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  • Sean Holley

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 She sees fashion as more than a simple mode of expression: It is an act of performance, a living historical document, and a means of constructing a narrative.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.