MAN ON TOP
Cresting on the indomitable shockwave of Bigbang’s explosive success, lead rapper Choi Seung- hyun, better known by his stage name T.O. P, courts fashion’s fancy with characteristic stylish swagger. Photography Kim Heejune Styling Gee Eun
Choi Seung- hyun, better known as T.O. P from Bigbang, courts fashion’s fancy with characteristic stylish swagger
In the beginning was Bigbang, and it opened the world’s ears to the music phenomenon known as K- pop. Its recently concluded MADE World Tour is telling of Bigbang’s universal dominance – perfectly describing the superstar quintet on the occasion of its 10th anniversary, after a decade- long conquest of not only Asia but also the West (a feat considering its non- English repertoire) marked by immediately soldout shows, numerous industry records, and unadulterated acclaim. Like the cosmic singularity, Bigbang not so much pushed boundaries as it transcended genres altogether.
But one member already saw this future; one could say it was his destiny. Going by the moniker T.O. P, the group’s self-styled “rap Basquiat with a mic” is seemingly prescient about the whole thing as he flaunts supersonic rhymes while dressed in Mondrian- inspired suits – a personal style he describes as “art- rap”. The 28-year- old certified sex symbol ( by Rolling Stone magazine in 2013) is now making inroads into fashion’s consciousness, as fellow members G- Dragon and Taeyang have done before, and like those runway regulars, his debut attendance at the Dior Homme Winter 2016 show has caused nothing short of a sensational stir.
How do you like the Dior Homme show?
I’ve liked Dior Homme right from the start. Not long after my debut with Bigbang, I saved up money to buy a pair of Dior Homme jeans even though I couldn’t really afford it. I’m such a huge fan.
You even got to talk to designer Kris Van Assche.
I met him after the show. I love his sneakers and the sporty look he creates. His collection was quite astonishing; Dior Homme has gotten much younger and cooler than I thought!
While you were astonished by the collection, we’re surprised by the people sitting next to you: Ben Gorham from Byredo, designer Karl Lagerfeld, LVMH chairman and CEO Bernard Arnault, among others. Did you feel nervous at all?
I’m quite simple when it comes to such matters; I’m not very selfconscious. On the contrary, I still feel uncomfortable going to places where there are too many people. Many have asked why they’ve never seen me in the front rows (of runways) before, but frankly, I don’t like going to crowded places except for when I perform on stage. There, I do what I do, expressing myself. As a kid, I suffered from panic attacks whenever I’m at a packed place – I can say this now because the symptoms are gone.
This is the first time you’ve attended a fashion show. What a surprise, considering your passion for fashion.
It’s always best to see it with your own eyes, but we’re now living in a world where you can easily view entire collections as digital images. It’s only with art pieces – painting, sculpture or furniture – that I have to see in person. Those you can never fully appreciate with photos. I’ve always liked clothes since I was young, so my experience with fashion allows me to predict the actual outcome – what kind of fabric is used, how it would feel when I wear it – from a photo without much error.
You’ve reached the state of picturing yourself in the clothes just by looking at images.
Yes, and quite accurately too. Visual elements matter in my job, so I know instinctually if something looks good on me. The looks from the Dior Homme Summer 2016 collection, which I wore to the show and for the shoot, were all very impressive from the moment I saw them.
You have quite the eye. How did you develop your enthusiasm for art?
All the women in my family are engaged in some form of art. Most of them are painters, so I grew up surrounded by pictures and paintings. I had some training when I was young as well, but I was better suited at appreciating art than drawing. Personally, I’m more attracted to music and film instead, probably because performing is the right way for me to unleash my creativity. Art aims for the completion of a work that contains the identity or vision of the artist through various forms; I just want to express myself. I was the rebel in the house, defying the expectations of my family who wanted me to follow in their footsteps. It wasn’t easy for them to accept my dream of becoming a musician, I understand that. They’re just normal grownups who couldn’t perceive the changes to come.
Now, you’re the musician and actor you wished to be. Who saw your potential when you were a kid?
Myself. Here’s a story I’ve never told before: When I was in middle and high school, I wasn’t good at being in a group. So I skipped school a lot, and it was frustrating because it wasn’t like I was protesting against anything. I just had trouble dealing with a system that forced me to sit with others and learn what I wasn’t interested in. My old friends tell me that I was a kid with firm self-assurance, that they thought my self- esteem was unusually high, all because I kept saying I was going to be a big success in music. Some of them thought I was dreaming in vain! I don’t know if it sounds arrogant, but I had this confidence in myself since I was 13 or 14 years old. I could clearly see the path that I would be walking on inside my head, and that belief has never been shaken.
