Away from Zaha Hadid’s globular UFO-shaped Dongdaemun Design Plaza, where Seoul Fashion Week was held a fortnight ago, lies Minju Kim’s studio, hidden in a warren of traditional Korean houses in the tourist-driven but still charming Bukchon Hanok Village. I somehow managed to escape here during my jam-packed schedule during SFW to catch up with Kim. The location felt appropriate somehow for a designer that seemed to me has a bit more soul (or ahem… Seoul…) to her work than some of the razzmatazz-filled shows that I had been seeing that week. You, the international reader might be more familiar with Kim’s work through her eye-catching capsule collection for H&M back in 2013, created as a result of her winning the H&M Design Award. It remains for me, one of the most daring and creatively-fuelled collections to have emerged from H&M’s roster in recent memory. In Kim’s native homeland though, she’s toiling away quietly on her textiles-driven, character-inspired collections, making much less noise than the K-pop catering brands that dominate Seoul Fashion Week, which I recently wrote about for Business of Fashion.
More’s the pity really. Kim’s work is born out of an idiosyncratic individuality, something nurtured through the intensive fashion pathway at the Antwerp Royal Academy under the tutelage of Walter van Beirendonck. Coincidentally, her latest collection rife with illustrations of clambering bears, would clearly get the seal of approval from her legendary bearded former tutor. Over a cup of green tea and a lunch of gimbap rolls, Kim was frank about the difficulties that she faces as a Korean designer, having had a modicum of international success. Her clothes stand out, when pitted against the mass of contemporary pop-driven labels that show at Seoul Fashion Week. The sort of labels that are often backed up with the endorsement of K-pop stars and celebrities that came with their own hysterical fanfare at Seoul Fashion Week, often eclipsing what went down on the runway. They wear the clothes and in turn set the agenda of the designers. A far cry from what Kim is creating in her studio.
She begins her collections through a starting point of an imaginary tale that takes shape in her sketches of mythical creatures. For A/W 16, it’s a cascade of bears falling from the sky, who happen to be guardians of us Earthlings. Like a fictional tribe from a Studio Ghibli film, they’re here to protect us during troubled times. On Kim’s children’s wear nodding silhouettes (admittedly also owing some debt to Miuccia Prada), her bulbous bears are less like cutesy cartoons and more like a graphic pattern and colour blocking device. They’re showcased on custom made fabrics, sourced from Europe. That already raises the bar (and prices) of Kim’s collections, differentiating her work from her peers in Seoul. They feel special, fine-tuned and deserving of a “designer” clothing category bracket.
I caught Kim at a time when she was pondering decisions to perhaps start a casual second line (something of a necessity for many of Seoul’s designers) or commercialise her offering somewhat, in order to assimilate her brand into the Seoul fashion scene. I’m probably the wrong sounding board to be airing such thoughts. I’ve loved Kim’s hand since her graduate collection through to her current work, and “hand” is the operative word when it comes to finding designers in Seoul with a distinct enough signature that you remember them by their personal voice, and not by the K-pop stars that have worn their clothes. Kim may not be shouting the loudest but for me, her work speaks for itself. Even when she does dabble in the K-pop game – she styled the band Red Velvet’s latest video and album artwork – it’s with an aesthetic that is her own. In amongst the giwa-roofed houses, Hanbok wearing-tourists and sites of Korean culture preservation, escaping into Minju Kim’s world was a pleasant respite. You might even call it Seoulful.
Overlooking Bukchon Hanok
Tourists trying on traditional Korean Hanboks on for size
The exterior of Minju Kim’s studio
On the shelves of Minju Kim’s studio
Floral jacquards from Minju Kim’s S/S 16 collection inspired by the tale of Princess Kaguya
K-pop band Red Velvet’s recent artwork, styled by Minju Kim
Kim’s moodboard for A/W 16-7
Preliminary sketches for the characters that Kim features in her collections
Sketches for the silhouettes in the A/W 16-7 collection