The Korea Herald


[Up & Coming] Humility and hard work make for mean designs

An interview with Kathleen Hanhee Kye, designer and founder of hip fashion brand KYE

By Korea Herald

Published : April 14, 2015 - 19:32

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Up & Coming is a series of interviews with emerging artists in various fields of arts and entertainment. ― Ed.

It would be easy to assume that the creator behind designs that have been called “youthful” and “rebellious” would have an equally boisterous personality.

However, designer Kathleen Hanhee Kye flips this assumption on its head ― she is a calm yet driven, principled professional. 

Designer Hanhee Kathleen Kye and her 2015 fall-winter collection at the KYE showroom in Sinsa-dong, Seoul. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald) Designer Hanhee Kathleen Kye and her 2015 fall-winter collection at the KYE showroom in Sinsa-dong, Seoul. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

The Korea Herald met with Kye at her cozy Sinsa-dong showroom just three days after her fall-winter show at the 2015 Seoul Fashion Week.

If ever the phrase “wild at heart” was fitting for a person, Kye seems to be it. During the interview, she engaged in a quiet and thoughtful way, while sporting an oversized jean jacket from her collaboration line with PLAC Jeans, leopard-print slip-ons, a good amount of eyeliner and hair partially bleached platinum blonde.

At 28 years old, Kye is the founder and designer of her eponymous brand KYE, which has been sought out by K-pop stars such as BigBang, 2NE1, EXO, Miss A and international pop icons Rihanna and Rita Ora.

“But experience is an important thing in fashion, and my brand is only three, four years old,” Kye said on her meteoric rise, a response befitting her family’s motto of “humility.” “I have a long way to go yet,” she said.

Despite her early, seemingly glamorous success, Kye has long been an advocate of hard work. Her latest collection satirizes our society’s youth who simply want to “get lucky” or “demand more than they’ve worked for.”

“The younger generations these days seem to prefer the get-rich-quick route,” she said.

To visualize this “hit the jackpot” mindset, Kye incorporated emblems of slot machines and casino tokens into velvet sweaters and bright red tartan shirts.

“I thought about images related to cards, gambling, the lottery ... and that led me to Vegas, and the Vegas cowboy, and then I thought about the Gold Rush of the West, and everything got jumbled together in a big mind map,” she explained on her creative process.

Expressing social themes through clothing has become a signature of the KYE brand. The 2015 spring-summer collection, for example, spoke of the environmental impact of bees through elaborate honeycomb-shaped embroidery on baggy tees.

“Most artists are inspired by books, movies or music, but I get inspiration from more raw information, like documentaries. I’m interested in so many different things.”

From a young age, Kye knew she wanted a career involving “creative expression,” and was willing to invest in her future. While attending an international school in Seoul, she explored various artistic media and took summer courses in fine arts, graphic design and other subjects, finally deciding on fashion.

Upon graduation, she went to London’s Central St. Martins, widely recognized as one of the top fashion schools in the world, and finished with an MA in menswear. After an eye-catching debut at London Fashion Week, she returned to Korea to launch KYE.

It may sound like smooth sailing ― figuring out her passion at an early age, having the drive and talent to pursue it, graduating from a top school and launching her own brand ― but that perception is because Kye doesn’t complain about the difficult aspects of her success.

With nearly no money at the beginning, she applied for as many government-sponsored programs as possible, and was finally picked for the Seoul Fashion Creative Studio, an initiative that fosters up-and-coming designers by offering free studio space. In that tiny cubicle, Kye first started scraping together start-up funds by working as a stylist for commercials.

“Every day, almost every moment was a challenge,” she recalled. “But I tried to use my time efficiently and focus on solving the problem.”

“I think if you work hard, there’s bound to be a way, somehow,” Kye added. “If you really want something, you should be ready to invest in it.”

Despite the pressure of sales, the manufacturing mistakes, the conflict with people and the hassle of press, Kye enjoys every part of the design process.

“I genuinely love clothes, which is why I do it all.”

By Rumy Doo (