Fashion designer Siki Im’s artistic vision reveals the ironies and conflicts of modern society.
Siki Im is a phenomenon among designers. He is a man ahead of his time, setting future trends with his clean lines and structured designs. With six impressive collections under his belt, this multifaceted fashion designer is sure to make a deep mark in the fashion industry.
This Germany-born graduate of Oxford School of Architecture moved to New York in 2001. Siki Im cut his teeth in the fashion world while working under Karl Lagerfeld and Helmut Lang as Senior Designer. This was before he won the prestigious 2010 Ecco Domani award that provided his first show at Bryant Park. In his 2012 SS collection, which premiered at Lincoln Center, Siki commented on politics surrounding the Arab Spring by embedding the cultural elements of the region into the defining details of his garments. As in previous collections, his classic-yet-modern tailoring is still at the fore, and his reworking of a classic fabric like denim gives the collection a refreshingly casual vibe.
This particular collection recalls his very first line, which grabbed my attention in 2010. Without any knowledge of the designer, I was drawn to his signature blazer that had been tailored to perfection with quality wool, its slick cut and nostalgic ’60s design.
Western tailoring has long been his staple, but what is truly impressive about Siki Im is his genius for applying cultural elements in his multimedia presentation (via innovative videos each season and the Building Fashion Installations project with BFFO). In the video from the “A New Era” F/W 2010 collection, viewers are confronted with a satire about society’s financiers and elite based on American Psycho.
Siki suggested these “golden boys” required a new wardrobe, defying conventional dress codes with subtle details influenced by sub-cultural references. The minimally applied details give his collections an edgy look among a myriad of young design talents in the city. He thrives on the dichotomy and tensions in our society: mainstream versus sub-cultures, soft versus hard, construction versus deconstruction, and globalization versus localization. Siki Im’s foundations are rooted in the structural and tailored elements. But, what makes him special is the fact that Siki Im understands the idea that perfection is in the detail. He never misses the chance to bring social issues and easily dismissed cultural phenomena into his eponymous collections.
You began in architecture. As an architect, how did the transition to fashion happen for you?
I didn’t really plan to become a fashion designer. An architect, in my opinion, is a designer who primarily designs spaces. So, physically, they design buildings, but they also design other things, like the program of the space, how spaces interact with one another, the movement, and how people inhabit the space or use it. They do not just design mere objects, but, actually a concept more than an object. The same thing is translated for furniture, to graphics, to teapots. A lot of architects are doing these things. When I was a student in architecture, or maybe even before that, I was interested in a lot of things, not just buildings. Designing chairs, furniture, graphic design, web design….but, I knew, on top of all that, I would always love fashion. I never really thought I wanted to do fashion, I just liked what people were doing and the expression, and then I accidentally fell into it.
It makes sense to me that an architect switched to fashion design, because architecture is art and science at the same time, and there is a technical element to fashion. Did you learn those things on your own?
In my opinion – and I teach now at Parsons – the only reason you go to a university is either to become more disciplined, or to get a qualification, a branding. But there are architects like Tadao Ando who didn’t go to school for architecture; you must be an alien to do so, kind of weird, crazy. Fashion is much faster, more emotional. Seeing that architecture projects take a few years, you produce a line in fashion twice a year; it’s a whole different mindset. The energy, the dynamics…it’s all very different, but I learned proportions through my studies in architecture, and it’s so different, scale-wise, in fashion. There aren’t many architects that shift to fashion. It also has to do with being in New York, people are much more open, and you can change quickly. In France or elsewhere in Europe, it’s much more rigid, very structured, very old, you can’t just move around. That’s the beauty of New York. That’s why we’re all here.
You mentioned in an interview in 2010 that you felt trapped by literary references, and your recent inspiration was the topography of globalization. I think you signaled in your first season that books influence you; did you come back to the literary reference again in your most recent collection?
Yes, I was then reading The Cultures of Globalization by Fredric Jameson. I love the fact that everything is somehow related. Every collection is literary. I was also very interested in anthropologists and philosophers like Fredric Jameson, Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze, all talking about contemporary culture. That’s why I read that book and used it as an inspiration. It’s very cool that you found that out.
One of the reasons that I used the literature is because of what’s currently happening in the Middle East. My third collection, the Isolation Immigration collection, was based on the movie La Haine, from French screenwriter and director Mathieu Kassovitz. It was very personal because of the way I grew up as a Korean immigrant in Germany. I would listen to American hip-hop, I would skateboard and do graffiti, and these are all little references in my work.
