Photo by Don Smith, make up by Ryan Burke, hair by Gonn Kinoshita.
In this nicotine-stained café, once the preserve of market workers and late-night hustlers, there are black boys with pink hair talking fashion to white girls with Afros. “She’s beyond amazing,” declares a wild-eyed youth describing his latest discovery. “It’s like Lang on acid—sick and beautiful and completely NOW!” Beyond this scenario, lurking in the corner, sits legendary American photographer Annie Leibovitz—chic and understated, but surveying the room with a frosty antipathy. Paris Fashion Week is in full flow, and people are watching.
Into the melee—and turning heads—walks the South Korean fashion designer known as Kaimin. She totters slightly on elevated, paint-splattered wedges and plays with her long blonde hair, but it’s the outfit that draws most attention. What is she wearing? Plucked straight from her Spring/Summer 2018 collection this is PR at its most effective—a standout piece modelled by the designer herself. She is Uma Thurman in Kill Bill by way of Deee-Lite’s Lady Miss Kier, squeezed into a bipolar creation that is half Formula One biker jacket, half bondage couture. Turn her to the left and she is a leather-clad racer; twist her around and the effect is restrictive, dominant and luxuriously risqué.
“I like the duality,” she says, ordering white wine. “It’s a yin and yang thing. I like extremes.”
Her heady Serge Lutens perfume speaks volumes. Not for the fainthearted, it’s a headstrong scent that signals both business and pleasure, yet floral top-notes suggest a romantic soul too. She is playful and sexy, endearingly friendly, and carries the whole Manga biker look incredibly well. But who is this Asian enigma inviting curious glances, and what do her outré, theatrical clothes say about her?
Kaimin was born “sometime” in the late 1980s (“I’m the right side of thirty”) in South Korea, where she forged a creative path from a young age. She is eager not to dwell on the past (off the record there have been stints as a successful stylist, artist and producer of ideas) but is happy enough to reflect on her upbringing. “In Asia, deviation from the norm is rare and is almost frowned upon,” she says. “I always felt the need to be different and to break out of the mould. I think this shaped my aesthetic and fuelled my curiosity.”
A fortuitous meeting with the lauded video artist Nam June Paik moved her into interesting territory. She became his protégé and got a taste for discordance directing the documentary, From the Fall of Berlin Wall to the DMZ, which ultimately became the auteur’s final multimedia project. “Nam was a true visionary,” she says, “he coined the term ‘information superhighway’ in the mid-seventies, and I think I inherited some of his reluctance to be pigeonholed. He pretty much opened my eyes to the possibilities of art.” Paik once said, ‘Our life is half natural and half technological. Half-and-half is good.’ Which makes perfect sense when you see his student’s clothes. “I very much agree,” she says, “and I seek to embrace technology in everything I do—from the production of my campaigns to the innovative, high-tech materials I employ in my clothing”.
Now a fully formed fashion designer based in New York, and just three seasons into a career, the role seems a natural fit. “I love to transform myself into someone else. Clothes really are the easiest way to do this, to alter your own perception from within and to completely change the way others perceive you.”
I love to transform myself into someone else. Clothes really are the easiest way to do this, to alter your own perception from within and to completely change the way others perceive you.
Describing today’s outfit, Kaimin is assured and directional. “I’m combining my signature bondage and punk elements with an exceedingly vibrant colour scheme and innovative materials to present a vision of the future. It’s where gender boundaries are intentionally de-emphasised and the wearer is empowered by the unapologetic comfort with their sexuality without the clothes appearing vulgar.” It’s a bit of a mouthful but Kaimin, or just ‘Kai’ to her friends, draws you into her Technicolor world with all the breathless seduction of a futuristic Bond Girl.
“My new collection is titled Slut From The Future,” she declares, “and I think that name describes my overall creative bias. I’ve always been fascinated by technology and the image of the future, so for my work I purposefully seek out cool new materials you just don’t see every day, like the iridescent PVC I use, or the ‘liquid’ fabric that looks like it’s melting. And of course I’m infatuated with sexuality and seek to emphasise the human body in my designs with varying degrees of subtlety. I also try not to take things too seriously, thus the cheeky name, juxtaposed with the overall serious visuals of the campaign … and obviously, anyone can be my slut—a girl or a boy.”
