Paving Your Own Path: An Interview with Kié Einzelgänger
Kié Einzelgänger is simultaneously looking forwards and backwards. Through her focus on the interbellum arts of the 20th century, founder Kié Lee pieces together hazy memories of a shattered past to craft the future. Lee’s interest in fashion has evolved alongside her passion for interbellum culture. For her, connections that were originally drawn on aesthetic lines have grown into lasting ideological bonds. She sees fashion as more than a simple mode of expression: It is an act of performance, a living historical document, and a means of constructing a narrative.
Throughout her life, Kié Lee has embodied the namesake of her brand. Due to the perpetual movement in her childhood and early career, the one constant she had was her individuality. Lee was born in Basel, Switzerland, and moved to Seoul during her teenage years. After developing an interest in fashion at age 19, she went to New York City to study at Parsons, and would remain there for 3 years after graduating. During that time, she established the Kié Einzelgänger brand and presented multiple runway collections in New York and Paris. In 2019, Lee decided to put down roots in Antwerp, moving her base of operations to Belgium for the foreseeable future. Even though she appears to have settled down, the vitality of her work and her dedication to a singular path is stronger than ever.
One of Lee’s most admirable traits as a designer is her ability to strike a balance between seemingly opposing forces. Whether she is mixing spontaneity and rationality in her creative approach or finding a middle ground between profits and integrity, Lee demonstrates the importance of adhering to one’s ideals in the face of disorder. Every concept is tested by the demands of reality, and no endeavor can turn out exactly as imagined. However, ideology cannot be abandoned, because without a guiding light for us to aspire to, we spiral into meaninglessness. Through her sustainable success, Lee has proved that compromises can be made without sacrificing your original values.
In her upcoming projects, Kié Lee continues to demonstrate her commitment to the ideas she holds dear, incorporating the diverse fields of literature and psychology into her clothing. Recently, Lee was generous enough to share her insights on fashion and describe her personal journey to ARCHIVE.pdf. We discussed her artistic influences, her brand’s recent collaboration with Wildside Yohji Yamamoto, her design process, and much more.
Hello Kié, how are you? We wanted to kick off this interview with a question
about your upbringing. Did you have an “a-ha” moment in your childhood when you knew you wanted to be a fashion designer, or was it something you were always interested in?
In fact, I was never interested in embellishing myself until I turned 19 probably resulting from childhood trauma. I immigrated from Switzerland to Korea to spend my adolescence before I left for New York, and that was the time when I was severely bullied for my chubbier appearance than other children in Seoul. With this experience, I wasn’t captivated by fashion until I managed to transform my silhouette acceptable during my teenage years.
Simply, finding the “clothing that fits me” was always my interest, and I doubtlessly know that this anger from the humiliation brought me to dive into the subject of fashion with a focus on aesthetics. I still barely shop each year and instead, I desperately seek and invent clothing that suits me. But at some point, I was finding myself purely cherishing that feeling, that moment you find yourself in clothing that suits you 100 percent. This would be that “a-ha” moment for me that pushed me to this profession called fashion design.
I noticed that you have spent significant time in 3 major fashion centers: New
York, Japan, and Belgium. Could you compare and contrast the design culture,
creative environment, business attitudes, and approach to consumption and
production in these countries? Also, do you prefer one of these cities over the
other 2 or do you feel your work is strengthened by incorporating aspects of what you have learned from all 3?
That reminds me of a past conversation with my father about this cycle, that in general, creations seem to be created in Europe, greatly commercialized in America, and contextualized & re-interpreted in Asia, which ends up influencing Europe and America again. I do not mean to say everything is like this of course, but we talked about this engrossing cycle based on certain histories and things that are happening around us. I never planned to live on 3 different continents, but my 20s were inevitably spent that way due to my desperate reasons. Many years later, now I realize that I tend to have a less biased but a bit more neutral attitude toward everything. These experiences obviously bring confusion most of the time and I never feel I belong somewhere in a positive way. I presume I will remain like this for a while. New York City furnished a realistic experience for me in this tough business. I unknowingly obtained experiences on the administrative side to understand where I am standing and ultimately faced accepting my near wild future, while Japan woke me up to appreciate the smallest details of craftsmanship and to cherish every day’s moment in the present. Now in Belgium, and also in France, I guess I am finally learning about the past, especially through scrutinizing the periods that allured me for a long time as my original source of research. Indeed, these 3 continents taught me about the past, the present, and the future… and yes, I will always crave these 3 aspects altogether.
Outside of fashion, what has inspired and informed your work as a designer?
