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Quintessence of Seoul

interview by Edana Isobel & photography courtesy of IISE 



'Do not shorten the morning by getting up late; look upon it as the quintessence of life, as to a certain extent sacred'

- Arthur Schopenhauer

IISE is a fashion brand based in Seoul by brother duo Terrence and Kevin Kim. IISE emulates the duplicity of their identities being both American by birth and Korean by heritage, creating products that are heavily influenced by experiences growing up and now through the processes of discovering their roots. The brand is a diverse blend of dichotomies where East meets West and tradition meets modernity. IISE tries to separate themselves from other fashion labels and leather goods brands through their interesting and unique take on method and technique. From detailing, dyeing techniques -using persimmon fruits as the main colour base to design inspiration taken from traditional Korean architecture, using natural leathers and additional fabrics that are native to Korea. IISE is constantly on the scout for design inspiration from traditional Korean architecture and everyday Korean life. 
'We try to take certain things from the country's past and re-interpret and use them in more modern ways.'

1/ Where do you see IISE in 2 years time? Where do you want to be as a brand in that time?

For the past 2 years, IISE has been focusing mainly on bags and small goods, but this Fall we are introducing our first full clothing line with a range of jackets, shirts, pants, hats, and more. In 2 years we would love to expand into womenswear, as well as some household goods and even furniture. We are currently creating tables for our new studio using wood from knocked down traditional homes and they look beautiful.

2/ How do you choose your colour palette for every collection? Is it based around seasonal varieties or natural elements available to you?

The leather colours used in our first few collections were ones we felt paired best with the natural dye colours that were available to us. We were also focusing on men’s accessories, so the colours have been mostly dark, but we are constantly searching for different tones for our future collections especially when we expand to women.

3/ How do you want your goods to be worn? What’s your ideal setting?

We first started with bags because it is something you can use everyday. We strive to create the highest quality products possible so our customers can use it in any setting, but at the end of the day they are a fashion item. We have one friend that took our bag on a cross country motorbike trip across America and it held up great.

4/ Tell us a little more about the process of creating IISE goods.

Seoul is an amazing city to produce goods. All of the markets, sample makers, and manufacturers we use are just a subway ride away so we are always able to pop into the factories to check on quality control and make sure the final product matches our expectations. Because of this, we have been fortunate to develop a really great relationship with everyone we work with. As far as the natural dyed fabrics we use, they are all dyed out in the country side of Korea in places like Iksan and Jeju Island.

5/ Who and what are your biggest influencers?

We were born and lived in America our entire lives, so when we visited Korea for the first time since our childhood in 2011, experiencing real Korean culture for the first time was the biggest influence to start the brand. Starting a brand in Korea didn’t even cross our minds, but after travelling around the country we felt so inspired, and that’s when the idea for IISE came to us.

6/ If you weren’t designing leather goods what would you be doing?

Good question, and I really don’t know the answer to be honest. Before visiting Seoul, I was living in China for 2 years and actually tried to start a casual shoe brand that didn’t really go anywhere but was a great learning experience. I really can’t imagine myself doing anything other than IISE…it’s been a wonderful journey so far but I know this is still just the beginning.

7/ What are some of your favourite materials to use?

I’m really drawn to things that age nicely with use. Leather, raw denim, wood, even the natural dyed fabrics will change slightly over time and I love seeing the process of how a product evolves with how you use it in your daily life.

8/ How involved are you with the design, creating, and manufacturing process?

My brother Kevin is the main designer and I handle most of the marketing and branding. But because we are still a small company, we still make all the major decisions together. Kevin’s usual day is spent running around all the fabric markets and visiting the manufacturers as often as possible. Everything from sourcing, patterns, sample making, and production is taken care of by him and his team.

9/ What designer would you love to collaborate with?

Hiroki Nakamura of Visvim is definitely someone we know we can learn a lot from and ultimately create a beautiful product with some cultural meaning. His attention to detail and dedication to utilising craftsmen from Japan have inspired us greatly.

10/ What’s your favourite piece in this recent collection?

The full leather Daypack in Indigo is probably my favourite one. You can match it with anything and the one I have been using is breaking in very well and conforming more to my body. It’s a great piece you can use whether you are dressed up or dressed down so I really like the versatility of it.

