Modern Fashion: San Kim On The 5 Things You Need To Lead a Successful Fashion Brand Today
An Interview With Candice Georgiadice
Iterate and Act on Ideas: Having small, achievable actions — in the place you already are- is important for one’s own faith in a project. It keeps the momentum going, and allows your own creativity to be part of your everyday life.
Many in the fashion industry have been making huge pivots in their business models. Many have turned away from the fast fashion trend. Many have been focusing on fashion that also makes a social impact. Many have turned to sustainable and ethical sourcing. Many have turned to hi tech manufacturing. Many have turned to subscription models. What are the other trends that we will see in the fashion industry? What does it take to lead a successful fashion brand today?
In our series called, “5 Things You Need To Lead a Successful Fashion Brand Today” we are talking to successful leaders of fashion brands who can talk about the Future of Fashion and the 5 things it takes to lead a successful fashion brand in our “new normal.”
As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing San Kim.
San Kim considers himself a quiet observer — inspired by everyday subjects, regular people going about their day. That’s where he finds his inspiration, creating his own unique visual language that references society around him. During the height of the pandemic, he focused on what he could create within the chaos: Stuck inside, as we all were, he gathered up plastic supermarket bags he had lying around, sat down on his kitchen floor, and started one by one to begin to create.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I grew up in Seongsu-dong, which is a semi-industrial area of Seoul, Korea. Back then, there were a lot of factories that made shoes and leather bags, and there was always all kinds of factory waste, like leather scraps and acrylic scraps lying around. I would go and collect them and then cut them up, connecting them together in different ways. Growing up, I didn’t have toys to play with, so I would create my own toys by hand every day. I feel like I still create the same way: Working with what’s available to me.
Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?
When I was little, I was a very quiet and shy child. Like many other Korean parents, my parents wanted me to have a promising and stable job, like being a lawyer or doctor. But I was a timid child. I understood the value of these careers for our society, but I couldn’t understand why I personally should pursue such work. To me, a career in law depends on bad incidents happening, and a career in medicine depends on sick people- and these jobs seem to require a huge amount of responsibility, with a single tiny mistake influencing other people’s lives in tremendous ways.
When I was around 13 years old, I got an assignment from school to write about a job that I want to get in the future. Just then, I happened to watch a fashion show on TV for the first time in my life. There, I could see only happy people, including the audience, the designer, and the models. I saw how people waited for each dress to come out, and saw how much joy and excitement it brought to them. I thought to myself, “wouldn’t it be great to have a job like that? It brings so much happiness to so many people.” At that moment, I decided to be a designer.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I was completing my Masters in Menswear in England during the pandemic, and everyone was avoiding going out from home. You would barely see a single person on the streets. With my inflatable pieces that I made for my graduation work, I decided to go out on the Tube. There, I would see some people out and about. They would approach me, often with a weird look, and offer handshakes and words. After weeks of not seeing anyone, I finally felt like I was able to connect with other people by stepping outside in one of my strange pieces.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I try not to do things simply for the sake of success, per se — but to share my personal outlook… First, I observe very ordinary things. I look at them with a telescope, with a microscope, in slow motion, in this way, in that way, flipping it, spinning it. Second, I start iterating right away, with very “doable tasks” that can begin in a corner of my room. Third, I go as far as I can, thinking “if not, whatever.” I always do what I can enjoy and believe in, so I don’t worry about failures. I just go until I can’t.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I just keep my work close to my own interpretation of the world, drawing from my journal of what I see and what I feel. I interpret “fashion design” as an expression of what’s happening around me, what I see people experiencing, how I see them behaving–then I design toward my own interpretation.
With the inflatables I created during the pandemic, that was me interpreting how society was responding to the virus: As I searched on the internet I would often find images of people cautiously peeping out with supermarket plastic bags over their heads while they’re on the subway; or people doing their banking with large plastic water bottles on their heads. These images made me both sympathetic to the people, and also gave me a boost of positive energy because they weren’t using plastic bags for trash–they were being creative.
So I knew I wanted to work with plastic grocery bags for material; and then when I went about designing, my inspiration for some of the shapes I ended up with came from post-World War II Atomic Age artwork — you can find designs related to protective clothing and round spheres from that age. But that was really just about the design: I also focused on the complex emotions at that time, such as fear, and repulsion — but also hope and expectation. The reaction of mankind to the advent of a new era that had never been encountered before. These emotions were a great inspiration, and paralleled what I was seeing all around me.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist” — Picasso
Once the project is started, whatever it is, I believe in focusing more than 90% of your effort on it, researching everything related to that project. Once I observe, understand, and identify in that way, I turn it over and subvert it.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Do you see any fascinating developments emerging over the next few years in the fashion industry that you are excited about? Can you tell us about that?
