Interview: Terrence and Kevin Kim of IISE / by Metropolitan Society

IISEis a clothing and apparel brand dedicated to creating products with a street interpretation of Korean heritage. Each piece is made in Seoul, utilizing a combination of Korean fabrics, techniques, and a mix of modern and traditional design aesthetics. After the release of their latest collection, 003, we were able to catch up with brothers Terrence and Kevin Kim of IISE and discuss their story, process, and ideas.

IISE originally started as strictly a bag company. Can you talk a little bit about the evolution into a full clothing and accessories brand? For example, your bags have contemporary elements (silhouette, structure, etc) and are made with traditional techniques and materials that are intended to become more beautiful with time and wear. Did your original design principles stay with you? Or did they change when thinking about clothing?    

We started with bags and small accessories, but to expand to clothing was constantly on our minds. We had a very strong core customer base. After purchasing a bag, they would be able to use that for years and they weren't able to support IISE because there weren't other products to buy. So we slowly started adding travel bags, wallets, pencil cases, always applying the same brand aesthetic into everything we made. We may have started with bags, but our vision for the company since day 1 was to be a full lifestyle brand - creating bags, clothes, furniture, stationary, kitchenware, everything. All well made and inspired from Korean culture.

IISE translates to 2nd generation and your brand is intended to create products with a “street interpretation of Korean heritage.” This juxtaposition between heritage and contemporary can create for moments of clashing ideas and principles. It come in the form of tangible challenges such as finding traditional craftsmen, material suppliers, pricing etc. But it can also have a more abstract presence, such as contemporary functional design principles versus traditional principles that value motif, or were made for the lifestyle of those that lived when the construction method was founded. How do you find a balance between these two pushing and pulling constructs?

It does feel like a challenge at times, but at other times it comes very naturally. I think we have a very different approach to design firstly because we do not come from a fashion design background. There are no rules in street wear so our approach to doing certain things were pretty unconventional. In the beginning, our inspirations were very obvious. We saw these traditional Korean door handles that we loved, and decided to add those as handle's for our dopp kits, and also strap connectors on our Weekender bags. These were very obvious incorporations - we saw them, and then directly applied them to our products. Now, it seems like our design taste has evolved a bit and become more abstract, but when you look at each piece as a whole you still feel that Korean inspired vibe. We are about to release our 3rd clothing collection now and you can see how it has advanced since the first, I think we are finding our voice better with each collection.

Does this traditional versus contemporary have a broader interpretation? Perhaps within the culture of Korea’s youth or second generation Korean-Americans?

I think you see a lot of cultural inspired brands these days, and it has a lot to do with the newer generations looking for something with more substance compared to fast fashion's approach to clothing. We feel like everything we create, whether it be product, video, or even music, represents our identity as Korean Americans. Not too Korean, not too Western, but a mix of both cultures.


In a prior interview you stated a lot of your tastes stem from the things your mother likes and what she had around the house when you two were younger. What were some of those things?

Growing up in the U.S. we were exposed to Korean things is small doses - mostly through food. But thinking back, there were several traditional Korean pieces of furniture and art we had around the house. Our mother did the interior design in the house we grew up in middle school, and it had a mix of traditional Korean design elements in a very modern setting. Then when we visited Korea in 2011, we saw all of these things on a much larger scale while traveling around the city and that was what inspired us to start IISE.

You have your own studio/showroom in Seoul. Did you design any of the interior? What sorts of things in the studio other than the clothing make it “IISE”?

We opened out studio/showroom almost a year ago now. The interior of our space was completely remodeled in a way we felt represented the brand's aesthetic as best as we could. A lot of the furniture, lighting fixtures, and tables were all created from refurbished materials. The wood and light fixtures we used were from traditional Korean style homes called "hanok" and some of the pieces date back to 40 years ago.

Inspiration can of course happen anywhere, but what some things or some place you go that put you in the creative mindset?

Traveling around Korea and interacting with the natives here constantly gives us new ideas. As much as we look to Korea for inspiration, we are constantly looking at things from overseas as well and try to create things with elements from both sides of world.

You said you’re also into hip-hop and streetwear culture. Does this have a role within IISE?

Our entire approach to design comes from a street wear attitude. Again, we don't come from a fashion background - I studied English and my brother studied Finance so we can relate to street wear and Hip-Hop in a sense where we learn and try things as we go. Creating something from nothing. Our interest in fashion started with Hip-Hop music and bboy culture which eventually led us into sneakers. It was sneaker culture that really got us involved in seeking out new brands, buying/selling over the internet, and interacting with people with similar interests from around the world through the internet. All the music used in our videos is created by my brother, and you can see the Hip-Hop influence combined with Korean elements in the beats.


The story goes that when you visited InsaDong for the time you saw a monk wearing a traditional backpack and this was one of the pivotal moments when you both decided you wanted to make bags. Did you have a similar moment like this for making clothing?

When we saw Buddhist monks in Insadong they were wearing both traditional backpacks but also clothing as well. Backpacks seemed easier at the time to begin with because they can be multi-seasonal, unisex, and one size. Traveling around the country allowed us to constantly see people wearing traditional clothing as well but we felt we weren't quite ready at the time. Now that we have been doing bags for a few years, our expansion into clothing seems like the next step.

One of my favorite things about your brand is the collection of themed films. Do you direct them/ how do you go about realizing them?

Our first video we made was about Korean natural dyeing techniques. We not only wanted to make products utilizing these special fabrics, but wanted to educate our customers and give them some insight into what they were buying. Even as Korean-Americans, we knew nothing about Korean natural dyeing so how can we expect other people to know anything at all? We've made 4 videos with our talented friend Mike Beech, and each is different in its own way and I think each one has gotten better. We're working on our next video now for our next clothing collection, can't wait to put it out.


It’s interesting when you make a film to represent the product everything in the film from the background, the setting, to the music becomes a “part” of the brand or concept. How do you go about picking the places to shoot and the music in the films?

The music is all produced by my brother. He took a beat making class one semester during a study abroad program to Australia and with that knowledge, he's been able to create music that exemplifies the concept of the brand. By sampling Korean instruments and mixing it with hiphop style beats, it's able to set the vibe and pace for the entire video. The locations are all scouted in advance and we always want to showcase different parts of Korea that inspire us.

You’ve talked a lot about traditional Korean cultural elements such as Hanok architecture. What about traditional architecture inspires you?

The architecture is just so different than what we're used to seeing growing up in the U.S. If you look at some of the Korean palaces, the design and how some of the patterns and materials are assembled, it almost looks futuristic even though it was made centuries ago. The colors, the geometric shapes and patterns, are all really amazing and we try to incorporate them in our design details.


Is there anything about contemporary Korean design and culture that inspires you?

Korea is going through a very interesting time right now where creatives around Seoul are doing some amazing things. I think a lot is a result from Korean history, in that we were basically a third world country just 30 years ago, and now a real economic power. Previous generations had to sacrifice cultural progression for economic progression, but now that there are more resources and time for young creatives to focus on more artistic expressions, a big cultural movement I feel like is happening and it's all very inspiring. A lot of things, not just fashion, will be exposed globally very soon and I'm really excited to see what Korea can offer in the next few years.


Check out IISE's website for more information.