Impressive: A Conversation with Designer Siki Im

When Siki Im moved to New York in 2001, he had no intention of designing clothes. After graduating with honors from England’s Oxford Brookes School of Architecture, Im took a position with a New York architecture firm, but over time realized the job wasn’t satisfying him. Since high school he had liked clothes, admiring  iconoclastic labels like Maison Martin Margiela, Comme des Garçons, and especially Helmut Lang before they were well-known beyond fashion circles. When Im got the opportunity to join Helmut Lang (in the post-Lang era), he took it. After several years working in the fashion industry, he decided it was time to start his own label, and in September 2009 he introduced his first solo collection. Inspired by William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies, it was a hit, earning him the Ecco Domani Award for Best Men’s Wear.

Im’s collections since have taken their inspiration from a variety of sources—Native Americans, the immigrant experience, Michael Jordan—but each works with one consistent vision. Beautifully tailored blazers and coats, billowing pants, and elongated tops, all crafted from luxurious fabrics—often in black—form the foundations of that vision. Im also insists on adhering to traditional methods whenever possible. Most of his blazers are fully canvassed and hand-tailored at Martin Greenfield Clothiers in Brooklyn, and his denim, which he introduced in his spring-summer 2012 collection, is all selvage sourced from Cone Mills in North Carolina. Im’s fans may not know exactly what to expect with each collection, but they can always be certain it will be expertly made, modern, and smart.

Styleforum contributor Marc Bain sat down with Im at his Manhattan design studio to talk about Im’s work, his influences, and whether fashion has a brain.

A lapel-less blazer from Im’s spring-summer 2012 show.

Marc Bain: Walk me through your design process. Where do you start when you’re coming up with a collection?

Siki Im: It’s not very linear. It starts always with something like an emotion or feeling, or even a proportion I’d really like to develop further, and then I test it out for a couple months—or not months, it depends—[to see] if I still like it. Sometimes you listen to great music, and maybe at first you hate it, but it’s stuck in your head and you start thinking about it more and more. Then you think maybe that’s something which is valid, you know? The initiation, sometimes it starts with a mood, like from a book, or once it was a New York Times article, once it was a movie. I try to keep it pretty open. At the beginning I started with books, but then people were asking “What will be the next book?” And if that already happens then it’s not really fresh.

I like to also surprise a little bit. The spring-summer ’12 collection was pretty heavy because it was about the Arab Spring in a way. Then last season I did the opposite more or less. It was a lot of Michael Jordan in the ’90s, because somewhere along when I was developing and designing the spring-summer collection it got very political, which I personally love but I don’t know if it was justified in fashion. I was a huge basketball fan in the ’90s and into all that stuff, so how can I make that into a non-streetwear, non-literal form, you know? So it’s definitely not linear.

MB: You’re known for doing a thesis for each collection. Where does that come in? Is the idea there from the start?

SI: My first collection, Lord of the Flies, it was really parallel. But sometimes it comes way before, sometimes in the middle, sometimes it’s later. If it does come later, usually the mood or the theme was already there; I just had to dig deeper and research more. For me, what I really like is researching more, so every season I can learn something. It keeps my mind going, which I need and appreciate. It’s just also fun. People can dis and say it’s not relevant or it’s too much, and that’s fine, but for my sake I like to learn and research and study.

MB: Do you have a particular person in mind as your customer?

SI: I’d like to say 25-35, male, sophisticated, but no. We do also have women wearing it, which I think is very beautiful. But it’s not for everyone, just because of the fit, the details, the price, the visibility. I think it will already in itself direct to a certain group.

MB: One thing I’ve noticed looking at your pieces is that you choose really beautiful, rich fabrics. How do your fabric choices play into your designs?

SI: Like with music, if you write a song, sometimes the melody comes before the lyrics, sometimes the other way, sometimes they go together. It’s the same thing. Sometimes with certain garments I design I already know what the fabric is, or sometimes I’ll see a fabric and I know what type of garment it should be. So it goes hand-in-hand.