(Personal experiences, music, movies, art, or others)
I could list the names of directors endlessly because I am still discovering more and more every single day. I am generally a fanatic researcher in the Interbellum (inter-war) period’s visual arts between the 1920s -1940s, not by the intentional approach, but mostly by my intuition. I am naturally attracted to this era from my childhood, and I do my best to promote this aesthetic to the 21st century. The visual arts and writings by Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Andre Bréton, Pablo Picasso…on and on …and also plenty of arts that are re-innated in Asia based on these cultures originally inspired me, and in addition to this background, I am a complete fan of comedies only based on absurdities, and was quite into films shot by Jean Luc Godard, Buster Keaton, Stanley Kubrick for a while as well. It was a true pleasure to discover that these directors were naturally influenced by the same interbellum arts I had been researching. Due to this common inspiration, their work has felt familiar to me from the moment I first laid eyes on it. I have also developed a compulsive habit of guessing which artistic references are being brought up in certain scenes. I believe this powerful era of Interbellum, and the late 20th century works that are inspired by the interbellum arts are a rich enough source for me to dig into for the rest of my life.
I can go on and on and on….
Oh, and I have to say, I am a mad freak for chess now.
Tell us about your process when you are designing a collection. Do you focus on cultivating a random element, do you prefer to meticulously plan, or is it a mix of both approaches?
I was enthralled by the idea of “Automatism” that was theorized by André Breton which itself was rooted in Sigmund Freud’s “Free association” technique, aka observing people's unconscious minds. I believe these random thoughts that are not controlled by logic could bring revolutionary thinking, and I try to document them in my journals by hand every day... and these diaries are always the starting point of my creation.
However, there is obviously a point I need to be exceptionally rational with plans. Designing the collections means this entire process from sourcing, sketching, draping and patternmaking, prototyping, fitting, fixing, re-prototyping, producing, casting, photo shooting, editing, promoting, communicating, selling, and delivering for every single clothing that is made, whether it’s a failed or succeeded. And unfortunately, I make failures most of the time, and I must re-do the entire process to reach what I meant to make. Therefore, the extreme plan and the sense of perfectionism are very much necessary. I always need to swim between the unreal and real, but after all, it is more important that I focus on meticulous plans to actually handle and transfer the random elements into a design.
What is it like running your company while designing at the same time? How big is your team and what do your day-to-day operations look like? Would you ever give up the intimacy and connection to your product that you get from having a small team or is it worth the added responsibilities to remain independent?
I unceasingly suffer between business administrations & creations. This year, I decided to divide my monthly calendar into 4 sections. Devoting one week to socializing with people, another week to locking myself and hand-work in the atelier, then another week for sales management and promotion with lots of photoshoots, and finally the last week to documenting and archiving, reflecting on what I actually did each month. This is the only way to keep on track and run these opposite tendencies.
At this moment, I do have an atelier in Belgium, and I work with design offices, factories, suppliers, and agencies based in both Belgium and Japan under certain agreements. With the import process and the timeline being settled, I am comfortable working this way. I honestly cannot foresee how big my company will get in the next couple of years but I am certainly planning to formulate in-house production as I feel I am quite ready to do so. I commenced this business in 2016 when I was 25, and now is probably a great time to consider doing so.
From your experience, what are some pieces of wisdom that you had to figure out on your own but wish someone had shared with you? Has your education been mainly learning through experience, formal training, or mixture of both?
I would say my education was unquestionably the least important part of my journey. It certainly paved the road and expedited things however, as I was exposed to broader environments along with the pre-made criteria but that was about it. Through the education I got in New York, I did fetch professionalism to convince people in a bit more unilateral way and through the education in Europe, I learned how to expose my failures and accept the feedback from the audiences in a more reflexive way. It was a great mixture of both (European and American attitudes) and helped me learn how to communicate better in general.
However, my most important lessons were taught outside of formal schooling.
I was lucky to encounter mentors for life on my journey, at the right time, who took my perspectives seriously with a true interest despite the generational & experience gaps between us.
I still have them as mentors and I do not hesitate to reach them out, fairly often, when I have honest concerns or doubts. What’s beautiful is that they have concerns and doubts as well. These concerns and doubts can sometimes be solved by sharing. As you mentioned, education still did play the role of formal training, but my most important lessons were indeed from my mentors. The real indirect lessons just by observing how they lived and aged together... But at the same time, we do not depend on each other.
Everything must be figured out on our own at the end. As a Einzelgänger.
We would like to know how your collaboration with Wildside Yohji Yamamoto came to fruition. Did you reach out to Yohji first or did they contact you to start talks on the collaboration, and what did those initial discussions look like?
It all started with mutual respect and a perdurable relationship. It just came naturally into a conversation in Paris. It was a good timing as the company was willing to coordinate something to support younger designers, and I sincerely admire this spirit.
Do you believe that fashion is best suited as a uniform that connects you to a community of like-minded individuals (Rick Owens is a great example of this type of designer in my opinion) or as a way for each person to express themselves in a unique way? Which philosophy do you ascribe to when you are designing clothing?
In my opinion, stating “fashion” as the way of expressing one-self is too limited. We all know that this is a common description of fashion, but my idea is a bit far from it. I believe everyone’s true-self is under the water and unveils when we are alone. We all have multiple Personas, and the fashion that we say that we wear is just part of us.