11/ Tell us what essentials you have in your backpack.

My Macbook Air, Sony A7 camera, headphones, and a small notepad for all the random ideas I have throughout the day. A lot of time is spent exploring different parts of Seoul for new inspirations and ideas so I’m always on the go and try to pack light. 

12/ Explain to us your brand concept and brand ethos and do you carry this out into your everyday life.

As mentioned earlier, IISE means second generation which refers to my brother and I being second generation Korean Americans. But more deeply, the brand strives to take certain things from the previous generations, and re-interpret/preserve them through product and videos. A lot of the people we work with, the natural dyers for example, are the last generation that are really involved in it. I think part of the reason why they have been so open to work with us is because we are so young, but interested in a craft that many other younger generation kids are not paying any attention to at all. It’s great to work with older people because they are always teaching us things about Korean culture and also sharing stories of the past when Korea was a very different country.  

13/ Why did you want to undertake this style of manufacturing and design?

I think traveling around Korea made us really proud to be Korean for the first time in our lives. Korea is such an economically powerful country, but very little is known about the actual culture aside from the pop industry and food. We wanted to share all these cultural aspects of this amazing country and shine more light on the things that mattered to us through product and video. It’s very challenging at times but it’s been so much fun just learning about all these “old” things that are actually very new to us.  

14/ Explain to us the importance of going back to the land for you, personally returning to Korea and also through the creation and materials used within your designs.

The only reason why IISE exists today is because of that first vacation trip we made several years back. It allowed us to work on something everyday that we love, meet family members we had for the first time, and learn more about where our family originally is from. We owe a lot to this country.

15/ Where do your source your materials?

There are specific areas for certain things all around Seoul. If we need leather, we go to the leather market, if we need zippers and buttons, there’s another market for that. Everything is so attainable within just the city that it makes it much easier for us to create things. I remember when I was in China pursuing the shoe brand and I would have to take plane flights to visit factories and 10 hour bus rides to visit a fabric market.

16/ Can you recall a wild adventure that you went on whilst foraging for materials?

In one collection, we used these antique lotus rings on our bags and small accessories. They were used on traditional furniture and sliding doors in the past but with the modernisation of everything, many places don’t carry them anymore. One day we got a tip from a door handle supplier about a man that still made these lotus rings by hand. We were in a very remote area of Seoul in a small alley and heard a constant “ting, ting”, the sound of metal being hammered. This led us to a basement area and we saw an old man in a small shack, sitting on the floor hammering away with one light bulb hanging from the ceiling, surrounded by lotus rings hung up on the wall of all sizes. It was a pretty amazing sight to see. We’re trying to find him again and hopefully shoot a short documentary on his life.

17/ When people recall the world “fashion” there are often associations with fads and trends that are "current” rather than classic timelessness. How do you feel about that and how does that affect the work that you produce?

The products we have made up until now have not really been created to cater to the latest trend but rather a staple piece we see people using for years. I think it’s quite challenging and probably exhausting having to create products constantly to fit the next “look”. Even with our clothing, we are trying to create staple pieces with subtle traditional elements that make it uniquely IISE.

19/ IISE is more than just an average brand because…

We have a unique story to tell. Everyone grows up differently, with different experiences, but my brother is probably the only other person that has shared all these experiences with me that have moulded our style and taste, and our identity and design philosophy, it's the base of everything made under the brand.

19/ What’s been the biggest highlight for IISE so far?

We were invited to speak at a design conference last year that was very memorable. There were people from Google, supermodels, and other very known professionals from many industries speaking there and then there was us...haha. We were the only speakers to present in English but the response from the crowd was really great and talking with the audience afterwards, there were some really interesting topics discussed. We’ve never spoken to so many people at once like that and never imagined the crowd to really understand and like the brand. It was a very humbling experience.

20/ Feel free to share a personal anecdote.

IISE would be nowhere if it wasn’t for the help we received from all these people. Even publications like tête-à-tête &PLATE that have reached out to us and allowed us to share our story are instrumental in the growth of the brand. Very thankful to have been a part of this and if anyone that reads this is ever in Seoul, please come visit our studio!


To learn more about IISE and shop their collection please visit: