Born and raised in Cologne to Korean parents and educated in the U.K., Siki Im adopted New York as his home in 2001. Working first as a womenswear designer for Helmut Lang and Karl Lagerfeld, in 2009 he set out to create his own language with his eponymous unisex line and has shown in NYC ever since. Always one dedicated to the moment, he sat down right on the heels of his FW17 presentation to share with us what’s been on his mind.
MARK BENJAMIN: Hi Siki, thanks so much for chatting with me today. Where are you at the moment? What were you up to today?
SIKI IM: Right now I am listening to the Descendents’ first record and answering your questions.
MB: Socialpolitical themes inspire many of your collections and works. I remember reading about “The Topography of Globalization,” a video you and Robert Hamada produced that was inspired by the Arab Spring. What sociopolitical events do you see shaping the world and culture right now? How are they impacting on your designs and work? Any recent events?
SI: That’s a good question. As you know, a lot is going on right now. I am just not sure if it has always been like this and the difference is that now we have more access to politics and the media than ever before.
The other night I saw this documentary, “The Circus,” about Trump’s campaign trail, while looking at an image of a very popular fashion brand doing a sales or overstock event that seemed to be like an artsy performance. Trump is a businessman who knows how to sell and what people want. He uses social media and goes directly to the consumer, disregarding traditions, protocol, and finesse. In a way, it is punk, similar to what Obama or Bernie did.
You can see that notion in fashion now. The whole fashion industry—the brands, sales, stores, magazines—is confused. Anything goes? It is good to question things. But I have a hard time accepting that anything goes for the sake of commerce and capitalism and not for culture and finesse.
MB: Do you think there will be a return to goth and punk? How are all the young people going to deal with the ensuing political darkness? Has it hit fashion yet?
THE TENSION OF THESE TIMES CAN BE PARALYZING, BUT THEY OFFER US THE OPPORTUNITY TO GO DEEPER, TO REACH A DIFFERENT LEVEL OF FREEDOM
SI: Punk never dies. It just looks different now. And so it should. Metallica is playing with Lady Gaga, CBGB is gone, soccer players have mohawks. Fashion people write on their motorcycle jackets a big “A” with a circle around it.
In the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s people were rebelling because the status quo—the mainstream— was so conservative, boring, homogenous. People could see that you were rebelling. Now you buy that outfit for a lot of money. The “old punk” is bourgeois now and trendy and just old. I have been seeing more and more white shoelaces on boots. Back then, only neo-Nazis would do that. How ironic.
Fashion is mostly so trend oriented and hedonistic that even if it embraces punk or politics it appears to be more of a marketing, Instagram trick until the next season. In my opinion, the only ones in this space who seem authentic are Vivienne Westwood, Katharine Hamnett and Cameron Russell.
So what is the new punk? Maybe the new punk is smarter by getting signatures and sending letters to the government, by still wearing second-hand clothes and not supporting corporations. Or the new punk is so smart and understands that you can’t be 100% punk and anti, so she or he chooses to live upstate as a hermit making his own clothes and bread and is not a cynic.
MB: I find music and fashion are inseparable. When I was younger, I would watch all the shows I could on YouTube, not only for the collections but the music, too. I found it brought the clothes to life and vice versa, much in the same way a strong model can. Do you pick out the music at your shows? Can you give us a sneaky peek at your playlist?
SI: Yes, music is so important. I listen to music when I wake up and when I go to bed. And during the day. I pick out all the music for our shows. It all goes hand in hand. I have tons of records, MP3s, and CDs. I have hardcore music, like 108 or Project X, post core like Fugazi or Quicksand, post punk like Joy Division or EA80, shoe-gazey like My Bloody Valentine, Ride or Chelsea Wolfe, rap like Wu Tang, Nas, Rick Ross, classical like Bach, Satie, Glass, weird shit like Mongolian throat singing, Buddhist chanting, death metal like Deicide or Darkthrone, and new shit like Sampha, Dirty Projectors, Frank Ocean. Very eclectic.
MB: There is something pure about seemingly simplistic ideas, repetition, and iterations. Especially today when we are all so overexposed to stimulation and content every minute of the day. Does minimalism inspire you? How is it relevant today?
