A tête-à-tête with my college best friend, Su Kim, the Creative Director of her denim label Father’s Daughter LA.

Father's Daughter LA https://fathersdaughterla.com/

To Listen to the Entire Conversation: https://soundcloud.com/tenzin-dickyi-sinzitsang/su-kim

Su Kim, Creative Director of Father’s Daughter, LA. Photo/Thomas N. Martin

This is an intimate conversation between two best friends, sharing thoughts on career, faith, family, values, and most importantly, entrepreneurship and chasing after dreams.

1. What is Father’s Daughter all about?

I have been in the Denim Industry for the last seven years working for a (family owned-like) corporate company and it got to a point where I really wanted to create my own vision for a brand that was different from what was already existing like the J Brand and the AGs. So I had this idea, literally, I was going to quit my corporate job and waitress, and then on the weekends, work on this side project, because I needed that creative fulfillment. This is when I talked to my Dad and wanted to get his help. He has been in this industry for 25 years as a freelance pattern maker, so, if I had any resources, it was my dad. When I approached him about it, he was the one that dreamed bigger. He said if we are going to do it, why don’t we just do it full-time. That gave me a license to really think about what I want this brand to look like and what I wanted to be in this world versus what I need to do to keep my creativity alive. Then what happened was it ended up morphing into a much bigger project than I had even dreamed for myself. I have known you for a long time and you know that I am [a very homebody type], not somebody that goes out saying I am going to change the world because I always thought of it as someone else’s thing. Even though I have the heart for the underdog and wanting things to be better, I never really thought of myself as a powerful person.

2. What was the catalyst? So many people sit on brilliant ideas but never really get to implement it. For some people it is that they want to work for themselves and not for other people. What was the transition that made you take the leap?

I really feel like everyone should experience that transition. Once you make that leap, regardless of what the outcome is, whether you fail or succeed, you become a fuller person. You are now a person who is fully chasing their dreams regardless of what the outcome could be. Besides, who can really predict if you are somebody waiting for that 100% accuracy, or 100% fail proof plan. It’s just never going to come. Even when you do have a 100% fail proof plan, does that even give you any kind of growth? I mean, you can go and execute it. It’s just like working for a company — you take home a paycheck and move on with your life.

So, I think for me, personally, it came through my own faith — my faith in God. Once I had that faith, it was no longer, “Am I enough to attempt this? Do I have the audacity, even without the full background, to do it?” I feel the reason most people don’t pursue their passion is they feel like they are not enough, even though they have the passion and have all the ingredients, [there] is that element of feeling like you are not enough. But when you believe in something that’s higher in this world, you know that it’s not about you anymore, it is about your engagement in this world that is going to help other people. So, that’s where it came from.

I feel the reason most people don’t pursue their passion is they feel like they are not enough, even though they have the passion and have all the ingredients, [there] is that element of feeling like you are not enough. But when you believe in something that’s higher in this world, you know that it’s not about you anymore.

3. In entrepreneurship the most important first step is ideation, coming up with an idea, and the next step is assessing the need. When you started your own brand, did you do it for your own need or were you considering the need and demand out there?

That’s a good question. It first started out as my own need — when you are in an environment where you are a fish in a fishbowl, and that fishbowl is not big enough for you to keep growing and progressing in the way you want to, it becomes a cage. So, when I was making this transition, the fish bowl that I was in was a cage. It was for my own survival, my emotional survival. As I involved my family, it became [a] much bigger thing, it became a family thing. As I started involving my friends, it became a social thing. I started seeing how it was actually inspiring people within my friend group. When you see one person in your social circle make a leap, and it’s the first leap, it’s quite a big deal. Just like in a family, when you see someone in your family who graduates university for the first time, it sets a mark, it sets a bar and inspires people. And I started to see the bigger picture later on.

When you are in an environment where you are a fish in a fishbowl, and that fishbowl is not big enough for you to keep growing and progressing in the way you want to, it becomes a cage.

