The designers behind international fashion accessories brand IISE, meaning ‘second generation’, are Korean American brothers TK and Kevin Kim. Having documented the unique experience of creating their newest collection on their social media networks, much well-deserved hype has built around IISE in the last few months. We sat down with the two to chat about creating authentic Korean-influenced pieces in Seoul, the reaction they get from other Koreans, and the arduous process of using only naturally dyed fabrics in their collection.
Chincha: Can you introduce IISE in brief?
IISE: IISE is a contemporary take on traditional Korean culture interpreted through fashion accessories. For this collection, we mainly took inspiration from Korean architecture and hanbok clothing, applied that to street style and found a medium between the modern and the traditional.
Chincha: You recently launched your first collection of bags. How important was it to do this collection here in Seoul?
IISE: Creating Korean-inspired products in Korea is obviously the best. There’s inspiration everywhere. If we were doing IISE in New York we would have to use the Internet or go to K-town, which is not really Korean. For Korean inspiration and design we’re in the mecca.
Half of the things we saw and put into our bags we never would have seen if we weren’t here. IISE wouldn’t have started if we hadn’t come to Korea. Although we’re Korean American and were exposed to some Korean stuff growing up, we weren’t as aware of truly authentic things. The details in design, architecture, and art just blew us away.
Chincha: So you started the collection in Seoul rather than coming to Seoul to start the collection?
IISE: Yeah. When we first came to Korea we came here for a different reason. We came to Asia to make shoes in China and were coming back and forth to Seoul to collaborate with a local designer. One day, we were walking around Insadong, near Jogyesa temple, and we saw this monk with an old-school looking sack on. We saw his bag with the knotted straps tying it together and both immediately wanted one. Seeing monks wear clothing that hasn’t changed in centuries in such an advanced city like Seoul was so bizarre yet intriguing.
Then we came across organic dyeing and realized we could make a similar style with a more modern cut, in different colours, using quality fabrics. That’s how IISE started off. It was first the Monk Sack and then the other styles were added slowly.
Chincha: How did the collection progress into using traditional Korean dying methods?
IISE: The designer we were here collaborating with showed us all these ingredients like twigs and beans and then revealed the colours they made. The results were shocking. This one time, when we were dyeing silk with onion peels and natural rust from metal or iron, the colour turned orange. Dyeing fabrics with items found in nature is such an interesting process and we learned so much as we continued to meet new organic dyers around the country.
The colours and textures of every yard of fabric that gets dyed are completely different and can never be exactly replicated. Every single one of our bags is a one-of-a-kind piece. Design-wise, it’s the same, but each product has different cuts and textures in the fabric. That’s one thing our customers really appreciate.
Chincha: Is it unusual to use these dying techniques in Korea?
IISE: The method is mostly practiced in the countryside by an older generation. For the past year and a half we’ve met a bunch of organic dyers. Because we were two young Western guys trying to learn more about the craft, the organic dyers were a little confused at first, but also very open to teaching us as much they could. They told us that the method they use is a dying art because using chemicals inks is so much faster and cheaper. They were appreciative that someone from our generation was willing to learn more about the process. The fabrics we used were dyed during the wintertime, the most difficult time period to complete the process, and it took our dyers roughly 5 weeks to achieve the colours we wanted.
Chincha: So if young Koreans aren’t interested in traditional dyeing are they interested in your product?
IISE: When we first started IISE, our target customer was other Westerners who really didn’t know much about Korean culture at all. We thought since a lot Koreans are sometimes skeptical about fashion from Korea they might not be too interested. But the past few weeks through our Facebook marketing and blogging, we’ve gotten such a positive response from Koreans, which has really surprised us. It’s encouraging to know that other Koreans can understand and support our brand’s concept and what we are trying to accomplish.
Chincha: Do you ever take influence from what young people are wearing on the streets of Korea?
IISE: Honestly, I think we’re more inspired when we go to these architectural buildings, like a hanok building and we see an ajumma wearing a strange, traditional outfit. Other than hanboks we don’t get too much inspiration from fashion, at least on the Korean side. A lot of our influences come from things like door panels or rice paper arrangements found in interior design.
Chincha: Is that why it was important for you to shoot your lookbook in a hanok?
IISE: I guess we want to expose where our stuff is coming from and also set the tone for the collection. The culture aspect of our brand is important. It’s Korean-inspired and we want to showcase that to our customers.
You see a lot of western brands adopting Asian influences these days. We saw a Louis Vuitton collection from 2012 and one of their jackets looks like a hanbok, folded across with a belt to tie it around which was pretty surprising. We think Western brands will continue to use more and more Asian details for the next few years. It’s really something fresh and different from what they are used to.
Chincha: What is your future plan for IISE?
IISE: For the next year we’ve planned three more releases. A capsule collection is scheduled for May, our Spring/ Summer collection is going to come out sometime between August and September, and one more capsule collection right before Christmas. We’re going to branch out, expand the bag line and start making wallets and wearable accessories. We want to make IISE a Korean-inspired, street-influenced lifestyle brand. It’s a huge dream of ours and this is the first step.
Interview by Loren Cotter. Photographs by Aaron Choe.