The Rise Of The Buddha Symbol In Fashion

The Buddha is back in fashion, on handbags and even in tattoos.

When Buddha-based fashion saw its rise in the 1990s with dragon dresses, patterned purses and religious motifs spotted across the runway in Vivienne Tam’s 1997 Buddha Collection, the fashion world went crazy for them–celebrities wore it, and this influential collection was quickly acquired into the archives of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

East Asian influences seeped into pop culture in the 1990s, thanks to the 1997 film Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt, and in Madonna’s 1998 album, Ray of Light, which was a part of her study of Eastern religions—Hinduism and Buddhism (Madonna once said in an interview: “I’ve studied Buddhism and Hinduism and I’ve been practicing yoga and obviously I know a lot about Catholicism. There are indisputable truths that connect all of them, and I find that very comforting and kind. My spiritual journey is to be open to everything. Pay attention to what makes sense, be absorbed”).

But it wasn’t until a decade later that designers took the reins—like Chinese designers Renli Su and Zheng Qing’er, both of who launched collections inspired by Tibetan Buddhism in 2015 and 2016.

All these moments have been key to fashion’s evolution, and influence of the Buddha. And with New York Fashion Week around the corner, everyone is talking about fall trends in fashion.

In fact, one tattoo artist is looking back on the Buddha’s influence on high fashion. It’s a symbol of peace, unity and devotion is a tattoo artist based in Seoul who works under the moniker of Rizn, Yujin Lee.

“When I first started working on Buddha-based tattoos, I was intrigued by the fact that religion could be fashionable,” said Lee. “So many fashion designers have used the Buddha as the heart of their fashion design. From then on, I have felt that fashion had a strong connection with religion.”

Lee started to explore the Buddha in her tattoos last year, and now, it has exploded into a full-blown career. She explores the Buddha hand in various poses, and with the Lotus flower, among others.

Lee is a bona fide expert on Buddhist tattoos and is intrigued how religion could be trendy in fashion. “What fascinates me is how non-religious people are drawn to the Buddha symbol,” she said.

“I’m intrigued that religion sparks the imagination of artists and designers and allows them to innovate from the Buddha as a jumping off point—it’s considered provocative in some cultures. A lot of art is inspired by various religions, so why not Buddhism in fashion design in 2022?”

Many of the designers who have counted Buddhism as an influence are inspired by trips to Tibet, by the history of Buddhism, or have found their own inner peace.

The Buddha is a highly respected symbol that is sacred. “The Buddha is more of a respected subject that provides lessons to the people, rather than a deified creator and savior to be worshiped,” said Lee. “Buddhism involves the definition of teaching method by the Shakyamuni Buddha, and the teaching methods of becoming Buddha. This means that anyone can become a Buddha.”

In fashion, the Buddha is presented in a block print, as an icon, and as a way to practice mindfulness, like in Yumi Sakugawa’s recent book, Fashion Forecasts, and Buddha tattoos are a symbol of someone’s faith, and perhaps their own journey to a better self, or enlightenment.

“It wasn’t my intention to make Buddha my signature work,” said Lee. “I just thought it was an excellent symbol to tattoo, and once I did the first one, it took off as a symbol that people identify with and love. I have been developing more designs, ever since, and have learned so much along the way.”

Many of Lee’s tattoos are perched in a Buddha “Om” position, with the tip of the index finger touching the tip of the thumb. Others show the tip of the thumb touching the tip of the middle finger, and many of the Buddha hands Lee tattoos are adorned with lotus flowers, at the base of the hand or inside the palm of the hand.

Buddhism has a different meaning for the western world. “Of course, it differs from person to person, but just maybe, the Buddha in pop culture and fashion will allow people to learn about Buddhism, which I think is great,” she said. “It may not be the norm, but maybe it can add value to people’s everyday lives.”

Lee’s clients get the Buddha tattooed on them for personal reasons and religious ones, depending on the person.

It all comes down to their Zen outlook on life. When the Dalai Lama was interviewed for a cover story in Paris Vogue, in 1990, he said that fashion only accentuates someone’s spirit, good or bad. “A nice smile, a kind look is more precious than the most fantastic jewel,” he said. “Put the most beautiful ornaments on an unkind face… it would not improve anything.”

“The lotus flower has great presence in Buddhism, you can see it in many places upon entering a Buddhist sanctuary, like the walls, ceilings, doors, and stonework,” she said.

Lee is on her own path to learning about Buddhism, from both fashion designers, and the history it ties into. “I started studying Buddhism philosophy naturally as I worked with a Buddhist tattoo,” she said. “Buddhism has seeped through my life, and this is making my tattoo work more solid.”

“I think it is because of the flexibility Buddhism has,” said Lee.

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