4. Tell me a little bit about the brand itself. You are the Creative Director of the brand and I saw in your pamphlet that it means to resemble the father. I love the tag line, “Little label, Big dream”. How did you come up with the label Father’s Daughter? It’s very intimate. Obviously it’s a family business and it has that appeal, but still, a very unique denim label.

When you read about any artist, the ones that are relevant, it’s the ones that took their personal story and created something out of that. There is the honesty there and it’s very appealing. That’s really the only thing that has so much value in this world — the complete honesty and truth. When it comes to fashion, we have gotten to this place where we are creating this image of what’s cool, and it’s always about this chase of what is cool, instead of what we are, which is actually the coolest thing, being genuine and authentic — you can’t get cooler than that. When I thought about Father’s Daughter, even the title, I asked, “What is it that represents the core of who I am?”

When it comes to fashion, we have gotten to this place where we are creating this image of what’s cool, and it’s always about this chase of what is cool, instead of what we are, which is actually the coolest thing, being genuine and authentic — you can’t get cooler than that.

Ever since I was a little girl, I have always been called “Appa ttal” — which means in Korean, “Daddy’s Girl” but it has a different connotation. In English it means “Your Daddy takes care of you” but in Korean it means to resemble the father — you take after your father. It just made sense, especially since I went into denim and my father was already in this business. We both have this personality where it’s a very specific mark of our family. We are very relentless! I never really realized that until I started working with him, and this is how we survive in the fashion industry — it’s not an easy industry. Within that we are made for this business and the fact that it’s now going from two generations, maybe my daughter and son will go into it. I love the idea of it being a generational thing.

5. Because your dad worked in the denim industry and when we were in college, we were able to wear these really expensive jeans that we could not afford as 18 year olds. How do you make denim more affordable? When I wore those — Citizens of Humanity and Seven7 Jeans your dad used to give us, I always felt so powerful and significant. If you think about it, it was an upgrade from Gap jeans and Crewcuts.

That’s really funny! That’s the difference between a 50 dollar pair of jeans and 200 dollar pair of jeans. I think a lot of jeans out there, the quality should be 100 or less. They are marking it as 200 or more so they can mark up the value. A lot of them are made in Mexico and China and they increase their margin from the company part of it. I think that’s really a reaction from the bigger brands that are feeling like they are losing a grip in this industry. So sales are down in premium denim and a lot of people have been let go and a lot of these companies are downsizing, so in this last-ditch effort or last phase and the kind of timeline that fashion company gets so big and they have huge volumes, they hire a lot of people — CEOs and executives with very bloated salary and take on a lot of operational costs — that’s what happens when you go corporate. I think a little bit of greed gets involved because you are selling so much product and so much money flow. So how do people increase their profit? They lower the quality, and everyone was going full package, so the quality was going down, but the price wasn’t going down.

But consumers are very smart and they are going to feel the difference in the quality. It no longer inspires them to buy premium denim, because it doesn’t feel any different from UNIQLO or Zara or H&M. Really, when you look at the quality (I am going to be very frank here), a lot of the denim, Zara and UNIQLO, it’s almost the same fabric as the premium denim — it’s done in the same mill. It’s really a very distorted system we have in fashion right now. For us, as a little label, we are making everything here in our workshop with four people; our production is very small. I, my dad or my mom, we literally check every single piece to make sure it’s perfect and that every thread is in its right place and nothing is broken and the washes look good.

6. How do you plan to do that as you grow bigger. What about the corporate social responsibility component of it?

That’s something I have been thinking about. I feel I am lucky enough to have a lot of friends in this industry. If we are blessed enough to keep growing, we will take on people and we will keep that quality control the same but we will have to hire more people. It’s kind of beautiful right now as our first season, that it should be like that; we, the people who made it, created it, fit it, washed it, everything is made with love — it’s literally a labor of love. You will see that our prices are not cheap, not less than what’s premium denim. But if you look at our quality, it’s day and night. You will know you are getting a substantial piece of clothing. This is our philosophy: I just don’t want to be part of disposable clothing industry — if someone buys our product, I want it to be really something they love and they cherish and wear it for years.

