Last year, haute couture designer Kay Kim got an unexpected phone call from Lee Soo-man, founder and chief director of SM Entertainment.
SM, one of the big four entertainment agencies in Korea, along with JYP, YG and Big Hit, was on the verge of unveiling its new girl band Aespa. Consisting of four Asian members ― two Koreans, a Japanese and a Chinese ― the "international K-pop act" had drawn keen attention from the media even its their official debut in November, partly because each member had their own avatars.
The fact that SM was launching a new girl band for the first time in six years after Red Velvet was another talking point that created a media frenzy over Aespa.
Over the phone, Lee was asking if Kim was willing to join the "Aespa project" as a designer.
"I said, 'Why not?" Kim said during a recent interview with The Korea Times at her shop in Seoul.
She said she didn't think twice about Lee's offer because she knew it would be challenging and rewarding to join the project.
"I was asked to come up with artistic and haute couture-like costumes so that it could create the image of Aespa who is new, artistic and unique. I accepted the offer on the spot as I found the concept of the girl group interesting, especially the avatar thing, as it reflects the current era where people in the real world interact with a virtual world. I was intrigued by the fact that it was a project about the future of people," Kim said.
Lee wanted each of the girl band members to be portrayed as chic, stylish, and gorgeous, next-generation warriors committed to saving the world from a fictional villain called Black Mamba.
The heart-pounding moment of being part of the SM project didn't last long.
The problems associated with designing outfits suitable for a digital era girl band was much more intense than she had initially thought.
Her creations were akin to creating something out of nothing. The clock was ticking for their debut, making the designer work under extreme pressure.
Kim squeezed in several meetings with the band members into her already busy schedule to listen to their expectations and get an idea of their debut stage costumes.
The designer also listened to their debut song many times.
Working with the young girls for their much-anticipated stage debut was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Kim. She said she had so much fun during the entire process, although the SM girl band project was very different from what Kim had done in the past.
Nevertheless, she had the skill as an haute couture designer to come up with attire that met SM's expectations.
Her career has basically involved meeting clients' demands through consultations and coming up with elegant dresses quickly while keeping an eye on the latest trends and cultural differences.
Kim is a hard worker by nature. But a large portion of her work style was learned and cultivated through education and her professional career in Seoul, Paris and London. Her international experience helped her create a unique fashion brand that can appeal to both Koreans and people from other cultures.
After majoring in fashion at Yonsei University in Seoul, Kim went to France to study at MJM Graphic Design Paris and completed a CMB color & fashion consulting course in London where she received training in creating haute couture dresses, which are considered to be the pinnacle of fashion. She also worked as a freelancer for several years in Paris.
"It takes more time for an haute couture designer to become successful compared to designers who make ready-to-wear dresses. But I just fell in love with the beauty of haute couture fashion, which is on the top of the fashion pyramid."
Kim said she was a bookworm and a hard-working student who never knew how to enjoy life. That trait ended up making her sick.
"When I was in Paris, I was obsessed with winning the first place in school. I thought I needed to study hard and be the best because my parents paid a lot of money to educate me in France. So I didn't get much rest and simply spent my time only in school, museums, and art galleries even on weekends. But after one-and-a-half years there, I started to faint every day even though I had no clear health problems. I was seriously thinking of quitting fashion because of the issue."
But her doctor and instructor told her that she was working "too hard" and not enjoying her time in Paris while urging her to have fun. She didn't believe the physician at first, but came to the realization that she may have been sick because she didn't enjoy the process and had forgotten about why she had jumped into the fashion world, and her affection toward clothes.
"Apart from me, who was narrow minded and only aimed to be No. 1 in the school, my schoolmates chose to do fashion because they just loved it. But I also realized that I do love fashion too. I never get tired when looking at clothes. I was excited to go out even just window shopping when I was sick. After that realization, I just traveled and had a good time with friends without thinking about becoming the best fashion designer. I gradually became healthier again and was good at school and work, too."
After spending some years as a freelance designer in Paris, she came back to Korea and founded "Kay Kim Boutique" in 1993 designing and selling haute-couture dresses.
She focuses on highlighting the natural beauty of people in making custom-made clothes by consulting with her clients many times, while also considering other factors such as the position of the clients and their backgrounds. She does not take an order without meeting a client first because she thinks she can figure out what makes the client most beautiful by understanding his or her lifestyle and personality through in-person interviews. It depends on the individual, but it takes around two weeks to finish a custom-made dress costing around 1.5 million won.
Kim, however, hasn't given up pn the commercial side of fashion. She aimed to come up with "wearable" and "sustainable" high-fashion clothes at the same time. While becoming a successful fashion designer, creating party dresses and red-carpet outfits for A-list stars such as Lee Young-ae, Lee Hyo-ri, Kim Hee-sun and Lee Ha-nee, she also began running her fashion brand "Kay Kim," holding fashion shows almost every year while directing for various fashion venues and designing costumes for musicals and international events such as the G20 Summit held in Seoul in 2010, and a fashion show for the Paralympic Winter Games in PyeongChang in 2018.
Many of her works are also inspired by her cultural background, Korea. She adopted many patterns and fabrics from Korean traditions and turned them into something new and creative, which appealed to customers with their uniqueness. For example, her fashion show held at the Baccarat Museum in Paris in 2019 was inspired by a traditional Korean painting of flowers and birds. She released 40 new haute couture dresses, some of which used only traditional fabrics and were inspired by traditional Korean moon jars.
She is also expanding her contribution to society. She recently collaborated with Hyundai Motor to create "sustainable" clothes by using used fabrics from cars while preparing a charity fashion show for disabled people this year.
The market for couture clothes is still small and global fashion is on the verge of changing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. People are buying fewer clothes and increasingly favor sportswear at home, Kim said. But she believes that the mixture of cultural aspects will become common in the fashion industry and haute couture clothes will become necessary, enduring as a classic art form by offering people a chance to enjoy beauty. Kim said that is why she continues to pursue high-end fashion.
"There is a tough road ahead to create haute couture fashion which is disappearing. I think we are in the middle of a change in fashion culture now. More people wear pajamas during this era of social distancing and fewer people wear tailored garments with accessories."
"The tendency of cultural convergence between so-called Western and Eastern cultures will become more common across the continent amid the pandemic. Also, I expect that the concept of cyber human and actual human will also be mixed. I am planning to come up with high-fashion that can satisfy the new type of human; something both a robot and a human being can wear. I believe the traditional art will be preserved like classical music. And the beauty of haute couture will enable the style to stay alive just like the way we admire the beauty of classics. I would like to create enduring pieces of art."
source: The Korea Times