It’s no news that South Korea is having a moment and that the country’s pop culture has come to eclipse the influence of Hollywood, at least in this part of the world. Irene Kim, who grew up in Seattle, is part of a new generation of Korean-Americans who, aware of this phenomenon, have embarked on a sort of reverse diaspora and decided to go back to the country their parents had left for a better future in the US.
After moving to Seoul, Kim started working as a model, and in spite of her decisions to not undergo plastic surgery and to dye her hair pink and blue (both against the advice of her manager), she’s become one of the few personalities to make it big both in the rarefied world of global high fashion and the buzzy reality of K-Pop. On a recent visit to Hong Kong, where she took part in a Max Mara photography exhibition celebrating the Italian’s label’s 101801 coat, Kim took some time to sit down for a chat.
How did it all begin for you?
I would say that all of this happened organically. I didn’t plan anything. I think that along the way I started planning, but really it was that I loved talking about fashion, posting about fashion and posting outfits, and I guess people were inspired by it. I’ve just been myself throughout the whole thing, like I just felt like colouring my hair one day and I didn’t tell my agency and I just went in with blue hair and they were like, “You’re not going to book any jobs any more,” because at that time there was no Asian girl with coloured hair. I was modelling at the time, and that season I booked the most shows during Seoul Fashion Week. So it shows that when you do something, just do what you want and stick with it.
How do you select the brands you work with?
I definitely make sure when a brand reaches out that it’s somewhat within my aesthetic. It’s also my role as an influencer or as a model to make it my own and make it look like it’s my own, and I believe that once it works it works and I don’t want to try too hard. When I’m working with a brand or with people I want to make sure we have good chemistry, because people can tell – and my followers are smart, they know when it’s like an ad or when it’s forced, because I can tell...
How was working with Max Mara?
I was really surprised when they approached me, because it’s such an iconic brand, so I was very flattered and I actually knew about Max Mara since I was really young because my mom is a huge fan. The first Max Mara piece I remember was this tweed coat that my mom has had for 15 years and I borrow it all the time.
Why did you decide to move to Seoul after college in New York?
It was spontaneous. I was going through a young adult crisis so I didn’t really know what I wanted to do after I graduated from college. I was working for an online magazine but it was kind of uh ... and I always wanted to model. But my Asian parents are strict and conservative so they’re like, “You have to finish school before you can do anything.” So I just went back to Korea to research modelling agencies and I found one and I was only going to stay for three months, and I’ve been there for five years.
Did you experience a culture shock in reverse?
Yes, it was a culture shock going back to Korea. It’s a bit more formal but my work ethic got very strong; we Asians like to work hard.
What about beauty? Anything you picked up in Korea?
Korea has some of the craziest beauty routines, but I’ve learnt so much about skincare and beauty rituals and things that I’ve influenced back to the States. But my beauty regimen now is a lot simpler – it used to be a 10-step routine before sleep, but I realised that the simpler the better. It’s really more about your lifestyle – more sleep, eating right, staying hydrated, working out, just living a healthy lifestyle.
Is there a secret you learned in Korea?
My dermatologist is a genius. She doesn’t force anything. The tip she gave me is that less is more. The less you do, and the less you irritate your skin, it’ll go longer – and there’s this new machine that I’ve been on that doesn’t irritate your skin, it’s not harmful, it’s not really a laser, no shots or anything but just this metal ball on the end of a stick, and what it does is it just circulates the blood in your skin. She just puts lotion on your face, and then it just cools. And then there’s a warming effect, which is for lifting and collagen rejuvenation. It’s called LDM. It’s helped with looking refreshed and not tired, and it’s not a laser, Botox, or a filler.
You’re obviously very active on social media. How do you manage it?
I’m one of the influencers or talents that Instagram and social media helped launch. It was more like doing marketing by myself, and I think just being myself and just being real with it, I don’t post anything negative, I don’t try to be fake, I make sure when I’m posting that it’s either funny or sometimes laughing at myself, in between all the pretty outfit posts. It’s not taking it too seriously because then you take the fun out of it. I know it’s a job, but I try to make it not a job.
What about street style? How has being photographed helped you?
I think that if we didn’t have what happens outside the shows, there wouldn’t be any shows because it’s really what people wear in real life ... and how they wear it.
I don’t necessarily agree with that.
Yes, maybe a lot of the times they’re a bit exaggerated, people are overly dressed to be photographed – and I’ve done it too – but I think it’s really about balance and you can tell when they’re trying too hard. Sometimes, I look at my photos and I go, “Oh my God, why did I wear that?”