You seem to spend a lot of time thinking and that has helped you look to the future. Does it take long for you to contemplate your work in music or film?
I accept my musical projects and film choices as destiny. I need to be faithful to the feeling of the moment rather than plan my moves on stage beforehand, so the spontaneity of my expressions can be taken as destiny, I think.
Bigbang was an atypical K- pop group from the start, in that the members have grown with their individual personalities intact.
From the time as trainees, we experimented with the kinds of music we wanted to do, and when we auditioned before CEO Yang Hyun Suk (of YG Entertainment) with 20 of our own songs, he was able to curate them with a detached perspective. We’re a different team that cannot be categorised with other idol groups, and that has made us go far.
Your overwhelming status in the global market is quite unprecedented in the Korean music industry.
Nobody expected this to happen ( YG Entertainment might disagree). I think it’s the power of passion that’s led us all this way; also, the depth of our musical endeavours. We poured our heart and soul, and received credit for doing so. Bigbang has achieved a wonderful intercommunication of music with the world beyond ourselves.
You’ve reached the peak as a musician. Do you still feel thirsty?
I’ve never felt thirsty. I’ve never thought that my team’s accomplishments were short of expectations, even during the early years. I only thought of what I knew, tried to be creative, and focused on expressing things in new ways. I narrowed my view down and only paid attention to what I was doing. Does it sound like a lie? Because we weren’t calculating, we could save our energy from being consumed by greed. We put that energy into our music instead, and that’s how we’ve come this far.
At the height of his career, T.O. P faces the impending reality of compulsory conscription (much like our own National Service), but he accepts it with philosophical calmness. After all, Bigbang’s magic is built to last; its phenomenal success comes not only from its strength as a collective, but also from a refreshing emphasis on having the members’ individual personalities shine. While most in the group have cultivated solo careers – G- Dragon is even fashion incarnate – T.O. P’s penchant for performance has led him to venture into acting as another artistic outlet. His intense gaze and cool demeanour onscreen have already garnered him several newcomer awards (notably for 71: Into the Fire and Commitment), and he’s set to grow as opportunities continue to present themselves.
Is there a specific role you want to play?
I definitely like the serious ones. Serious and intense characters move my heart. And I can’t deny the rebellious spirit in me, who won’t go for the easy things. I only wish there were more variety of characters in the Korean film industry for male actors in their 20s or 30s.
We’ve heard that you get absorbed into your characters so deeply that you have a hard time getting out of it after filming. Isn’t that painful?
Yes it is, but it’s worth it. When I was working on the rap portion of Loser for the latest Bigbang album, I rewrote the lyrics no less than 30 times. I was so madly into it that I felt terribly depressed for the next couple of months. Nevertheless, I get the best inspiration whenever I push myself hard. I can’t help it.
People usually associate artists with being picky and difficult. After watching you work, we find that you’re not so.
I’m way too sensitive a person, I’ve know that since young. I’ve tried hard to be more sociable – and I actually did change – but still, I am who I am. Knowing how emotionally delicate I can be, I play jokes and say silly things when there’re people around. If I don’t, my mind blows up with so many thoughts that it gets hard to control. Making people laugh is a defence mechanism to cast away the tangled thoughts in my head.
Your social media is full of artistic interest and knowledge. We feel that you might want to do something related to art.
I want to introduce promising Korean and Japanese artists to the world. There are many young artists who produce substantial artworks, but they don’t get the attention they deserve due to a lack of proper marketing management. I think there’ll be several opportunities to present those artists this year; it’s all a secret for now, but it’s going to be a big project.
Your Instagram feed is also really fun; there are comments and photos that fool everyone!
I never get serious doing it. I just enjoy watching people get speechless. Don’t you have a mischievous friend around you? I’m one!
At the photo shoot, you made a joke saying croissant is a Japanese bread. It took us a while to understand that you meant the pronunciation of “- ssant” (like the Japanese honorific “- san”). Anyway, when the model before the camera doesn’t look happy, the rest of the crew feels uneasy. However, thanks to you, the shoot went great with a nice atmosphere.
If there was a model who made people feel uncomfortable during a photo shoot, it could be that he doesn’t know how to release the tension by being funny. If I don’t look happy, everybody will get edgy, and then I’ll start to feel down as well. So I’ll try to lead the mood in a fun and pleasant way. The next time you see a model who’s overly tense, ask him to tell you a joke. The nervousness will go away, I think. [ Laughs]