SI: Yes, I agree. I love modern classical music like Sakamoto or Stockhausen. Even The xx. Since I was in middle school, drawing and painting, I was always into minimalism. But this doesn’t mean it’s simple. Actually, more the opposite. I don’t care if it is relevant, because it is part of me—Germanic-Asian—and I can’t fake it. But I do think the 2017 minimalism needs to be different from the ’90s.
MB: I noticed Philip Glass as a soundtrack to one of your videos. Do his music and ideas inspire you?
SI: Yes. I got to meet him. Did you know he was a plumber, even when he was playing at the Met? That’s hardcore.
MB: Your silhouettes are unique among menswear designers. They have been described as intellectual and cerebral.
I think they break a lot of menswear rules and reimagine them, such as the necklines in fall 2013. Do you consider yourself a rule breaker? What is your creative process like? Do your inspirations come to you randomly, or do you have a way of seeking them out?
SI: Maybe it’s the punk in me and how I grew up. People say that rules are there to be broken. But creativity is there to help and make it elegantly, with finesse. I don’t break rules for the sake of attention and antagonism. I like traditions a lot because they have substance and age. And sometimes I find it necessary to have a different perspective but by respecting the tradition.
I don’t think I am avant-garde. I hate that word. I look at other cultures and borrow silhouettes and mix them. It’s more like anthropological research.
My inspirations always come from both ways. I read a lot and also look carefully when I am walking down the street. I inhale a lot, filter things out, and then these moments happen when I know but wasn’t expecting them.
MB: Why men’s fashion?
SI: I was a womenswear designer for Karl and Helmut. But menswear is a bit easier. Less politics, fewer seasons, and less circus. From the beginning I considered my brand to be unisex. I always like when women wear my clothes. I guess now it is trendy.
MB: Do you fantasize when you create? Do dreams interest you? What was your last dream about?
SI: Yes, always. Maybe there’s too much daydreaming! The other ones I either forget or I don’t dream much when I’m sleeping. I don’t dream in words, more like action movies.
MB: Watching your debut collections for 2010, I was mesmerized by how many elements became moments in future collections at other brands. Is that gratifying? Do you feel like you’re a designer’s designer?
SI: Thank you. I don’t. Maybe I am too hard on myself or don’t have much self-esteem.
MB: Sometimes, as a creative, I care so much about something, sometimes obsessively, so that I can’t care about it at all. Do you ever revisit your past collections and ideas? Do you spend more time thinking about the past or the future?
SI: After I show I often dislike that collection and want to put it away—very far. Years later, when I accidentally see it again, I am actually secretly quite proud. I don’t think about the past or the future much.
MB: What is fascinating about your work is that you started in New York, long before there was a men’s fashion week, with ideas that many would have said belonged in London or Paris. And I know firsthand that New York can be an unforgiving place. Did it feel like you were fighting for your ideas at times?
SI: Yes, for sure. It took me years. I was so against everything and thought everything [in fashion] was boring in NYC. But then I live in NYC and it’s so inspiring. So I kept showing here, didn’t budge, and kept following my vision and language. And it got a bit easier each season. And probably I became more open- minded, too.
MB: You’re originally from Cologne, Germany, and studied architecture at Oxford in the U.K. Why did you adopt New York?
SI: It was always my dream to live here. No other city has this kind of energy. Here everyone is a foreigner. Also I grew up with NY hardcore, and post punk, and NY hip-hop. It was and is very important to me.
MB: Like you, I also believe in this city, despite what many would point to as it becoming too moneyed, expensive, and therefore a less creative environment. How can New York continue to be a bastion for artistic expression? What would you say to aspiring creatives trying to make it in the city?
SI: Maybe start somewhere else? It has been a while since NYC was and offered a creative environment. Maybe in the ’80s. There is some cool shit in Bushwick these days.
Or maybe create a collective. The thing is, I feel, even though there are more creatives, things are still lacking in substance and story. I feel many just want to have tons of likes on their Instagram.
MB: If there is one thing I notice on your Instagram, it’s your affection for architecture and brutalism. You went to school for architecture. How were those days? Do you still think about architecture and structure when you design?
SI: Architecture is about space and not about just buildings. Fashion, for instance, is not merely about clothes. I am very interested in these non-physical spaces, such as emotion, spirituality, psychology. I am still designing in and with physical space.
MB: Form before function, or function before form?