While I’m a fashion designer, I sometimes wonder if what I create is even “fashion” in the typical sense. Fashion (with a capital F) — which can evoke an idea of elegant, “fancy” fashion — is almost unapproachable to me; it’s too out-of-reach. So what’s interesting to me is watching how the onset of digital fashion is opening up new ways to create and to communicate to people. In a way, it’s much more approachable, and democratized in that there are no rules. There seems to be less judgment, and there’s more room to play because nothing is the “right” way.
Fashion for me is a “visual language,” in which every decision that I make within my designs is part of a language and a message that I want to communicate. With digital, I’m excited to expand my creativity even further, and connect with people in ways I wouldn’t normally be able to with my designs — like telling a story through AR or VR, or allowing people to wear my creations (that aren’t typically wearable) in a virtual way. I honestly hadn’t thought about this before my project with VMOD, but now I see how to work with digital as a new tool.
Can you share how your brand is helping to bring goodness to the world?
Well, I just do what I enjoy and what I believe is valuable. There must be some people who share the same values as me. I just work for me and them — connecting us together.
Can you share with our readers about the ethical standards you use when you choose where to source materials?
Going back to me as a kid, creating my own toys with found materials, the idea of “insufficiency” is what inspired me originally — and it’s what has helped me form my own creative style to this day. I bring that up because it’s something I reflect on when selecting materials — just like using plastic grocery bags for my inflatables — so I “source” from what’s around me, versus using virgin materials. And, in working with VMOD, I saw firsthand how real-life materials come to life in a different way in 3D or AR — which is a totally new way to think of “materials.”
Fast fashion has an advantage, that it is affordable for most people, but it also has the drawback that it does not last very long and is therefore not very sustainable. What are your thoughts about this? How does your company address this question?
I have to be honest: I still don’t know how we can make real-life fashion sustainable. Sustainability is important, and I know I still have a lot more to learn. As a person working in the fashion industry and as a designer who can make those choices, I clearly have an unlimited responsibility for the environment — so it is something I have to think deeply about. This is partly why I used the materials I did to create my inflatables you see on VMOD — I used what was going to go to waste.
As far as digital fashion goes, to confess, at first, I thought that this world of digital fashion was not for me: My materials are easily found around me, the shapes I use are simple… So I kind of assumed that cutting-edge areas like digital fashion were outside of my reach, that they were too far away. But while I was working on this project with VMOD, I gained the confidence to raise my work to the next level in all areas — how can I communicate and express the topics of breaking suppression from standards or sustainability? My imagination has become infinite.
Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Lead a Successful Fashion Brand”. Please share a story or example for each.
Well, I don’t think my brand is a “successful” brand just yet…Nevertheless, I will try listing up based on what I’ve learned so far:
1. Maintaining Personal Health (Physical, Mental): Focus on yourself first — feeling healthy and centered expands creativity and new thinking.
2. Be Deeply Interested: Allow yourself to be fascinated- pursuing an interest, a niche, a hobby all the way and learning from the community that also interacts with it.
3. Hone the Ability to Observe: There’s a slower pace in simply observing — for instance, sitting in a public space without the distraction of a phone, and allowing your surroundings to shapeshift and unfold around you.
4. Step Away / Lose Interest: Just as it’s important to become obsessed with something, it’s equally important to break the spell and step away. Interrupting a pattern and gaining some clarity can bring in new energy to a project.
5. Iterate and Act on Ideas: Having small, achievable actions — in the place you already are- is important for one’s own faith in a project. It keeps the momentum going, and allows your own creativity to be part of your everyday life.
Every industry constantly evolves and seeks improvement. How do you think the fashion industry can improve itself? Can you give an example?
All types of human industry seem to be evolving and changing at the speed of light. I believe in finding a balance: as we call it, 溫故知新 (“review the old and learn the new”). I find that it is key to embrace the newness- fusing it with older or different technologies, and even a brand’s identity or philosophy.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Well, I am just a small, individual designer. I always try to learn what would be beneficial for our environment or society, and try to act accordingly. I think at least this attitude can inspire some people to think about their own openness to change, their own ability to have an impact.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.