Brothers Terence and Kevin Kim are the duo behind futuristic Korean clothing label IISE. Their clothes take inspiration from Korean architecture and traditional garments like hanbok, updating the silhouettes with a futuristic lens and forward-thinking fabrics like GORE-TEX. Living in Seoul, they share how the country's lauded approach to combating Covid-19 has kept them ahead of the game.
We also discuss how K-pop fandoms have used their platforms for good and advocating for social justice and causes like Black Lives Matter, and why even after a rise in anti-Asian sentiment during the spread of the pandemic, there's never been a better time to be Asian in the Western world.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Jian DeLeon: What's going on? How's Seoul treating you guys?
Terrence Kim: Seoul is actually pretty good now. It seems like we've bounced back a lot. Everything's open. It just seems kind of like... “normal” life. Obviously people are a lot more cautious and everyone's still wearing masks, but we've been coming to the office and pretty much never stayed home.
JD: People look to South Korea as the example of exactly how to handle this pandemic. You guys had mass testing and contact tracing early on. In the U.S. it'll be a while before plenty of things reopen. Is anything else still closed over there?
TK: Pretty much only nightclubs are closed, but everything else has been open for months. We still get government alerts about new cases or warnings like: “stay away from this area.” The government's been really responsive and they communicate a lot with the citizens. So that's been really helpful.
JD: It isn't easy to be a small business today— let alone an independent clothing label. How have you shifted your strategy as a brand?
TK: Like everyone else we're of shifting more towards digital and online, and a little bit less focused on the wholesale side. Another big strategy difference is our regional focus has shifted more toward Asia and Korea, which has been recovering a lot quicker than the Western countries.
JD: IISE is known for designs that toe between utility, tradition, and a bit of a protective element that can be seen in your collaborations with companies like GORE-TEX. I feel like it's especially relevant in this kind of paradigm.
Kevin Kim: I haven't noticed like a big change in people's style, but in terms of Covid-19, what we did notice is a lot was people are more conscious of how they spend their money. That means investing in pieces as opposed to just buying a bunch of hype stuff. So for us, I think the biggest change that we noticed for our collections moving forward is bringing a lot more story into them. So highlighting the utility aspect, the Korean inspiration, and the traditional fabrics and techniques. We're trying to bring that more to the forefront, especially in our Spring 2021 collection.
TK: Interpreting Korean culture is a reflection of our journey as Korean-Americans. We were born and raised in America, and we came to Korea, and everything about Korea was so new to us. For native Koreans, when they look at traditional Korean architecture or clothing or hanbok, it might look very old to them. But to us, it looked futuristic. In our eyes it was very new and fresh, and we're into technical fabrics and those kinds of things too, so it was natural for us to try to modernize and combine the two.
JD: You guys donated a portion of your proceeds from June 1st to 14th to the Black Lives Matter movement, but Korea has also played a big part in activism in the US. I'm sure you guys have seen how K-Pop fandoms have taken it upon themselves to stand for BLM and even register for seats at Trump rallies.
TK: This is the first time I've seen K-pop weaponized for good causes. I can't really explain the phenomenon, but I think K-pop's fandom is so strong, and maybe they just galvanize toward positive causes that their idols represent, I guess. It's pretty awesome to see though.
KK: Obviously K-pop and K-hip-hop take huge influences from Black culture. But a number of big people like CL and Jay Park have spoken out publicly about it. And I think that's brought a lot more awareness to the issue from all their fans too. Korea is a homogenous country, so I guess to the average Korean who's been born and raised here, the idea of racism, isn't an every day reality for them. So yeah, it's brought a lot of awareness, education, and curiosity, which is a great first step.
JD: What do you guys make of this brand new awareness and energy around Korean culture in general? Before coronavirus hit, the Parasite win at the Oscars was a big W. Then came the new Snowpiercer adaptation. But all of a sudden came this rise in anti-Asian sentiment. But it seems like there's a new wave of energy around the country and its culture.
TK: It's such a swing for us too, but I think the best part is we're finally becoming part of the conversation. not just Koreans, East Asians, or Asians in general. The progression is moving forward in terms of like awareness of what we do, what our culture is about, and creatives in our industries. It's the best time to be Asian in the Western world, because there's so many more platforms and opportunities, which I really love, because these are things that we never saw as kids.
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