MB: You studied architecture, so how did you end up designing clothes?

SI: It was pure accident. I just like designing. I never thought to become a fashion designer. Somewhere along, when I was working in an architecture office, I was just getting bored doing, like, renderings and drawings twelve hours a day, and buildings take so long to be built because of the scale. I just wanted to try something else in terms of designing. It could’ve been a car or anything else. New York City is so open and so horizontal in terms of how you can move around and meet people—it’s like a playground almost—and I’ve been very fortunate. It took me a really long time to call myself a fashion designer.

Im experiments with silhouettes more than most menswear designers.

MB: You’ve said that Helmut Lang was a big influence on you. What about his work attracted you?

SI: Since probably the end of high school I was really attracted to his aesthetic. I couldn’t tell you why. Then coming to New York I studied more of his stuff, just going to the stores. I liked everything he did. It was always modern, meaning timeless, and always pushed the boundaries of what fashion is. The advertising, store design, the details: it was amazing, and it’s still so valid. If you see his menswear by itself, it’s well-made clothes but very simple. But it’s about the context. Everything he tried to do, and he did, like thinking of new ways to think of menswear and also to think of fashion. He was one of the first advertising on a New York cab. He was one of the first streaming online, on dial-up. And he had a great team, like Melanie Ward, who I was fortunate enough to work with afterwards. They just pushed the boundary.

MB: Do you keep up with menswear blogs at all?

SI: I really wish, just to keep myself, I don’t know, relevant or contemporary. I try to, and there are some that I look at, but not as I used to when I was in the corporate world and had more time [laughs]. I do sometimes now to just get away from reality and see what’s up and what’s out there, but not as much as I should maybe, I don’t know. I’m trying to also be very controlled. I teach at Parsons and I see the students, they come with so much research material and so much research from blogs that it dilutes and clouds. It’s just too much.

MB: So it’s not good that they have so much material?

SI: All the social media is great, but you really have to control yourself so that it doesn’t control you. Especially in design. If you have too much information, when are you going to say stop and do your own thinking, rather than getting inspired and influenced by other things? It could be a very dangerous process.

MB: Your heritage is Korean; you were born in Germany; you went to university in England; now you live and work in New York. That’s a very global experience. Has that had any influence on your work?

SI: It’s very strong, that dichotomy. Even in university, all my theses were about identity, and about anthropology, and cultural context and dissonance. It’s the same thing, I think, with my collections. It’s all about different poles and juxtapositions which could be violent or beautiful. This is what I always love, the tension between, say, soft and hard fabrics, or Wall Street and religious influence [Im’s fall-winter 2010 collection], or—I’m just referencing certain of my collections—immigrant culture and living in the Western Hemisphere [spring-summer 2011], or Middle East meets globalization meets America [spring-summer 2012], or Michael Jordan meets suiting [fall-winter 2012]. I’m always interested in that because I think that is reality and it is honest and imperfect, and this is what I like. It’s also how I’ve been living and experiencing, you know, messing around with identities.

MB: What are some examples of garments you’ve designed that you think demonstrate this juxtaposition you’re talking about?

SI: The tunic. I love tunics. The tunic is a garment which is very, in a way, ethnic. It could be seen as a primitive, vernacular garment worn in the Middle East, certain parts of Asia. But I just love it. I love the proportion. So we took the tunic and made it more modern: this is a silk-cotton fabric, and we made it slimmer and more modern with certain details. But this is like a simple metaphor.

MB: And you incorporate that into a more Western, tailored look?

