Kathleen Kye: Korea’s Fashion It-Girl on Today’s Asian Fashion Generation
By: Stephen Short
February 9, 2017
Detroit-born and Seoul-based Korean-American Kathleen Hanhee Kye graduated from an MA menswear course at Central Saint Martins, London, in 2011, and set up Kye, her own label, the same year. The KYE look is pop streetwear festooned with big fun and wit, bold patterns, colours and elaborate details. Kye, who shows in both Seoul and New York, has become a pop icon beloved of Korea’s Seoulistas, KOL’s and influencers, many of whom she dresses, along with cutting-edge style kings of the West including Kanye West, Lady Gaga, Carine Roitfeld, Rihanna and more. She recently took part in ‘10 Asian designers to watch’ at PMQ in Hong Kong and collaborated with multi-brand retailer I.T’s 5cm label. Kye is represented by I.T in Hong Kong. We spoke to Kye about her dynamic brand of cool.
How would you describe KYE?
Kye is all about casual wear, fun, a bit rude, it’s unisex, but more focused on women. For the collection with 5cm, it’s more menswear, more oriented at the HK menswear market.
How would you assess the Hong Kong fashion market?
The Hong Kong/Chinese market always picks up something others don’t. For a designer, that makes it interesting.
So this market surprises you? That’s not something we hear often.
It does, yes. Sometimes I expect there’s something they would really like and they’ll surprise me by choosing something entirely different. And sometimes the buyers and merchandisers will look at my collection and say, ‘oh, can you make that in red, or different colours?’. So it’s always evolving.
You did a 5cm collaboration with I.T in Hong Kong. How did that come about?
Actually, for the collaboration, we’ve been wanting to do it for quite a while. The first idea came up almost two years ago but didn’t happen. It comes from our fall/winter collection, and that seemed to fit very well with 5cm’s typical style, so it was a good fit and we worked together on it.
Compare Korean girls v’s HK girls’ style.
I notice it mainly because of Korean fashion and beauty products, but I’ve been here a few times and the first time when I was very young I thought Hong Kong felt quite Westernised in fashion. That’s not so much the case anymore now. I could really see the difference between HK girls, and Korean girls. Hong Kong has its own style and its developing all the time.
What do you listen to – Big Bang?
I listen to everything. Like Pink Fairies [laughter]. I listen to a lot of hip-hop stuff, and these days a lot of Korean hip hop.
Are you a Big Bang fan?
They are good friends of mine. Korean idol boy/girl bands are big customer fans of my brand and they’re a big part of my brand. I’ve tried to collaborate with them a lot and designed costumes for them, for their videos, or a show. That’s quite a fun part of what I do.
What about Kiko Mizuhara?
Kiko is very interesting. And she speaks perfect Korean even though she lives in Japan! [Laughter] That’s interesting. I guess she’s like a fashion icon. She really uses fashion for her thing. She’s like a Korean Alexa Chung.
Who are the coolest Korean Instagrammers, bloggers, and street snappers we should know about?
Irene. [Laughter] That’s Irene Kim. Irene is a friend of mine and the brand. I’ve known Irene since before she was a model, when she was so worried to become a fashion model. Now she’s not just a model she’s an influencer as well which is good for all of us. She has that international, Asian-vibe going on. She’s the one who represents this whole Asian fashion generation thing best I think.
You know Koreans are very celebrity obsessed. And one interesting point about Korea and fashion is the number of street photographers. And people follow them. And Irene and Korean fashion photographers have great relations together.
Who’s the Tommy Ton of the Korean photo world?
I can’t pick one. [Laughter] I like them all and they’re all good friends of mine!
Certain people like Koo [Youngjun], for example.
Who is your legend?
I guess the hugest influence in my fashion career would be Louise Wilson at CSM [Central Saint Martins, London], who passed away. She was the one who really pushed me hard with fashion. She yells at you, she’s also very caring in her own way, even after I graduated I always stayed in touch with her. I didn’t see her for a couple of months after I graduated then she saw me when I showed in Paris. She was a very interesting and influential person for me.
T.O.P from Big Bang is a serious art collector. How is your relationship with art?
I actually wanted to be a fine artist, back in the day. My Mum was a fine artist, and she is very supportive now, although she wasn’t at the beginning. I have other fine artist friends from whom I get inspired a lot. I always want to collect art if I could afford it. I like classic, abstract things, but not pop artwork. My tastes goes from here to there, and I think that’s also very important not to have specific style but a taste for lots of different things.