Kim Shui’s collections meet season after season at the intersection of Dries Van Noten’s technicolor dreams and Kandinsky’s passionate belief that art is a spiritual matter, meant to pry open our innermost psyches revealing a most abstract and widely hued look at a person’s elan vital or life force. Engaging snakeskins and shaded fur with tailored, newfangled silhouettes that scream “look at me,” Kim’s wildstyle edge has been breaking necks as it-girls around the world do a double take. Hoping to add a little bad and boujee Kim S. flair to their quotidian wardrobes, the designer is a household name to the likes of Sita Abellan, Solange and Cardi B. (that viridian, tweed set that the Bronx queen wears on the cover of Bodak Yellow is from Kim’s SS17 Collection), making it especially refreshing to hear that so much of Kim’s design process is a matter of personal reflection.
Born in the States to Chinese parents, Kim’s father’s career took their family overseas to the Roman countryside where she grew up. “I think at the beginning you definitely don’t feel like you belong but you also feel like you belong everywhere,” said Kim from across the table. It was a sunny, November morning when I met up with the designer at the unmistakably Italian, Fortunato Bakery in Williamsburg. With flowing, voluminous black hair, gnarled enough to get lost in, pale skin and red lips, Kim let out a rich laugh as she told me that she’s always been different. “I thought it was a negative thing but actually, I learned that’s what made me super unique and it comes across in my work,” she mused.
As the only Asian family in her neighborhood, growing up Kim spoke Chinese with her parents around the dinner table but conversed in fluent English with her peers at the American school she attended. Asking her if it was ever hard to be confronted by so much multiplicity in her own identity and culture at a young age, Kim shakes her head no, “I don’t think so, I think it’s just like, that’s me,” she said nonchalantly. Trading one chronicle of uniformity for the next chapter in her life, Kim chose to attend Duke University where she studied Economics and French. During those four years she was immersed in the traditional American college experience and floated tranquilly in a sea of popped collars and screaming sorority girls in their Greek lettered crewnecks. Choosing neither the path of conformity nor the path of rebellion, Kim further demonstrated her uncanny ability to mesh with people who seemingly clashed with her own sense of self. “I was just like I’m here, what’s up,” said Kim.
Postgrad, while the world of finance promised security and a big pay out, Kim chose instead to step out on what seemed like destiny. She had always been interested in pursuing a career in fashion but as the story goes and eye rolls ensued, she was very aware of the risk that came with such a bold desire. Jumping on a plane yet again with acceptance letter in hand, Kim was London bound as the legacy allure of Central Saint Martins called her name. “Fashion was just so exciting, and it still is. You’re doing your own thing, you’re working on it and you’re able to put stuff out there that is so personal,” gushed Kim, almost smiling now.
Perched over a swatch of fabric with measuring tape in hand, there was a time during her CSM studies that she only wore black, a hard-to-believe fact for anyone who is familiar with her namesake label. “I used to use color so minimally but in school when I started exploring and found color it was like, wow. When you wear colors it’s like A) you stand out and B) it makes everything feel better. It’s this new energy,” explained Kim. Energy is at the essence of Kim’s endeavors. “Not everyone would wear super colorful things but for me, it should be more joyful and we become more daring by wearing daring things,” she said. Wielding color as a soft power of influence, Kim had seemingly found both her kryptonite and her strength.
Forging the path for her own successes as an independent designer, Kim credits her VFiles Runway win in February 2016 as the point in her career when she “was first serious about [her] brand”. While there is certainly an element of surrealness of momentum, for Kim “it’s all about how can I make this better? How can I be better?” The answer: living her brand. “It’s so funny because I was at a CFDA meeting the other day and a reporter from the New York Times was saying that every time he reviewed something he would find it odd if the last person coming out from the show, that person being the designer, was usually in a t-shirt and jeans. It’s funny but it’s true, if you’re not living your clothing then it doesn’t make sense,” said Kim.
As an individual who has somewhat always been on the outs, Kim’s clothing is an extension of herself. As she continues to grow as a person, she has simultaneously come to know New York City to be home because it is a place where differences are praised and opportunity is democratic. The combination of this city banded with her clothing has allowed Kim to create a culture of her own where people aren’t afraid of diverging from the societal norm. The diversity of her upbringing is celebrated every time someone slips into a piece of her mind. Adorning themselves with a tangible manifestation of who the Kim Shui woman is, Kim indirectly becomes a part of who that individual is on any given day. “For me, why I love fashion so much is that it’s creating a look and seeing it on someone and then watching how that person changes. You know how people say the person changes the clothes? I also think the clothing can change the person.”