SI: Yeah. For instance, you have this soft, drapey fabric, and I would put a harder, tailored, fully canvassed blazer on top of it, and that gets a look which people think, “Wow, it’s fresh.” But no, it’s not. In the Middle East, that’s what they do: huge tunics with a jacket or blazer. What I do is nothing new. It’s not that avant-garde, I think. It’s just what I like and what I’ve seen in other cultures, studying them. So that’s a simple example. Or that crazy hat from the Native-American collection [Silent Thunderbird Prayer, fall-winter 2011]. It’s actually from images of Native Americans, and they used to wear these crazy big hats. But ours is done in a rabbit felt and, hopefully, more modern. So using those references from those ethnic or vernacular languages and making them more modern with fabric, with proportions, and then clashing them with denim or a leather jacket or a handmade blazer, something like that.

Mixed influences: a Middle-East-inspired tunic; tailored, asymmetrical vest; and Native-American-style hat.

MB: When you think of someone actually wearing your clothes on the street, is there a particular image or fantasy that comes to mind?

SI: I hope it’s some cool kid who could be a skater, or someone who works in a gallery, or someone who goes to a party, or someone who picks up the trash, that would be fun. But since it’s luxurious fabrics and it’s all made here in America, in New York mostly, there are certain limits in terms of price point, so it will already specify a certain [person], unfortunately. But I’ve heard from a couple of customers who say when they wear my clothes they feel very confident and strong and protected. That’s a very nice compliment.

MB: That raises an interesting question about who has access to your clothes since I’ve read that you’re influenced by a lot of left-leaning thinkers. Is that accurate?

SI: I really enjoy postmodernists and poststructuralists from the ’60s and ’70s to the ’90s and now, like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, or like Martin Heidegger. They seem to be socialists/Marxists, but the reason why I like them is not because they are leftists or socialists but because of their critical thinking and critical questioning.

MB: Do you think fashion can be an intellectual pursuit? I guess by that I mean can clothing ask critical questions or make critical statements?

SI: Yeah, I totally think so, because fashion is cultural in itself and culture is usually a reflection of certain opinions or statements. Even like Michelle Obama wearing a lot of domestic designers, it [offers] an opinion. That’s the beautiful thing about fashion: it’s not just clothes, it’s something more than that, which is how design should be actually. It should have an opinion, I think, or no opinion is an opinion too.

MB: Do you have any favorite pieces from your last collection, or from any past collection?

SI: Yeah. We started denim, and I really like some of that stuff. From last collection, I really like the outerwear a lot. I thought it was quite successful. There’s stuff I don’t like as much, but definitely the outerwear I’m very happy about. I enjoy designing outerwear more anyway probably.

MB: Is there any general direction you see your designs heading, or is it just one season to the next?

SI: What’s really important—and some people see it, some people don’t—is that every season we have certain stories or themes, like Native American, or Michael Jordan, or Arab Spring, but if you take the themes out or the colors, then everything should have the same language. Some people think every season I’m so different, which I don’t think at all just because there are certain things that are alike and will continue. You will always see a tunic. You will always see a big, cropped pant. You will always see a black blazer. And it’s just about the styling or the story put on top of that. So for me it’s really important that I keep my language and keep improving my language. It’s important for me also to work on silhouettes, which I think menswear is not really doing so much.

To discuss Siki Im, visit the official Styleforum thread.

The Styleforum Portmanteau–April 19

Rough & Tumble from Nepenthes

The Nepenthes NY store in New York’s garment district stocks a lot of Engineered Garments, the company’s best-known brand in the United States (and often the easiest to wear). But EG has a lot of stockists, while some of the lines in Nepenthes stable are much more limited in distribution. Rough & Tumble, billed as “nontraditional shirtmakers,” complements EG’s established rumpledness with unexpected design touches (last year I picked up an oxford shirt with a bandanna-print pocket) and less dedication to Americana. This spring Rough & Tumble via Nepenthes NY is offering a couple of linen jackets, Bermuda shorts, and summer shirts with charmingly goofy details–including cruiser pockets, built-in (?) pocket squares, zips and snaps, and batik prints. We only have some teaser shots; visit Nepenthes for a better look.