2008 has been a stellar year for Jaeha designer Alex Kim. After debuting to rave reviews at last year’s New Zealand Fashion Week (and being espoused as having produced “one of the most stellar newcomer collections ever seen on the fashion week runways” by Stacy Gregg), the young designer wowed audiences again with his offsite show this year, making Bryan Boy’s, NO. Magazine’s and Isaac Likes’s top show lists. But Kim went one step further, securing himself a spot in the top ten of the prestigious international Mango Fashion Awards, to be judged in April 09 by Karl Lagerfeld. And now the fun-loving Korean born Kiwi has a string of international houses chasing after him for a piece of the action.
On Friday I sat down with Kim for a chat about how the year has been for him, the pressures of being labelled the ‘next big thing’ and what he’ll do with the money if (and this blogger hopes when) he wins.
Tell me what 2008 has been like for you?
It’s been amazing, but every year is different, so it seems like every year I’m growing up and a lot of exciting things are happening. Since I started my own label two years ago, perhaps because I started my label when I just graduated, it was nonstop, you know, keep on going keep on going, and this year finally I think I’ve grown up enough that I can actually sit down and think about what I’m going to do. It’s been good, it’s been really good.
At what point did you think to yourself in the last year, hey, from what everyone’s saying, I’m the next big thing, I’m becoming the next young It boy designer?
I don’t know, because when it comes to It boys and It girls, I thought it was just one of those press titles. Pretty much when I first heard it was after my fashion show last year and the press went out and it was like ‘It something’, you know, ‘It boy’, and I was like, okay, maybe that’s how they title it. With the publicity there’s a lot of pressure, there’s more pressure, more to worry about.
So did you feel with the show you did at this year’s fashion week that there was a hell of a lot of pressure for you to deliver or go further than what you did last year?
Yeah definitely, just because that was my second time, so pretty much there was a lot of pressure. But actually when I first designed the collection I was aware of the pressure, but then once I got into it I didn’t really care, I just did my own thing. Then after I was like, ‘ohhh okay let’s wait for it [press reaction]’, but I’m just happy that what I did was what I did. But always every collection to me is like ‘I should have done that’, there’s always self analysing going on, I’m always not happy with what I did but one day I’ll get there.
How difficult is it for you to operate out of New Zealand?
I don’t know I haven’t done it [left NZ] yet, but I if I do move, New Zealand has to be the anchor, it’s where I started, I know the buyers here, I’ve got good relationships going on, but I guess if I took the business elsewhere it would be quite a challenge but also I want to have a presence here, to keep it going, keep that relationship going, because I’ll always be a New Zealand designer. Just like Josh Goot, you know how he works in New York but he’s still an Australian designer. I think the relationship I have with New Zealand helps me, it’s great.
Do you find it difficult because the New Zealand market is quite conservative?
It’s conservative but it’s also very niche for what I do as well, there’s only so many stores that I can be stocked in and especially in times like this, with the recession, not a lot of people can afford to go into boutiques. It’s not like there are a lot of boutiques like that in New Zealand. It’s quite hard to survive perhaps, so that’s why I think if you’re doing this kind of niche you have to go broad, like Australia.
Do you ever feel like you sacrifice making a lot of money – you could be designing more commercial product but you are doing a really high end, really niche product as you say, so do you feel like you sacrifice making money by expanding your creativity in the way you do?
You can think in that way too but it’s more like how do you say – designer’s stubbornness. Someone told me fashion shows are for ego and product is for survival. And I think it’s an ego thing as well, I don’t know what it is, but because I started my label so early, I didn’t really care about it at the time. Like, this is what I’m gonna do, I may as well do it now while I’m young and keep on doing it. And then I learnt about business and I have to pay people and then we had to alter a few things, if you look at the collection 20% will be out there stuff that no one can wear but it’s branding, and half of it will be saleable stuff, just so you can balance it, so you can learn it I guess. But yeah I do feel like if I did two years of designing saleable commercial – but still gritty – clothes, yeah I could have made money, but who knows? I’m just following my heart, I’m just doing what I wanna do. I may as well do it now before I get really serious, or find a part of myself that’s like ‘yeah let’s get money on the table’, business orientated!
And by following your heart look at where’s it’s got you – you were shortlisted in the top ten for the Mango Fashion Awards. So tell me about that.