How was it, growing up in Germany as an Asian immigrant?
I didn’t have many Asian friends; they were mostly German, Eastern European, or Turkish. I grew up in a so-so neighborhood, but I went to grammar school, I was always in two different worlds, there was always a dichotomy. I think you can see all of this in my collection, there is always a clash; that’s me in a way: a good clash. First, was the American Psycho collection, in which you could see the downfall of Wall Street; that’s when the recession was really bad. In that same collection I was using soft, materials with hard, strong lines, reminiscent of hardcore culture. There is always a certain social dichotomy, which I’m really interested in. Soft and hard come together and create a certain newness, and I don’t really know what it is. That’s what I love; I love exploring.
Your last collection, Silent Thunderbird Prayer, was very well received. What are your feelings on that?
I was going through a very spiritual time and I wasn’t thinking of a concept, or a book. I was just thinking of myself, and how I wanted to represent my spirituality; that’s why the text was very short. I didn’t want to write a long text about the concept. It’s, again, another trap. People expect me to write a long concept and just wrote two sentences about the collection. It’s not about the concept; it’s just about the shapes, colors, and spirituality – that’s it. However, for my SS 2012 collection, I wrote a long statement again.
I want to get ideas more from what my inspiration is – the Middle East – but when I design, I guess I subconsciously use references from my own references, which I cannot control. I don’t think it’s just design that I like, it’s the sensibility, the culture.
You’ve worked with Karl Lagerfeld and Helmut Lang, what has working with those two major designers brought to you personally? Has it made you sensible in fashion, or on the contrary, has it blurred your vision in the industry? What was your experience there?
I think what I’ve learned from both of them, is that it’s a business. You have to be smart and creative; you really have to protect yourself and your ideas. I’ve also learned to believe in myself. There is a fine line between art and progress; you have to look at the numbers. They wanted to create something special, and I think both of them did that really well.
Have you ever questioned your decision to work in this industry with these two designers, considering the fact that a lot of people have a vision of working with them as being very stressful, very impersonal?
When I was working with Karl, it was stressful because I was young and I wanted to do good work, so I worked really hard. It was intense, but both designers were really cool. That was the funny thing; it’s not what people think. People weren’t bitching or backstabbing, it was really creative and everyone really wanted the same thing. I was lucky; I know that other studios and design houses are very different. I think I was really blessed.
There’s a lot of gossip around Karl Lagerfeld, stating he is not a hands-on designer directly involved with the clothes he creates. Can you comment on that?
He is involved. You have to think of other fields, let’s say architecture. Norman Foster, huge architect – he doesn’t design much. He approves and disapproves sketches here and there. But it’s also a matter of time, time management, and if you’re in a certain scale of a business, it’s more about management rather than doing actual work. So with Mr. Lagerfeld, he has three lines. When we were working together, he came maybe once a month to New York fittings. He told you if he liked it, most of the time he liked it. But yeah, he’s hands-on, and he sketches a lot still. Most designers are still hands on, but they’re not individually storing the garments; they don’t have the time. I don’t even do it; I don’t have the time.
You also introduced denim. What is your thought process behind the American sportswear merged into this collection?
The hardest thing to design in menswear, in my opinion, is a tailored denim jean. The reason jeans are so difficult is because of all the washing process, the chemicals, the shrinkage and all these things. People think, “they’re just jeans, right?” but designing them is not that easy. On the other hand, going back to the globalization influence in the collection, the indigo blue was a metaphor for Western culture, and the black was a metaphor for the countries that have oil. I tried to put it together in a stylish way. So, that was why I introduced denim.
Do you have any plans to venture to women’s line or accessories?
I’m thinking of doing accessories and shoes again. I designed women’s for Karl and Helmut, and I have clear intentions to do women’s wear. Not too far from now, but also not too soon.
When I saw your fashion show, I was thrown by your selection of models. I thought your models looked very intellectual, very unusual. Can you say you’re trying to create smart clothes?
I hope my customer is more sophisticated. It doesn’t mean intellectual, it doesn’t mean academic… except for an appreciation for more than meets the eye. It’s deeper than what you see; even my clothes, like my blazers, are fully hand-tailored. The buckles are all hand sewn. There’s a reason you pay a certain price: everything is made of natural fibers, no polyester.
It’s all produced in the United States?
Everything is USA.
Interviewed by Jason JaeHyun Kim and Laurent Altier
Video – TOPOGRAPHY OF CIVILIZATION
Directed by – Robert Hamada
THE GROUND ISSUE #2