And this is what’s interesting. Isn’t it?
Seeing people ”disguising” their true-self, whether it’s to form a group or “fit into” one by uniformizing themselves, perhaps is still an expression of one part of themselves in a unique way.
People need fashion to attend a certain farce we create together. And this is fascinating to see. Almost “dressing to act”… and here, we see that the clothing plays a noteworthy role to alter the character of oneself. That kind of transformation is what I think that fashion is… to “disguise” and to be part of the farce that we chose to be in. That’s what I have witnessed so far in this industry for the past 10 years…
“Life is the farce which everyone has to perform” Arthur Rimbaud
I saw that you cite surrealism as a major influence on your work. Do you try to utilize unconscious methods of creation when you work? And if so, could you describe some of these techniques?
Yes, I believe in the beauty of “randomness”. This finally led me to start a side-project called “Triplicates 1/3” from 2023 and this came into my mind while taking a shower on a random day, while I was thinking about the idea of Surrealist’s automatism method. Surrealism was mainly about observing and stimulating the un-awaken state of one-self. The movement of Surrealism landed in the 1920’s as the reaction to the horror of WWI, and people started to express the honest side of themselves through the arts observing their unconsciousness. It's certain that we sleep 1/3 of our life and their main focus is to look into the 33.3333% that we are not aware of. Techniques such as “Free association” by Sigmund Freud were the main methods that inspired the visual arts in the 1920’s because he would dig-in to this side of his patient to cure some mental illnesses. I referenced this concept of automatism, and observing one’s mind without constraints of the rational mind, to title my project the “Triplicates 1/3”.
Do you ascribe to a specific religious and philosophical worldview, or is your personal philosophy a mix of many elements? If so, what are the key tenets of your personal beliefs?
My philosophy will always evolve from the concept of Einzelgänger, or rather “a person who walks alone”. Both the state of being alone, and the power of individuals. Other references I source aren't something that I fully believe in but I do borrow their perspectives to view things with a different set of glasses. This way I can strengthen and find a proper description of the Einzelgänger spirit at the end.
I believe that the philosophy of the lost generation is especially relevant to today, except that the absence of major tragedies like World War 1 make our current aimlessness all the more unusual. When starting your brand, did you choose the interbellum focus due to modern events? Also, what do you think has been causing our modern society’s lack of direction?
No, I didn’t choose the Interbellum focus due to the modern events as it was solely based on my personal aesthetic in the beginning. This aesthetic is my infinite reference from childhood, and only visual elements were considered until I dived in further as I age. I was too young at that time. I dimly remember that I started to approach this period’s histories & philosophies around mid-20s when I had access to the libraries in NY.
As I gained some knowledge by spending enough time with this period’s visual arts, now it’s probably an appropriate time to correlate it to modern events. I do agree with you that the generation I am in is becoming more directionless and disoriented. As the years pass by with crisis after crisis, it will become even more aimless as people will soon be divided into two extreme opposite groups. In this case, having an identity and willingness to bounce back is necessary amid extremely polarized society. The ability to be resilient is challenging for our generation, because there aren’t enough reasons to be. This resilient spirit is needed more than ever. I feel lack of resilience is causing this lack of direction somehow...
What is your brand working on right now? Could you share some of your plans for the future with us (as much as you feel comfortable saying)?
Yes, sure. I already have started on arranging an exhibition of the A/W 2024 seasonal collection in January at 23 rue Michel le Comte, 75003 Paris, France under the theme of Chap.30 “Einzelgänger the Gambler”. The concept of the Gambler is from the novel “the Gambler” by Fyodor Dostoevsky which resembled part of my personal experiences in my late-20s. It is my 6th exhibition, but indeed a first presentation as Kié Einzelgänger® after moving the operations of the company to Europe. I aim to deliver a capsule collection consisting of both men’s and women’s pieces.
Besides this, I started a project called Collection “1/3 Triplicate”. It is based on the idea of omnipotence of our everyday sleep from Manifesto of Surrealism (1924), that we are sleeping 1/3 of our life and that the unconscious state is too important to be neglected. Apart from the real world and the rotating seasonal collection, I thought it would be interesting to create random pieces in my own free time to document my state at those moments. Along with this concept of 1/3, I will only make 3 pieces per design and intentionally “expire” them. Just like every night’s dreams we cannot remember and the instant photos that can’t be re-taken.
Also, as the new year began, there is another propaganda project called “I am Einzelgänger”. It is a series of portraits of my clients in my clothing, with a short caption in which they discuss “why they consider themself an Einzelgänger”. Anyone who wears my clothing can participate. This series of photos will be released along my exhibition “the Gambler”.
Special thanks to Kié Lee for making this article possible and providing visual content
Writer: Sean Holley
Editor: Isabelle Davis