New York-based brand Kaimin designs for a future that will bring innovation and abundance in a culture where there will be no prejudices. This is why Kaimin creates extremely revealing bondage dresses and highly sculptural pieces that defy all looming possibilities in their construction process.
All whilst building powerful, sensual and inclusive imagery which can be seen in their campaign films and even runway shows that have been walked by club kid royalty like Amanda Lepore, Susanne Bartsch and newcomers Hungry, Brooke Candy and Ugly Worldwide. We talk to the designer about all of these subjects as well as others like the fine line between empowerment and fetishization or the eventual – or hopefully unlikely – AI takeover.
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Could you first tell us a little bit about yourself?
I was born in Seoul (South Korea) and my family has some Japanese roots, but I’m pretty much a full-fledged New Yorker at this point. My fashion brand Kaimin is based on the Lower East Side and I love working with all different kinds of artists here in the United States and around the globe.
Knowing how defiant you are as a designer, how was it like growing up in such a homogeneous society like the one in South Korea? Also, when and why did you make the move to New York City?
As a kid, I was pretty shy and quiet rather than rebellious and often didn’t feel like I quite fit in. Asian societies in general, and South Korea in particular, are historically homogeneous and there is this overpowering behavioral similarity – culture similarity, generation similarity. Deviation from the norm is rare and is almost frowned upon, although things are changing now. I always felt the need to be different and not to adhere to some social barometer, which I couldn’t relate to. I think this shaped my aesthetic and fueled my curiosity.
I had a chance fairly early on to visit New York City to work with some talented people here and, with this glimpse of the creative and cultural kaleidoscope, I knew I wanted to live here someday. After a few more trips, I moved here permanently. New York is definitely one of the best places for progressive ideas – there is enough room here for all.
I’ve read that you have an extensive artistic background that you’ve described as ‘unconventional’ for a fashion designer, but which disciplines have you been involved in? And when did you decide to switch creative fields and start your own label?
I’ve always had a strong desire to explore and have tried expressing myself via several different mediums through the years, including illustration, set design, creative direction, styling, conceptual art, and even some theatre and performance art. Another fun expedition came about a few years ago when I had the pleasure of recording a couple of experimental songs with Gavin Rayna Russom of LCD Soundsystem, who also performed a killer live synth set at one of my recent runway shows.
It’s always very exciting for me to work with other like-minded artists to create something grand together, and, at some point, this format became formalized under the umbrella of what we call the Zero Zero Project, a travelling conceptual art exhibition and publication. Actually, my initial foray into clothing design actually came with Zero Zero Vol. 02, titled Them/Her. It featured stylist Nicola Formichetti, photographer Miles Aldridge, and me as a model. It was presented as a multi-sensory, high-tech video pop-up exhibition, with an installation by Snarkitecture, in the Meatpacking district of Manhattan during New York Fashion Week.
We had the honor of presenting the Vol. 02 book at my beloved Paris store, Colette. I also created a stand-alone clothing collection for the female character and the Korean designer Juun.J created the pieces for the male characters. This was the genesis for the Kaimin label, which I started a couple of years after.
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From what I can gather, the images from Zero Zero Vol. 02 are hyper-sexualised and influenced by Japanese shunga, which is also recurring in Kaimin. What would you say is the line between empowerment and fetishization when it comes to this kind of imagery?
I think it’s a matter of taste and it can be a very fine line indeed, but these two words do mean very different things, so it just has to be very clear which one is the goal. Clearly, fetishes are an easy attention-grabber, a vehicle to advance a message, and in today’s short-attention-span, sensory-overloaded world it’s become more frequently used. A metaphor. Then, because there’s so much cross-over now, a lot of the strong, standalone elements get diluted and this convergence has left very few things taboo.
If talking strictly art, I love fetishist imagery because there’s a certain element of mystique and instinctual rawness. If done tastefully with a clear aim, be it representing empowerment or something else, I think it’s ok to blur lines. People will always debate what’s excessive.
On another note, it’s quite obvious that you’re interested in that futuristic feel and aesthetic, seen in your designs. But you go even further than that by including it in your use of fabrics and treatment of them, through 3D printing and laser cutting, for example. When and why did you start using these techniques and why are they so necessary to your brand?
I’ve always been fascinated by what the distant future holds and what mind-bending innovations will come around. We’re already living in today so it’s a lot more fun to design for tomorrow, that’s why pretty much every piece of clothing I’ve ever made is permeated with this theme of exploring the looming possibilities. I’d like to think that the future will bring abundance and innovation not just in the material sense but also in our culture and thinking, where humans will finally reach total equilibrium with nature and each other – no prejudices –, and Kaimin clothing is but one way to represent this future.
Using innovative materials and production techniques is therefore important for both achieving the futuristic effect I strive for and for helping to push progress and validating applications of new technologies. We also feel it’s important to consider the environment so we try to do our part by using many recycled, sustainable, and organic materials.
Your latest collection is titled 2081: Cyber-Ordinary. Are these the designs that will be seen as the ‘new normal’ in the future? What do you think we should be expecting for the last leg of the century? Will we be wearing extremely revealing bondage dresses and over-the-top, sculptural garments whilst we become subservient to a higher AI power?
This collection explores archetypes of future beauty and is heavily influenced by such films as Blade Runner and Ex-Machina, specifically their protagonists – androids and cyborgs. I’m a total believer in the eventual symbiosis of man and machine. Think of my futuristic designs as coming from more of a prism than a crystal ball. In large part, this collection is about defeating the mundane and exploring and strengthening that which sets one apart, no matter the era. If today’s fever pitch around privacy, sexual correctness, censorship, etc. ever leads to a dystopian control of self-expression, I’d want my clothes to declare: when the extraordinary is outlawed, only the outlaws will be extraordinary.
Regarding predictions, with sexuality’s taboo status eroding ever-faster and science closing in on the Matrix, your extrapolation may not be too far off… Hopefully, it’s more of the revealing and sculptural and less of the subservient!
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Another influence that we can see in Kaimin comes from club kid culture, as you’ve had iconic people like Amanda Lepore and Susanne Bartsch walk for you, as well as others that seem to continue that legacy, like Hungry, Brooke Candy and Ugly Worldwide. I guess that living in New York is a big reason for this, but what draws you to this particular kind of people?
My designs aren’t consciously or directly influenced by club kid culture but rather allude to and advocate the celebrated ideals I believe underpin this movement. These ideals are also part of the Kaimin brand DNA, specifically individuality, self-confidence and self-expression as well as boundless inclusivity.
 This creativity and uniqueness, being true to oneself, is paramount. Whether it’s found in the club kids or anyone else, it commands respect immediately, be it in New York City or anywhere else in the world. This is what we strive to reflect when casting for our runway shows and campaigns with strong personalities like various artists, musicians, and influencers. It all comes together because their stories align with Kaimin’s values in some way.
Picking up on that, it’s safe to say that although Kaimin may be a womenswear brand, it’s essentially a brand for everyone, as you’ve had people of all genders model for you. Would you say that it is just a free-for-all instead of labelling it as unisex, genderless, etc.?
I think characterization is inherently contentious and in trying to break out from under existing labels we only seem to be creating more new ones. My wish is to empower and provide a sense of occasion to whoever wears my pieces, irrespective of their character, body figure, skin color, and gender.
Finally, should we expect to see more cross-media experiences and projects from you? What does the future hold for Kaimin?
Absolutely. Kaimin will continue to further integrate technology into its garments and content and we’ll keep pushing boundaries with artists across different realms. We have a few surprises in store that should delight our community very soon!
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