She is smiling but this moots a valid point. Alongside a handful of other designers, including Palomo Spain, the Kaimin brand is noted for its gender neutrality. These might look like futuristic sex clothes for ramped-up disco dollies, but that doesn’t mean anyone—of any identity—can’t slip between the latex and get into the groove. “I’m very comfortable with evolution, or so-called taboos,” she says. “Gender clearly has never been black and white and the pre-existing definitions are becoming less and less inclusive. I think it’s unnecessary to categorise everything and I wish all people were comfortable with this. I don’t have a set gender target in mind, and the clothes I create can be interpreted in so many ways that they tend to appeal to people from across the board. I’m all for that.”
Beyond the gender spectrum, the Kaimin look is capable of seducing the most binary of individuals. Her clothes are like high-class confectionary—lush European sweeties encased in enticing layers of shiny fabric, just waiting to be unwrapped. Elements of bondage, punk and fin-de-siècle club culture are ever present, and next year will see a riot of Day-Glo tulle, sculpted leather and beautifully mismatched elements. She is a true renaissance woman, someone who can glide between mediums, and in that sense her designs come with subliminal surprises. She has styled others at the highest level and seen her own output chosen by taste-makers such as Anna Trevelyan and Nicola Formichetti who have both reinterpreted her vision. A love of texture, colour and shapeshifting form lend themselves to pop star excess, so it’s no surprise her clothes grace all the girls who dare. Gaga, Beyoncé and Björk push the style envelope in her silhouette, while next-big-thing Brooke Candy is the brand’s unofficial muse.
“Kaimin makes people feel powerful,” says Formichetti. “The collections are full of statement pieces which, through their structure and attitude, naturally do this. This isn’t your average fashion girl, it’s someone who wants to send a message through their wardrobe and isn’t afraid of how the world might view her. It’s always important to have designers who don’t conform to what the market wants.”
Trevelyan concurs: “I think her clothes make you feel like an elevated, stronger, more badass version of the queen that you already are,” she says. “The fashion world needs people like this to move things forward in a sometimes bland and homogenous industry.”
She’s been described as an ‘Avant Guardian’, which sounds a little like sub-editor jargon but actually sums her up rather well. “I think you can look at my collections and clearly see that I am not in pursuit of any trends or endearing myself to anyone. Avoiding mainstream is arguably not the best business decision but I’ve been fortunate to find some like-minded people that have a similar aesthetic appreciating my designs and drive for self-expression. I just love unique design and fortunately there are people out there that enjoy my creations.”
Can anyone enter this parallel universe? “On first glance my collections look ‘far out’ but if you look closer a lot of my pieces are quite versatile and elegant, coming in eye-popping but also subdued colours, and it really depends on how you style them. This is especially true with the new collection, where the design language set by the more radical pieces trickles down to the more casual dresses, blouses, shirts and jackets. Anyone can add a little Kaimin edginess to even the strictest outfit.”
In her own riotous and unique way, here sits a designer who explores maximilism in an increasingly minimal genre. She crosses boundaries others only flirt with, but it’s done with the upmost integrity; and there’s not a trace of the kind of virtue-signalling coming from some of her peers. “My designs work for self-confident, progressive and feminine women, and for anyone who wants to feel that way.”
“They really do,” agrees Formichetti. “I’ve used Kaimin quite a few times and I’m always excited by it. It’s my own personal aesthetic and I never feel it’s too much.” But when is too much too much?
Will her holographic couture, this ‘new arena of style’ as Trevelyan puts it, balance out in Kaimin’s favour? “Too much to me means producing content that goes beyond its natural intent,” she says, “and reaches for shock value. If I feel something is artificial and not a genuine impulse then it’s excessive. Normally I just say: ‘full steam ahead’.”
She finishes her wine, slinks out of the bar, and heads back to the showroom, still turning heads and loving every minute of it. Later, buyers, press and industry magpies will swoop into her sweet shop of ideas, but not everyone will take the plunge. Radical fashion requires time to filter through and make its indelible mark. Kaimin is in no hurry. For those who know and those who dare, this is slow burning style without a hint of desperation.
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