Kölsche Jung dreaming of America
How Cologne born menswear designer Siki Im became an intellectual voice within the fashion industry of his adopted home New York
I am a New York designer, that’s what I have decided”, says Siki Im on the phone from Italy, where he is currently visiting factories producing the fall collections of his successful eponymous label and diffusion line, DEN IM. “Everyone says something different, it’s quite funny really”. And yet, Cologne and his youth spent in the historic city are never far from this expat’s thoughts, referring to himself as a “Kölsche Jung”.
“It was the best city, back then there was no Berlin. There were so many galleries and it had long been that way, with Gerhard Richter and 1960’s Krautrock. Cologne is not a sophisticated city like Hamburg or Munich. It has always been simpler, perhaps a bit more proletarian, which always leads to great things”.
Born in Cologne to Korean parents, Im moved to New York in 2001, upon graduating from university in the UK. He studied architecture and his first jobs in his new home followed that path. Today, he admits that he fell into fashion by accident. By chance, his first roles in the rag trade saw him in the studios of two Germanic brands, working as a designer for both Karl Lagerfeld and Helmut Lang. In September 2009, Im set out on his own, presenting the first namesake collection for Fall 2010. “It’s such a cool city with so much inspiration and good design, however I never thought fashion was really cool. So I thought, ‘Why not do this in New York?’”, he explains his motivation retrospectively.
German menswear designer Siki Im conquers New York: Cologne born Siki Im has become one of the spearheads of a group of young designers changing the New York Fashion Week calendar
Since then, Im has become one of the spearheads of a group of young designers changing the New York Fashion Week calendar. An early champion of Im’s work was Antwerp educated fashion editor and consultant David Vandewal. “He initially came to New York as a designer, working for Ralph Lauren and Dries van Noten. He’s the reason I stumbled into fashion myself”, says Im. To this day, the two work together closely. “He used to be my boss. Now I am his boss”, he reveals jokingly.
Siki Im’s first full collection, which was awarded with the Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation Award for Men’s Design in 2010, set the tone for seasons to come. Entitled “Black Beat White Wonder”, it fused precise tailoring with streetwear and fittingly named William Golding’s 1954 coming of age novel “Lord of the Flies” as inspiration. To this day, Siki Im’s work reaches far and wide for themes, intellectual and well researched in atmosphere. This has included Dostoyevsky’s parable “Crime and Punishment” for Spring 2014’s collection entitled “Remorse”, the painting smocks worn by American artist Georgia O’Keefe (Spring 2013, “Ghost Ranch”) and the Arab Spring in Spring 2012 (“The Topography of Globalization”).
»Every collection is very personal. My friends noticed that after the fifth or sixth season; every collection is biographical.«
In addition to such cultural and political heavy hitters, Siki Im collections reveal snippets of the designer’s own life, a story unfolding from season to season. “Every collection is very personal. My friends noticed that after the fifth or sixth season; every collection is biographical”, he says of his work. “It’s about the things I am going through”. As such, his work has at times been influenced by German culture, seen best in the Fall 2014 “Liberation” collection. A modern ode to the work and 1970s wardrobe of director Rainer Werner Fassbinder and artist Joseph Beuys’ directional use of fabrics, lacquered-haired models stalked a New York catwalk sporting armour like leather bikers, worn with voluminous, wool felt tailored trousers, trailing coats crowned with fur stoles.
Coming of age skateboarding in Germany, Im dreamed of one calling New York home. Fast-forward several years, and his collection for Spring 2016 celebrated the city, whilst also warning of its dark underbelly. Presented to LCD Soundsystem’s melancholic anthem “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”, the show took Im back to his teenage years yearning for the excitement of the Big Apple. In turn, it also spoke of the designer’s nostalgia for those early years and a past Germany. A streetwear influenced silhouette took shape in deconstructed zipped pilot jackets, baggy denim jeans and wide-legged shorts worn with white sports socks. Combining severe, tailored separates and free flowing fabrics, tunic-like shrouds were tucked into narrow trousers, belted with knotted strings festooned with souvenirs from Im’s teenage years such as CDs and computer parts.
Highlights were the collection’s printed fabrics; beige and ochre designs on white, created in collaboration with German artist, and Im’s close friend, Frank Thiel. “About one or two years ago, he invited me to his studio. I went through his archives and happened upon all these prints, which I had never seen before. He had those ‘70s, ‘80s curtains from Germany, which he found and then meticulously draped and hung up”, Im explains. The artist then photographed assembled fabrics, with Im using the images to create fabrics. “I just spent the weekend in Berlin and spent some time with him. He’s a really good friend. I loved his art even before we met and the funny thing is that he wore my clothes before he met me. So it was a perfect match”, he says today of the artist / fashion designer relationship.
»My favourite German fashion designer has always been Kostas Murkudis. I really like his aesthetic.«
“I have always wanted to have a multi disciplinary studio”, Im reminisces. Based on Broadway, the designer calls his current team “klein aber fein” (small but excellent). “We are not a very American team, my studio is more European. It’s not very hierarchical, it really is more like a studio”. After years of living in New York, Im still occasionally returns to Germany to visit friends, most of which now live in Berlin. He’s aware of the fashion industry on the other side of the North Atlantic, and appreciates the pioneering work of designer and former Helmut Lang assistant Kostas Murkudis. “My favourite German designer has always been Kostas. I really like his aesthetic. As he’s been around for longer I like to see him as a role model”.