MB: Brutalism comes from the French word brut, which means raw, because brutalism uses raw concrete as its main ingredient. Your collections can, at times, be raw and untreated, unpolished, and intentionally undone, in a way. Do you find this idea of brutalism connects to your work?
SI: In high school I studied Le Corbusier and Bauhaus. These are the ones who influenced me the most. Probably the latter more, because it was more honest, industrial, and raw. No unnecessary poetry and lines. For me, that was utmost beauty. Where function became form and vice versa.
MB: I really admire Tadao Ando’s work in architecture. Do you have any favorite architects?
SI: Too many. Modern ones like MVRDV, Rem Koolhaas, Shigeru Ban, Sanaa, SO-IL.
MB: What does the color black mean to you? Why do you think it’s such an easily adopted fashion color in New York and Berlin?
SI: For me it is simple, quiet and strong. I like black and white photography—it is more about proportions, textures, and composition. Also I don’t have the time or energy to color- coordinate in the mornings. These days it is quite trendy to wear black. It wasn’t like this when I started.
MB: One thing I’m fascinated by right now is that, in both fashion and art, criticism seems to be fading away. Nowadays when I read a review, it’s generally a positive observational record rather than any specific point of view. I recently read a criticism in Stephen Shore’s new book, Factory: Andy Warhol, from Harry MacArthur in 1967. MacArthur said at the time that “this Warhol type is vulgar, meaningless, obscene, and an unmitigated outrageous bore.”
Looking back, I am glad it was said. MacArthur was 100% correct, but so was Warhol. Now you can’t even find a criticism section on Warhol’s Wikipedia page. Are we becoming critic-phobic, with everything being so public and self-censored now? Is it pluralism? Isn’t it important to see what the status quo was before it all changed?
SI: Right on. These are funny times. Would a designer who advertises at Vogue get a bad review at Vogue Runway? The only ones who have good critiques are Cathy Horyn and Suzy Menkes. On the one hand, everything in the Western hemisphere became more democratic and open and flat. It’s cool to be vulgar, not to criticize pop music, and support fast fashion. It seems people don’t make an effort anymore and just want likes. On the other hand it is good to be more inclusive.
MB: I read that your fall 2014 collection was inspired by Joseph Beuys. I think fashion is going through a fluxus movement of its own right now—a democratization of high and low. There are so many street brands, long considered pedestrian, that are now the pinnacle of luxury. What do you make of that?
SI: Everyone is a designer now, a photographer, a DJ. But no one wants to make an effort and pay the dues. It is great that people are more self-sufficient, but without effort, knowledge, passion, you won’t last long. It is quite easy to put a logo on a jersey or make the sleeves much longer, but soon this will be out. Then what?
MB: What can we expect from your collections in 2017?
SI: My latest collection is based on this season of political, social, and aesthetic disorientation and distress. I looked into quietness and solidity by disregarding seasonal taste and fleeting fashion, and choosing rather to focus on the periphery of the less accepted and less favored.
In the novel The Outsiders, the author Susan Eloise Hinton questions cultural norms and identity in the American landscape. The protagonist, Ponyboy Curtis, who belongs to an unpopular and unconventional group, has difficulty fitting in. He prevails through staying true to himself and maintaining integrity. His deviant minority group is clearly different and queer, not looking for approval from the sought-after populous. Hinton beautifully portrays the dynamic social fabric of this era with all its unique textures, nuances, and quirks. The garments have the durability of workwear worn by cowboys, jointed with the ease and solidness of the attire of Asian monks.
I am the rest between two notes, which are somehow always in discord because Death’s note wants to climb over but in the dark interval, reconciled, they stay there trembling. And the song goes on, beautiful.
— Rainer Maria Rilke
The opening poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, printed on jerseys, exemplifies the Ponyboy motif and expresses tension and transition. Rilke says, “Don’t look to others for advice. Look inside yourself. Have patience. Love the questions. Solitude is necessary. Fate does not come to us from the outside, but emerges from within us. Don’t fear the inexplicable. May you be brave and gain confidence in what is difficult and important.”
The tension of these times can be frightening or paralyzing. But they offer us a challenge, an opportunity to go deeper, to reach a different level of integration and freedom.
MB: What are you most looking forward to right now?
SI: Sun and beach.
This interview first appeared in the print edition of RAIN magazine in the spring of 2017.