7. When we were at [UC] Davis, your first major was Sociology. It’s a huge shift from what you studied in college. Tell me about that change.

You know it’s so funny because [just like] anything in Humanities, there really isn’t a clear-cut job out there for Sociology. But one thing I knew was that that was exactly what I was supposed to study. It just fit with me so well. I was really hungry for that kind of knowledge and it shaped the way I take in the world; thinking of social phenomena and culture and the interaction between the individual and the masses. In a way that kind of segways into my thoughts about consumer psychology and ultimately, that segways into our world system of production, of material things. Right now, we have a huge problem with just over consumption of very low quality things.

8. What has been the most enjoyable thing, the biggest challenge in opening your own business?

The biggest challenge was working with my family. I never predicted how crazy that road would be. How many times do we walk away from our family not having resolved things and then in your late 20s and early 30s, you decide to work with your family and all of a sudden, those unresolved issues are in the forefront because it comes out in your work relationship. This has also been the driving force of Father’s Daughter; as we work together and each one of those issues that our family was working through that had been broken before are healing one by one, and actually seeing the progress was so beautiful. All of us in this office, from day one to now, it’s a 180. We have all grown together immeasurably and that is something that doesn’t happen until you have to do it or are thrown into the situation, and then it’s either sink or swim. So [then,] are you going to give up on this? If you do, that means you are giving up on them.

9. One of the things I feel most guilty about is not spending enough time with my parents. I love the fact that you get to see your parents every day aside from all the things you have to deal with along with that choice. At the same time, because we have known each other for so long, our views of our parents have changed so much over the years. I was thinking of how I saw my mom as a disciplinarian that I couldn’t wait to get away from. When you met me I was 18, in college and freedom; now she has transformed into this best friend I want to be closer with, but I am doing other stuff that’s keeping me away from home right now. What advice do you have for people who want to go into family business?

We live in a culture that is so disposable. Obviously we dispose clothing, cars, computers, boyfriends, friends become disposable (very replaceable!). [Dhela interjects: I love what you said in the car yesterday about how family is probably the only thing you can trust. That was the most appealing thing about it — even if I want to go into business, sometimes I find it hard to trust partners. Sure you can draft these contractual agreements but there is no guarantee they will abide by it.] It’s unfortunate because we are all put on this earth with a family and I am not saying all families you can trust — obviously there are a lot of broken families. If you are going to fight for anything in your life, it’s for your own blood. (Blood is thicker than water!). That’s how we are made. That’s my advice — even though you are going to come into a lot of extremely difficult situations and interactions with your family members, especially when you go into business, to press in with love. To keep pressing in with love because that’s going to be your sword and shield that gets you through it.

10. What are you most grateful for in life?

People! Somedays you feel you don’t have anything more to give to life, (like, I literally used the last ounce of energy in my body), but when you have a great interaction, even with a stranger, doesn’t that fill you up? There is something about people and community and interaction, even though that’s what most people are scared of, that’s the thing that will save you in your hardest moment. I love people, even though they are so flawed (I am so flawed). I am so happy that we are flawed so we need each other.

11. For the millennials, if they want to go into fashion, how do they prepare for this?

First of all, most people going into fashion have some sort of interest in clothing. So protect your passion as much as possible. You will come into situations where you might want to leave this industry, and you probably will come into a situation where you had two years, and then you will say I am done and I can’t do it anymore. Just know that, that’s just people being people and you don’t have to throw your passion and throw that away along with the people you can’t stand. Protect your passion as much as possible and know that just as we have the seasons that come, we have winter and summer, know that seasons of people will come into your life and it will change; it will change again; and things will never stay the same but your passion will.

