If you ask stylephiles to rattle off a short list of the world’s fashion capitals, you’d be hard-pressed to find any who classify South Korea amidst the best of the best. But while the gaze of fashion has been firmly fixed upon New York, London, Paris, and Milan, Seoul-based brands have quickly established themselves not only as ones to watch, but ones to watch out for. Producing looks that are streetwise, quirkily outside the mainstream, and yet utterly wearable, these designers are carving out a niche all their own—one that also places them in the crosshairs of what forward-thinking youth around the globe want to wear. Without ever setting foot in couture-centric cities, South Korean brands have already managed to establish their own loyal roster of celebrity clientele, composed largely of teen idols and K-pop stars striving for the forefront of what’s cool, now, and next.
Leading this new wave of upstart designers from the East is Kathleen Kye. Her brand, KYE, is the epitome of high fashion streetwear. Heavily influenced by hip hop and its associated style cues, KYE riffs on these fashionable tropes, combining them with quotidien inspirations (ropes, chains, and Band-Aids all find their way into the mix) to create something completely original and surprisingly luxe. Her experimentations with faux fur have expanded the conception of the ethically and financially sound fabric’s usability, as well as its capacity for glamour. KYE’s growth from indie Asian label to the toast of NYFW is testament to the strength of design and clarity of aesthetic pouring out of her home country. With support from some of fashion’s most influential tastemakers, including the likes of Tim Blanks, Carine Roitfeld, and Kanye West, KYE is poised to push South Korean designers out of the wings and onto center stage.
Just like all the other designers, I used to love dressing my dolls and myself since I was a little girl. Although I doodled a lot of sketches since a very young age, I legitimately started designing when I went to Central Saint Matins [London’s famed art and design school], where I did my B.A. and M.A. I remember designing and making a “meat-suit” for the interview. (This was long before Lady Gaga!)
What do you think distinguishes South Korean design from fashion coming out of Paris, Milan, or New York?
I studied and lived in London and was born in the States. I am a Korean-American who decided to be based in Seoul. I show in both NYC and Seoul, so I may be a little bit different from other designers. SK designers are very diverse. [The region] has many different styles.
American retailers seem to be newly fascinated with the young Korean design scene. What was the initial reception of your work?
I think Korean designs, especially the ones that the American retailers pick up, are a bit different and fun yet still quite wearable. I started showing in NYFW through Concept Korea (the government-sponsored collaborative show at Lincoln Center). This season, with two seasons of CK [behind me], I was able to have my first [solo] show. I focus a lot on styling with the help of NY stylists.
Your designs seem to be very influenced by streetwear, why are you drawn to that type of clothing or style of dress?
I majored in menswear—but never the classic tailoring type, more unisex designs. So I was always into high end streetwear. I’m also influenced a lot by music. I’m the biggest hip hop fan and so are my main celebrity customers and friends. I think that has a lot to do with the collection.
It seems like your clothing is getting a lot of support from big names in the business.
Getting accepted onto the LVMH Prize list was a big opportunity for KYE. In fact, we are discussing a project together with Kanye West. It’s still too early to talk about it, but it will be interesting.
How do you hope to see your brand grow over the coming year? What would be a benchmark of success for the brand in your eyes?
YE’s early collections were more pop and were designed with a certain type of retailer in mind. I’m trying to gradually expand my style so that the collections will attract various markets and customers. Although it’s very different from my work, my biggest benchmark of success is Alexander Wang.
What is your WILD Wish?
To gain international success and recognition? I don’t really have one!
Designer: Kathleen Kye
Model: Lee Ho Jung
Hair: Kang Hyun Jin
Make up: Won Jo Yeon
Photo assistant: Kim Heejune
Producer: Ryu Kyung Yoon