Seoul-based IISE has diligently plied their trade over the course of the last few years. They've reinvented a part of Korean culture and taken a fascinating approach towards representing something that was once within only touching distance. For brothers Kevin and Terrence Kim both came back to Seoul after their formative years spent in the US, but not without a stop in China. During their stint in China, a personal knack for entrepreneurship and storytelling formed the backbone of IISE. In a time when brands are built and destroyed within months, IISE has taken the long yet rewarding route of building something of value and meaning. Most recently, this has propelled them to new heights as the local Korean market comes to understand their own history and culture modernized and made relevant.
We spoke with Kevin and Terrence ahead of our Open Dialogue openings at K11 and Fashion Walk. To commemorate the opening, we worked with IISE on a collaborative T-shirt that married the respective essence of Korea and Hong Kong.
Could you introduce yourself, what you do and IISE?
Kevin Kim: My name's Kevin Kim. Title-wise, I’m the creative director, so I handle all the creative stuff, design, production, things that are product related.
Terence Kim: Hey, I'm Terence Kim. My title is CEO and I handle a lot of the business and marketing side. We're both co-founders and also brothers of the brand.
For those who aren't familiar, how did the brand come to be, and what is the logo of?
KK: After TK [Terence] graduated university, he moved to China. I followed a year after and we were living out in Asia, learning Chinese. At that point in time,we kinda had this idea of starting a shoe brand. But that came up out of convenience because we were in China and it was the production capital of the world at the time.
Fast forward, the pursuit of that shoe thing led us to Korea on vacation where we briefly met an older Korean designer. He was kind of a mentor where he showed us the ropes about fashion. And then that led us to making bag samples and other clothing, instead of shoe samples.
And the logo is a rework of traditional Korean architecture. There's a lot of square and rectangular patterns in it. So we adopted it to be the logo for the brand.
Seoul has long been known as the new breeding ground for up-and-coming brands. How has this geographical placement influenced IISE? Can you tell us a little bit about this unique brand identity?
KK: The whole concept of the brand was really, us being Korean Americans coming to Korea for the first time and seeing Korean culture through design, music, architecture. We had no exposure to these things growing up.
It really gave us a sense of pride in our Asian culture for the first time,and truly enabled this sense of curiosity towards understanding it. So, for us, it was like, ‘oh, it'd be really interesting to apply this perspective for a global audience.’
And then we were like, in our head, if we find an industry, there's definitely a lot of people back home who would find it interesting. So even if we start a brand in Korea, we don't necessarily have to market it or a focus on the Korea market for now. We could just start making products authentically and then exporting that to a Western audience, which was like totally our plan anyway.
In Asia or Korea specifically, it's one of those weird things like. If you do really well outside of Korea, then Korean people will like, fuck with you more. You know what I mean? So there was a bit of that.
What are some design influences for the brand? How would you sum up the IISE aesthetic in a sentence?
KK: We once saw a Korean Buddhist monk wearing this cloth bag and we really liked the way it looked because it didn't have any hardware on it. There were no buckles for the straps, it was all hand-tied knots. So, the actual first first idea for IISE was when we saw the bag and were like, ‘we should modernize that silhouette to something younger people would like, but still maintain the history and function behind it. That would be a cool item and something very different we haven't seen before.’
The big picture is always trying to bring some aspect of Korean culture, whether it's traditional or present day and trying to tie that to the actual design aesthetic of it. The concept of what we're doing this season is also the reflection of our journey as fashion designers.
Can you talk about the direction you guys chose for the upcoming IISE and Open Dialogue collaboration?
KK: Yeah. So when we first started talking to like Eugene and Alex about it, the whole idea and concept around Open Dialogue is having this platform where you have an open discourse with different types of people. And the way we interpreted that was, how do you use a tee shirt or product to convey the same message?’ And what I mean by that is combining different textures and layering, and all those are innately parts of IISE’s DNA. That was the similarity between ODE and IISE in terms of that concept.
The piece that we worked on together is a tee shirt that has a lot of details to it, but it's based off a previous t-shirt that we made called the mixed medium tee shirt, which is a regular t-shirt, but it has an all-over graphic print strip that cuts through the side of it. For the silhouette, we brought in digital printing through a photo of Hong Kong taken by photographer Chris Lim, self screening, and Korean phonetics.
Can you talk a little bit about the New Era hat release?
KK: We have an archive of traditional Korean designs that depending on opportunity we try to reinterpret part of it.
The traditional hats that we referenced the ‘gat’ or ‘갓’ in Korean. We’ve always been looking for the right opportunity to use it. We reached out to New Era because they're professional hat makers and probably the best partner to execute an idea like that. In old Korea they used to make that hat out of horse hair, but, in a modern context, it's pretty difficult. So luckily we have that fabric called organza, which has a similar aesthetic to it.
To be honest with you, we didn't think that this collaboration was going to do well. We thought, ‘oh, it'll be a fun marketing thing, let's just put it out.’ But surprisingly, this collabo has been one of our most successful to date. It did pretty well, especially for the Korean market.
Maybe the younger generation has a different appreciation than the older generation. So yeah, it's good and it was both interesting and commercially successful. But even deeper than that, we're just very surprised about the response from the domestic market, which gives us a lot more confidence to push that narrative.
What does fashion personally mean for both of you?
KK: Fashion is definitely a representation of how people perceive themselves and for us, on doing IISE, it goes deeper than that because it's how we ended up using a fashion brand to truly explore and portray our whole journey with identity. It’s a lot deeper than just like, ‘oh, what kind of style do you want to wear?’
We weren't even studying fashion, or any of that really. We just fell into this and we ended up using this as a way to really learn more about ourselves and our culture.
For us, it became a very, very personal journey. It's really more than a business and a fashion thing. It's a study of ourselves and our history and future.