Vogue. Then when I was in college, I would frequent the city bookstores and newsstands to buy my favorite fashion magazines and go page by page to absorb things. I always wanted to partake in creating fashion or art…I guess that opportunity was offered to me when I was in Haight-Ashbury. I took a big leap and 12 years down the road, here I am.

A big moment was when you walked your first Chanel show for the Spring 2013 season. When did you realize that you had gotten to another level of success?
I think I felt a certain level of success in high fashion through beginning my relationship with the house of Chanel. My first time flying to Paris in January 2013 [for Couture] was a fairytale moment for me. The years with Karl Lagerfeld definitely introduced me to this world that I always wanted to be in. I guess I realized that I had secured certain success when I was announced as an ambassador for L’Oréal Paris back in 2015. When I attended the Cannes International Film Festival for the first time and the announcer said my name over the PA before the montée des marches (the official red carpet) as a L’Oréal ambassador I felt a certain swell of pride—my full Korean name being announced out loud overseas! I’m so grateful to work with L’Oréal, a global household name that stands for confidence and empowerment.

Gloved Shrug — Peter Do. Belt worn as top — Barragan. Shorts — Melitta Baumeister. Boots and belt worn over boots — Barragan. Earrings — Hirotaka.

Looking back at some of the shoots that you’ve done, what moments stood out in your career?
The most striking one was when I was painted blue for the Moschino F/W 2018 show. As a model, you’re constantly shifting your look with different hair, makeup, or styling, but that was definitely a contrast! I did feel like I became an alien from a foreign planet. Steven Meisel saw my runway photo and wanted me for the Moschino campaign and I became blue again for the second time.

I do remember that shoot. It was a throwback to the Jackie O times, but you guys looked like aliens.
Jeremy [Scott] wanted to make a statement about being an “alien”—like being foreign but familiar: we are all living organisms in the end. He’s incredibly creative and has a great ability to conjure up these moments, striking images, and bring them into his world. I love his interpretation of pop art and at times kitsch-fused high fashion.

Having followed your work. some moments that stood out for me were when Solve [Sundsbo] shot you for the cover of Allure. Major magazines putting Asian models on the cover was a rare occurrence.
Yes, I think it was the first time in nine years since they had an Asian woman on the cover. It meant a lot to me as statistically, Asian Americans are the largest growing minority in America, yet we are hardly featured in the media as the main figure. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking to see that lack of representation, and I only hope that this emergence of respect for diversity and inclusion becomes a mainstay.

“I think our main purpose is to inspire other creatives and create an arresting image together. However, even though it is teamwork, models often don’t really get a say or have creative input. That’s something that I wanted to change in the next phase of my career…”

You recently walked the Chanel Metiers d’Art show in Paris right before the break and surprised the audience with a singing performance as the finale. How was that experience and developing this creative part of yourself in the past few years?
Music is actually something that I’ve been quietly manifesting for a really long time. I’ve been dabbling in singing and producing for longer than 10 years. In fact, between the madness of modeling, I was creating music very casually whenever I had the chance. Before I began modeling I had created a band with a friend of mine, but after my first exclusive debut on the Chanel runway, I had to put it aside to build my modeling career. So being on the runway for 2022 Metiers d’Art and reemerging on stage to perform my music live was like completing a full circle.

As a model, I think our main purpose is to inspire other creatives and create an arresting image together. However, even though it is teamwork, models often don’t really get a say or have creative input. That’s something that I wanted to change in the next phase of my career; to collaborate and also express myself through performance in a different way. Having that experience as a model for a long time helped a lot with choreographing and finding an alter ego that I created which is called Ether.

So it’s a different mode of yourself? Another side?
Yes, I want to develop an alias. Meanwhile, I’m using the network of family and creatives that I’ve gotten to know through the years of my work as Soo Joo, the model. I definitely think that it’s the beginning of a new chapter.

While you develop this new chapter, you’re still modeling. What has kept you going all this time and what kind of personality do you need to have in order to maintain that length of a career? Is it just cut-throat determination?
To put it simply, I just love fashion. I can’t escape it! As far as requirements to maintaining your career, I think it’s a very intricate balance of a few different things. One of them is timing, and the other is your appearance. But the true lasting formula is having a clear idea of who you are as a human being—not only what you look like on the outside but having a certain allure and confidence in yourself. And having motivation and persistence and patience. This industry can whisk you away from you who you are, where you are. We are thrown all over the world not only physically but also mentally. With each job, you become this other character for a while. You can go from the highest of the highest to the lowest of the lowest, really quickly. It’s this rollercoaster that you don’t want to get off and it can make you nauseous sometimes, but you’re in it for the thrill. You have to love what you do to last a long time.

