Nearly two decades after making the serendipitous switch from pre-med to fashion, the milliner and shoe designer turns her inventive creations into an established brand.
by SARAH MIN
Eleven years ago, Eugenia Kim, then a budding shoe designer, was caught by surprise when she was awarded Swarovski’s Perry Ellis award for accessories design by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA).
When she was called up on stage during a swanky gala at the New York Public Library to accept the prestigious honor, Kim, who can think about a mile a minute, was at a loss for words.
“I was so surprised I won that I didn’t even have a speech. And I’m normally really good at giving speeches,” Kim recalls in a recent interview with KoreAm over Skype from her home in Manhattan.
Although that moment in 2004 was a major highlight in Kim’s career, the fact is, the Korean American designer had long been making an impression on the fashion industry and among celebrities and street style mavens alike with her bold and sophisticated hat designs (one of which she donned during the CFDA gala—an irreverent ashtray-shaped headpiece).
For the once-aspiring doctor, a start in the millinery business actually began auspiciously in the late ’90s, when a feathered cloche of her own design she donned to cover up a newly shaved head was spotted by New York’s fashion elite. (One of Kim’s “I made it” moments occurred when Jennifer Lopez wore one of her floppy white hats to the 2001 American Music Awards.)
Today, the 41-year-old Kim shows no signs of slowing down, with an ever-expanding hat line, recently revived shoewear collection, aspirations to enter the handbag and accessories market and an adoring customer base that includes Beyoncé, Gwen Stefani and Sarah Jessica Parker.
The morning the designer spoke with this writer, she insists she had “slept in,” although she had been up since 6:30 a.m., emailing her factories in Asia to square away a few matters. They were backed up, for Kim had recently reordered a thousand straw hats she needed delivered to the U.S. the following week for her eponymous line, Eugenia Kim. The Pittsburgh-area native is the first to admit that the backlog is a good problem to have.
“We are ‘the triangle’ players in the fashion orchestra,” says Kim, referring to milliners. “No one wanted to be the triangle player when I first signed up, but now there are a lot of triangle players. But we’re still the best.”
It’s clear to see why Kim projects such a level of confidence. Outspoken, energetic and hard-working, the “milliner to the stars,” as she’s come to be known, has seen her hats, which range from elegant sunhats to chic fedoras, grace the covers of Vogue and W. They retail starting around $300 at upscale stores such as Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and at over 200 specialty boutiques worldwide. Kim has also released limited-edition collaborations with Coach, Opening Ceremony, Urban Outfitters and Target (featuring an under $20 line).
So how did a pre-med major from a family of oncologists end up in the fashion industry?
The Monroeville, Pa., native planned to be a doctor until a sledding accident when she was younger sent her to the hospital for a full month. Kim says she couldn’t imagine working in such a depressing setting.
“I didn’t make that switch to be a hat designer in the hospital,” she explains. “I just decided that a) I wanted to be moving, and b), I didn’t want to be a doctor.”
Kim went on to graduate from Dartmouth in 1996 with a degree in psychology, then took a job as an assistant at Allure magazine. But it wasn’t for her. After a year, she was fired from the position by the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Linda Wells. So Kim enrolled at Parsons School of Design, where she took a millinery class that would teach her the handicraft that launched a successful career.
“One night on vacation, I had too many drinks and decided to give myself a haircut,” Kim told The Dartmouth, the campus publication of her alma mater, in 2010. “It was so bad I ended up having to shave it all off. I spent the rest of my vacation making a hat to cover it up, and when I got back to New York, people started asking me where I had gotten my hat. I decided to go for it and start a business.”
Before long, Kim was shipping off her first order to Barneys. “She was always on top of the trends,” says childhood friend Sunny Choi, who recalls finding feathers used by Kim’s first hat creations all over the apartment they used to share. “As kids, we’d always dress up our little sisters in the latest Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Michael Jackson or even Prince outfits.”
Part of the reason why Kim named her hat and accessories line after herself? “I wanted [Wells] to see me in every magazine,” she says, with a laugh.
The fashion editor definitely took notice. In fact, Kim’s former boss became a champion of her design aspirations. “When I won the CFDA award, she was like, ‘I’m so proud of you.’ And it’s basically like your work mom saying you did a great job.”
Wells even turned up at Kim’s launch party for her revived shoe collection a year ago. “She said, ‘Your shoes are amazing, you went in the right direction,’” Kim recalls. “And then she kind of said, ‘It wasn’t a great fit for you at Allure, you know.’
“I wasn’t a beauty girl,” Kim admits. “I barely do anything to my face. [The magazine gig] was a good starting point.” (And yet, Kim is quick to dole out hat-wearing tips for Asian faces and complexions: a natural black or ivory hat, she says, pairs well with graphite black hair. A fedora crown, which has a more defined shape, can lend flatter faces the illusion of cheekbones.)
Kim, the eldest of three daughters, says it took a while to convince her parents about her fashion career. “My dad was like, ‘What’re you doing with your life? You’re going to be a hat designer? That’s so stupid,’” says Kim. “And you know, he always regrets it, and he loves telling people that story now.”
While Kim describes her mother as “not the super strict Korean parent,” she says she was nevertheless hardest on her as the eldest child.
“If I come in second place in a normal situation, she’ll be like, ‘There’s no such thing as second place. She’s like the bad sensei in The Karate Kid,” Kim says wryly. It was during Kim’s first semester at Dartmouth, she says, that she felt she could start making her own choices. “I started building the strength in being away from her to think outside the Korean box,” she says, which brings the designer to where she is today.
“I’m not sure that she had expected that this would be a long career move,” Choi offers. “It was surprising what it has become, and I think that it’s just amazing.” Indeed, Kim admits that when she first started her business, “I didn’t know anything about merchandising, I didn’t know anything about setting prices, I didn’t know anything about the business side. It took a while.”
Currently, Kim, who leads a five-person design team, is at work on her Resort 2016 collection, a line inspired by colorful Matisse cut-outs that will hit retailers this November.
Kim bemoans the role Instagram has had on “fast” fashion. “People will copy us right away,” she says, “so we always have to be moving forward, we always have to come up with [something] new.”
But, to the designer, that comes with its pluses.
“I’m very excited about that, and I always love growing,” she says. “I’m always like, what’s the next thing?”
We’ll soon find out.
Featured image courtesy of Billy Farrell Agency
This article was published in the June/July 2015 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the June/July issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).