It happened mid this year, it was pretty much working towards our fashion show for winter 09, and you know every young designer struggles for money, so I was like that’s it, I’m going to research, I’m going to Google it, I’m going to do something about it. And then I wanted to enter these international competitions bacause – I’m just saying it – New Zealand doesn’t have any. We used to have iD Dunedin, and you know Deutz [Young Designer Awards] have gone too, and so I thought if I was going to do it, I may as well do the biggest, who cares, let’s just do it. So I researched it on Google, and in prize money and the scale of the event, the top one, the best one in the world was called the Mango Fashion Awards. And I’d heard about Mango but I hadn’t heard about the competition, so I researched last year’s one, and I saw who the judge was for last year [John Galliano, Hedi Slimane], and I was like okay I’m going to do it, and I looked at the time, the deadline to send off my portfolio to them, and it was literally next week. And I was like oohh it takes about five days to get there, so I was like okay, let’s just do it. So I just drew the collection, but I did the ten outfits in a way that the Mango client can see it and wear it, so it’s much more wearable. It was capsule, taken from my Winter 09, cos that’s what I was working on, but tighter and more fluid, softer draping but more complex as well. So I sent away my folios, all the work that I did and then I had to wait.
So how did they contact you?
There was a specific time that they said they were going to put the finalists on the website, so I was always waiting for that time, but they never did it, so I was like, oh gay. And then I was having a shower one day and someone knocked on the door and said ‘hey, if your name’s on the website, does that mean you’re in?’ And I was like ‘oh yeah yeah yeah why?’ And they were like ‘does that mean you have to go to Barcelona?’ And I was like ‘yeah I know, crazy isn’t it’. And he was like, ‘oh’. And I’m looking at him and I’m like ‘shit… Am I on it?’ And he was like ‘mmhmm!’And I’m like ‘no you don’t even lie,’ I was like ‘if you’re lying about that…’ And I was all wet and I jumped out and I was just like ‘ahhhhhhhhh!’ That was in the morning after the day they said they were going to announce it.
Wow. So you’re flying to Barcelona in April?
Yeah, end of April, beginning of May, but we don’t have the exact dates yet.
And you’ll do a show? Do you have to get all the garments made yourself or do you send off your sketches and they do it over there?
Oh no, we send the sketches but we make them ourselves. We can change it – oh it needs to be changed – so many times, we analyse every one so many times, everyday, drawings are on the wall, and we think let’s change that, let’s make it more tighter – tighter, tighter, tighter! The sketches we sent were outfits, but we have to make it here.
And the judges are Karl Lagerfeld and…?
Yeah I know the judges are Karl Lagerfeld, and last year’s winner as well.
So you’ve gotten quite a lot international attention then, and there’ve been a few rumours flying around that you might be getting picked up by a big house in Paris?
Yes, there were a couple [who contacted him] through Mango, they saw the press releases that have been going out in Europe countries about Mango and who the finalists are and they happened to check my website and they liked what they saw, for them it was new, so yeah there are possibilities, but however it’s not…
So you can’t say who it is yet?
But they want to meet you?
Yes, next year. They left it up to me to come anytime. It’s kind of difficult at this time because I’ve got so many things happening – starting next year from January, production and sampling for my summer/spring then we’ve got Barcelona stuff as well.
How long would you have to go over to Paris for?
So you’d be working in the studio with them?
Yeah, so more like sussing it out. I don’t speak French, I went to Paris when I was what, 11 or 12? And I didn’t even know anything, and now it would be totally different as well. And it would be scary as well because I don’t even know anyone there, I have no friends, yeah, it’ll be a risk.
But if it paid off it could pay off big time!
Yeah definitely, definitely.
So if you win Mango, it’s what NZD$600,000? What will you do with that money if you win? How do you fund your label now?
There used to be a backer when it started, but I’ve been doing my own thing since March 2008. If I do get it, no doubt that I have to invest into my business, but also see how it goes, maybe I should be wise about it.
Or maybe you could just blow it on one massive show at Paris Fashion Week…
Oh yeah, or just buy Lottos, or just buy 600,000 scratchies… No only kidding, but you know what I mean, no doubt I’d spend the money in my business, and it’d be amazing just because, as a designer you always see amazing fabrics and trims and stuff like that. It’s exciting, it’d be good, it’d all about Jaeha label, maybe a few investments perhaps? But seriously I don’t worry about that I’m just thinking, just finish it and go there, and I’m so excited about going to Barcelona and meet those designers and get to know them, that would be an amazing connection to have.
Let’s say you won…
You got the job at the Paris house…
Could you possibly keep your label? Like John Galliano does Dior and then Galliano as well?
Well, I’d really want to, but also I think reality wise, it would have to be something I’d say in the contract – I’m doing your label but however I’m going to take two days or something off to do my own label. But it’s not going to be like bang! I do big Jaeha label, I’d still do small, and I’d probably do a capsule range. Summer/spring 09/10 we’re launching is a really small collection, it’s about 20 outfits, and the winter collection was 65. With me I design something and even if I give myself guidelines of like, I’m going to do so many tops, when I’m designing it I get into the mode ‘oh my God I like that, but I like that too!’ And I just make these excuses like ‘that’s gonna sell, and that will sell but it’s branding, therefore we have to have all of them!’ So pretty much I know when to stop but I do what I wanna do at the moment.