Absolutely. Being part of our Icons rankings means that the industry looks at you as an essential part of the framework that makes modeling. Who are some of your icons? Who are people that stand out in your mind that set you on your path?
I don’t like putting everything of my ideal into one person but I think there are certain things about musicians that I always love, like Prince, David Bowie, or Debbie Harry. They are all incredibly multifaceted and somewhat renegades from the cultural expectations that society has. I adore movie characters or strong-willed heroines, like Beatrix Kiddo from Kill Bill. I also find women like Gabrielle Chanel or Jeanne Lanvin, female couturiers who pioneered their way through a male-centric world, to be very inspiring. I think a lot of the time I find independent, empowering people as icons.

Have you learned anything with any fashion greats while on set? Any advice that they’ve instilled in you that framed your understanding of the industry?
I’ve had some great conversations with people who I admire like Carlyne Cerf De Dudzeele or Karl Lagerfeld. These figures that I look up to are icons themselves. I think the biggest thing that I’ve taken from their feedback about me is that I’m not afraid of challenges or breaking boundaries. I like to find something different and I love to have a good time. We should be having fun and inspiring others.

How do you find the balance between being in work mode and being able to center yourself?
The pandemic was a really tough time. Until the spring of 2020, I’d been so focused on work and execution that I lost introspection. I finally took the time to really tap into mental health and address some of the feelings that I was experiencing. I started seeking therapy regularly, which I had never done before, delaying action because I didn’t think I had the time to. I started also revisiting the other creative interest that I had, like music. I finally feel confident enough to perform and release music that I’ve been squirreling away for a long time.

I also have been developing an ongoing project called Enjoy Being In Transition. It’s a project which focuses on mental health: we commission different artists from all disciplines, to open up about mental health issues, a topic especially prevalent in the creative industry. Through EBIT we’ve also been exploring the metaverse, virtual representation, and reality. I don’t clearly know what the future is, but I like learning and educating myself and embracing it.

After more than a decade of work, you’ve seen so much. If you could go back to when you were first starting out. What advice would you give to yourself?
LET GO! Don’t get trapped in your head. Live in the present. Try to enjoy where you are. At some point in the past, I was so in my head that I couldn’t fully appreciate when I was involved in some of the most exciting projects. I was so worried about failing. There are no do-over buttons, and I can only try to absorb the happiness from working alongside amazing people on great projects going forward.

I wanted to go over your experience working with Peter Ash Lee and the team on set for the shoot featured here.
I love Peter’s work. His work is striking because he has a strong individual point of view and aesthetic. I admire not only the beautiful images he creates but also the project he develops with his sister called Burdock Media. They strive to put the spotlight on Asian Americans. There’s something really magnificent and humanizing in sharing stories about your origins and finding commonalities.

The way that you were moving through the shots on set stood out for me. You take an almost dance-like approach to the way you move when you’re working on set. I don’t know if that’s been something that you’ve cultivated throughout the years or something that you were always doing from the beginning. It showed your professionalism is what I mean to say.
Since my first modeling job I’ve been hearing that a lot. People ask me if I’ve ever danced. It’s something that I really love to watch and try to absorb, but I’ve never been educated in it. I wish I had. I’ve always loved looking at great dancers and their expressions through movements. Pina Bausch, for instance, and her documentary directed by Wim Wenders is one of my favorites. I also love watching videos of contemporary choreographers like Imre and Marne van Opstal or Dimitri Chamblas.

What goals do you set for yourself for this year, if at all? What have you not done that you’ve want to accomplish?
I actually write a list of manifestations every year. My primary goal this year is to take control of my own life and schedule. We talked about how we work on a very regimented schedule in fashion. That’s how I’ve lived my life for the last at least 10 years. I would love for this year to be a shift in the lane, to start going at my own pace. At my own speed. I am focusing on my other passion, music. I’m also writing a lot, and hope to release an essay or a novel at some point as well. It’s all a work in progress.

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