few weeks after his breakout show at the inaugural men’s fashion week in New York City, I went to meet designer Siki Im at his new office space in SoHo. For years, Im has remained under the radar, quietly putting out menswear defined by his own cultural references and experiences. But basking in rave reviews and newfound exposure following his Spring 2016 collection, it doesn't seem that Im will be toiling discreetly for much longer.
Born in Germany, the son of Korean immigrants, Im spent his youth in Cologne before attending Oxford University to study architecture. But Im had always been drawn to fashion as a teenager, and through this singular passion, he had been drawn to New York—to the city's film and music scenes, as well as its unique role as an epicenter of clothing design. In 2001, longing for firsthand experience, he made up his mind to move to New York.
In one of those only-in-New-York stories, he met David Vandewal, the Belgian stylist responsible for the looks of Dries Van Noten and Raf Simons. (As the story goes, Vandewal liked what Im was wearing.) By the end of the conversation, Vandewal had offered Im a job at Club Monaco. Later, when Vandewal left the upmarket retailer to work for Karl Lagerfeld, he took Im with him. When Helmut Lang was being rebranded by Theory, Im would again follow Vandewal to work with Melanie Ward, Lang’s longtime stylist and collaborator. But over the course of several years, Helmut Lang turned into a more of a machine than a creative beacon, functioning squarely under the diktat of commerce. And so in 2009, Im left the brand to start his own line.
Hopes&Fears talked to the cult designer about punk rock, the bourgeoisie, and fine art of staying honest.
Siki Im strives to carry his youthful spirit forward, to pay tribute to the subcultures he loved as a teenager without glorifying nostalgia
H&F: How has moving to New York City affected your work?
Siki Im: Actually, my last show was about that [particular experience]; it was a very personal collection for me. Growing up in the throes of '90s American culture—especially subcultures like punk, hardcore, skating, graffiti, hip-hop—authors like Paul Auster and bands like Sonic Youth, were a huge source of inspiration for me. Not L.A., not London; it was always New York. My dream was to live here one day. I think for us Europeans, it’s very different here. It’s ghetto, but we glorify it. And now, the '90s are so big that everyone wants to watch Kids all of a sudden. Actually, yesterday was the 20th anniversary of Kids. I was fifteen when I saw Kids for the first time and it changed my life.
H&F: So, how did the '90s seep into your most recent collection?
SI: I knew this collection was going to be about my personal experience of the '90s. I was very fortunate to have a fulfilling youth; I did a lot and those memories are powerful. On the surface, fashion is always about your opinions on youth and mortality. It’s about the trends, about the now. It's kind of a paradox, because as I get older and more mature I end up using my nostalgia and memories to make work. There's a bit of irony too, regarding the paradox of youth. On the one hand, much of my youth was so dynamic, but at the same time, I really needed to grow up.
H&F: Do you ever feel, on some level, that you want to end people's fascination with youth?
SI: Many people who were really into subcultures during my teenage years have become bourgeois, and that's kind of sad. Was it all just teenage angst or did they really believe in what they were doing? The difference between them and people like you and me is that we are in an environment where we are allowed to remain youthful on some level. We are in a creative environment, whereas they might have a 9-to-5 job or some other trappings of middle-class adulthood.
Maybe our environment even wants us to be like this, maybe it encourages us to hold onto our youth because we are in a creative field. I wrote in the show's notes, "Sometimes a museum can hinder us to look forward or not even look at the very moment. We should not reminisce and glorify the past, but we need to keep our aging spirit alive by carrying the hope, the energy, and the curiosity from our youth forward." What I am saying here is, let’s keep that spirit of what we were into.
H&F: At the same time, I had to struggle to hold onto the energy and idealism of my youth in the face of societal forces that told me, "No, you should get a safe office job, work hard, be a good boy."
SI: I understand what you mean. I've had to work since I was 14 and by doing fashion, or anything creative, I felt guilty. I thought I was being selfish. It's not easy to keep the youthful spirit alive.
H&F: Do you find it challenging to reinterpret youth culture stereotypes? Skating, punk rock; these things have been beaten to death.
SI: Totally. I mean, it's so cliché. But, there's a difference. Let's take punk rock as the obvious example; there's the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, which are basically pop at this point, and then there were the really punk bands that fewer people knew. I was into Youth of Today, Gorilla Biscuits, Peter and the Test Tube Babies; really deep shit. The season before we had Gorilla Biscuits, my favorite hardcore band, playing at the presentation. It was very personal. Could it be cliché? Maybe. But it was honest. The only thing I can do is be honest about it and not abuse the subculture that I was into.
H&F: In lieu of accessories in your show you used a lot of outdated technological objects. Why?
SI: That's part of the museum you keep with you. I keep a box full of these little items, which I found or someone gave me, like a friend or an ex-girlfriend. These are memories, so strong and so…stupid. Not stupid exactly, but so mundane. But they are also beautiful, so I wanted to use them as jewelry. They have symbolic value.
H&F: It felt quite sentimental.
SI: I still keep my old phones, actually. We put some of them in the show. I drew on the CDs. I grew up with tapes, and I would make mix-tapes and give them to my girlfriends and I’d usually draw on them. Then when CD-Rs came, I used to draw on the CDs and make artwork for the cases. You cut things out, you make collages. That was personal to me and that's what I miss. Now we have Spotify. You can't draw on that. That's something I love, but then again, it is what it is. You don't need CBGB anymore. The past is the past and it's beautiful but I don't want to live in nostalgia.