12. What do you think of the fashion culture now and where do you want to see it go and grow?

I think fashion always had this stigma as a sort of cool kids club, and I think sometimes along with that stigma, there is a lot of insecurity that comes when you belong to fashion. Fashion, media, PR are all very visually oriented. I would love to see (I don’t know how we will get here) but I would love to see it be more inclusive. The most talented people I have seen in my career didn’t come from the cool kids club; they are actually the nerdy kids, from the heart, from their passion. It’s unfortunate that we don’t let them shine. Companies will have these diamonds and they will never fully realize it, because sometimes it’s the cool kids club — it’s how you present yourself and how you talk about it.

The most talented people I have seen in my career didn’t come from the cool kids club; they are actually the nerdy kids, from the heart, from their passion. It’s unfortunate that we don’t let them shine. Companies will have these diamonds and they will never fully realize it, because sometimes it’s the cool kids club…

12. What kind of world do you envision? You can start local, from Los Angeles to America and then the world at large.

I would love to see more fun. Real fun is enjoyment of people and less striving. The beauty of LA is everyone comes here with a dream and everyone here is on a mission. We sabotage our own mission by being too focused on the goal. We lose out on opportunities because there isn’t enough balance in our lives. How do we get to meet someone in a non-networking way, because everyone is constantly networking, that’s actually bringing work into your social life? It throws people off balance and I think that is a very quick route to being unhappy. On a national level, kind of extending on that, in the US, because we are a capitalist country, it’s very hard to have work-life balance. A lot of women who have children have to go back to work right away. Even with both parents working full-time, it’s very hard to makes ends meet. It really depends on what is our standard of living? What is our priority? I know in LA it can be very distorted, you have to have this and that to be a functional family, but you really don’t need it. Having more work-life balance and being a less materialistic society and focusing more on community.

13. In college you read a lot and you inspired me to read different genres. One book, Me Talk Pretty One Day, I probably wouldn’t pick up if I didn’t see you reading it. I am working on a literacy program right now. My dream is to have every child in Tibet read. I think for kids, they find it very difficult to develop a reading habit, particularly if you are in an environment where nobody reads or where there is not a single bookstore. But I try to tell them how books transformed my life and I am curious how books shaped your life.

We are very similar people in the way we take in information and the amount of stimulation we need. So for kids like us, reading is perfect, because sometimes the world isn’t intellectually engaging enough so we have to go to a text book or read about someone else’s perspective in life. If you are always trying to have these philosophical discussions with everyone we see, they will probably be avoiding us. I came here as an immigrant and I was a very shy kid. Books became my friends and the world where I can go in and out and a free ticket to anywhere in your imagination. There are all kinds of kids — they need social stimulation so they need to be out and about; these are all equally great. [But] a lot of kids do miss out, especially kids like us. How much richness we would miss out on in our wisdom and in our life if we didn’t read. This is what’s beautiful about books. It doesn’t replace life but it whets our appetite for life.

14. What’s your favorite book? Or a book that you could read ten times?

I think the book that I really, really liked was Tree Grows in Brooklyn. As a female, it was such a sigh of relief to read a book from a female’s perspective (she is speaking to you about your struggle and what you will experience as a woman); there is nothing like reading a book written by a woman about women to understand women — it’s the full portrayal of women.

15. Your last word:

I got this quote from Pinterest and it’s so relevant to our generation. The quote is: “When the path reveals itself, take it.” So many options that we get lost but it’s this idea that we don’t need to create a path and the path is already there for us. Have the ears to hear and eyes to see what is going on. What I love about that quote is the idea that no one is ever without hope. No one is ever in a hopeless situation. It’s a matter of keeping our eyes and ears open and our minds open to perceive the opportunities that happen in our lives every hour and everyday, there is so much that happens. It isn’t just relegated to the privilege but in every level of life. There is just so much!

No one is ever in a hopeless situation. It’s a matter of keeping our eyes and ears open and our minds open to perceive the opportunities that happen in our lives every hour and everyday, there is so much that happens. It isn’t just relegated to the privilege but in every level of life.
Father’s Daughter, LA Headquarter in Downtown Los Angeles
Photos/Su’s mother