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[SUPER RICH] MCM chief faces controversy over political ambitions

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Published : 2014-10-06 20:51
Updated : 2014-10-06 20:51

It seems that Kim Sung-joo, chief visionary officer of global fashion brand Modern Creation Munchen, has never been busier.

On top of opening the MCM flagship store in Munich last month, she is now at the helm of the Korean Red Cross.

However, following her recent appointment, Kim is now in hot water due to claims that she has never been passionate about the Red Cross. The proof, according to Rep. Kim Yong-ik of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, is that the chairwoman failed to pay KRC membership dues for more than five years.

Whether this revelation is enough to show that Kim is uninterested in philanthropic issues remains to be seen, especially as she responded by saying that she has donated millions of won to the organization aside from her membership fees of about 30,000 won ($28) per year. She has since paid off the arrears.

Despite the controversy, critics continue to label Kim as someone who has been using her superrich connections to achieve her political ambitions. 


From rich to superrich

Kim is no stranger to the media limelight.

As the youngest daughter of the founding family of the energy-oriented Daesung group, Kim had to prove that she was born with more than a silver spoon.

The 58-year-old started her career as a sales assistant at Bloomingdale’s department store in the U.S. before moving on to establish Sungjoo Group in 1989 with 300 million won she borrowed from her father. The company initially imported MCM, Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and other luxury goods. 
Kim Sung-joo (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

Through the ups and downs ― during the Asian financial crisis that started in 1997, Sungjoo Group had to work out of a tiny warehouse in Gimpo, Gyeonggi Province ― Kim showed that she has what it takes to become a sharp businessperson. In 2005, she realized one of her pet projects, the acquisition of MCM. The brand now has more than 300 outlets in 30 countries.

Originally from Munich, MCM posted a 180 percent on-year sales increase in Europe and a 200 percent increase in China in the first half of 2014. It is one of the few luxury brands whose popularity began in Asia before spreading to the West. The company aims to generate 2 trillion won in sales by 2020 to become one of the world’s most powerful fashion houses.

Never one to be shy about her business acumen, Kim has often boasted that MCM has made its name as a trendsetter in street-luxury fashion.

“I say our backpacks have inspired Chanel and other brands to release similarly designed bags. In China, MCM stores are located next to Prada or Chanel,” she said. 
MCM’s Munich store (MCM)

And the opening of the Munich store was an emotional event for Kim, who is often dubbed an “Iron Lady” due to her relentless work ethic. “The store was quite special for Kim, as it meant she had conquered MCM once and for all by going all the way back to its origin,” an MCM insider said.

She added that the flagship store would be a stepping stone for MCM to go beyond Germany, into the European market. 


Love-hate ties with politics

Kim has also made headlines through her involvement in politics.

She worked as one of President Park Geun-hye’s key confidantes during her election campaign in 2012. Kim is credited with having painted a younger image of the conservative candidate by putting her in jeans and sneakers.

And as outspoken she was about style ― Kim is known for a short hairdo kept neatly in place with a generous amount of hairspray, matched with bright red lipstick and sneakers ― she faced criticism for comments that some perceived to be “thoughtless.”

At one point during the presidential campaign, the main opposition Democratic Party ― precursor of the NPAD ― called on Park to dismiss her for calling it “communist.”

Women’s rights activists also asked for Kim’s resignation after she talked about how she was able to cook and breastfeed while pursuing a corporate career. The problem was that she followed up these comments by criticizing the younger generation, saying that young women these days are good for nothing but whining.

She also came under fire for declaring that she “loved young men.”

So it is not just the membership fees issue that has drawn criticism of Kim, but also questions about whether she has contributed significantly to the welfare of women and children, as the Red Cross claims.

Presidents of South Korea have taken up honorary chief positions of the organization to help with administrative matters involved in bringing about rare reunions between war-torn families from the two Koreas, and also sending donations to the North.

Many continue to perceive Kim’s appointment as being politically influenced, rather than based on her career achievements and corporate skills.

“It seems Kim now has to prove that she is more than a businesswoman, more than a friend to the powers-that-be who are showering her with favors. Achieving this will be tougher than she expected,” said Kim of the opposition party.

By Bae Ji-sook (baejisook@heraldcorp.com)