Just a few days after opening her newest Yumi Kim boutique on the Upper East Side, designer Kim Phan was greeting shoppers and inspecting merchandise while holding a needle and thread. Her Yorkie, Yumi, who the line is named after, was also in toe looking perfectly at home in her new surroundings. Perhaps that’s because Phan wants shoppers to feel like they’re visiting their best friend’s apartment when they enter the space on 76th and 3rd.
To achieve the store’s inviting atmosphere, Phan filled her latest outpost with homey accents from her favorite candies (taffy and Hershey kisses) to interior decorating coffee table books.
We chatted with Phan about her newest digs and the other personal touches that make Yumi Kim unique.
Not many designers name their businesses after pets. How did you settle on the label Yumi Kim?
When I started the line seven years ago in 2004, I was still kind of shy about having my name all over everything. I also just happened to get my first dog and I wanted to give her a very cute and special name. I found the name Yumi, which means beauty in Japanese. I thought it would be really cute to name the line Yumi Kim because it sounds like there’s a cute story behind it. It’s personal because I created the business when Yumi came into my life and it just made sense.
You launched Yumi Kim in 2004 and opened your first store on the Lower East Side in 2008. How did you break in to the fashion industry?
A lot of my friends are designers who work for big companies so I sat down with them and figured out what I really needed to learn. They said not to waste time going to school. They believed if I just studied the craft on my own I’d learn what I needed to know. I started to take night classes at FIT and got a good foundation there. Then I decided to go to Hong Kong. My girlfriend happened to be there for production and I went and met a factory owner in China. I spent a lot of time at the factory trying to understand how silk was made and understanding samples. I ended up spending two years in Asia learning and working with my technical team. That, to me, was my college education.
Why did you pick this location for your second store?
Since I have a store on the Lower East Side I noticed a lot of girls were coming from uptown. When I first moved to the city from California I lived on the Upper East Side and always thought one day I’d love to come up here and bring a boutique vibe. There are a lot of great boutiques up here but many are lacking a specialty feel. I spent the last three weeks in this store every day concentrating on every single nook and cranny. A lot of the products here are just my favorite things and everything has a story. The earrings I sell are from a vendor I met four years ago at a designers market because I’m big on supporting small designers. I also sell Jeffrey Campbell shoes here. I’ve known Jeffrey since we met a trade show when he first started. Every time I see him I just can’t believe how big he’s grown! I am so happy for him. I used to work at the Nordstrom shoe department in San Diego and it’s crazy to see how big he’s gotten. It’s so great when you see good people make it, you feel like there’s hope for all of us and you don’t have to sacrifice your integrity or your soul.
Did you always want to be a designer?
Since I was little, I always liked to design. I would take my mom’s dresses and tops and I would cut them or belt them to make them look cool. My mom had an incredible ’70s vintage closet. I’m Vietnamese and I grew up wearing silk. The Vietnamese traditional dress is called an “ao dai” and they’re all about silk and floral prints. I started with little things like reconstructing t-shirts and tops and then the next thing you know I started dabbling in other things like making dresses for my prom. And here I am!
What did your prom dress look like?
Oh my gosh, when I was 16 the big style at the time was having a big slit on the side. So when I made my prom dress, it was a lavender purplish color and I wanted to make my slit extra high! And this was before J-Lo and Tony Braxton! But the dress was clean and sleek with just a very high slit.
We always see celebs including Kim Kardashian, Kendra Wilkinson, and Paris Hilton wearing your clothes in OK! and People. What’s it like when you see the rich and famous stepping out in your pieces?
When I first started, people would always say Paris Hilton or some celebrity is wearing Yumi Kim. But the honest truth is for the first six years I never had a publicist. I was just always selling to stores where celebrities happen to shop. Now that my company has grown and I have an in house PR team they help me and work with the celebrities in LA and invite them to the showroom. The crazy thing is that it’s not the celebrities that wow me. When I’m out and about and see regular customers wearing my clothes I have my aha! moment.
What’s your goal for Yumi Kim?
I want to make affordable clothes that are beautiful. That’s my main focus. You can make something special and not charge a lot. One of the biggest issues now, in the last couple years, is that production prices have gone up. But I’ve stuck to my price point. I want my girls to know you can spend $200 on a dress and feel beautiful wearing a special piece that I spent time on to make. Every single piece has a story behind it, for example this season’s Brush print. It took so long to change the colors and get the right combinations. We were about to cut it from the collection but I decided to change two more colors because I thought it would work. When the design came back I fell in love and now it’s my number one selling print.
Do you plan on expanding your brand?
I’m just taking it one step at a time right now. I want to really develop the line itself right now and I’d love to branch out and do more lifestyle. But right now I’m really overwhelmed doing everything myself. I’m very hands on with everything already and I have a hard time letting it go to someone else. Yumi Kim is very personal and special and I kind of want to keep it that way. But I would love to grow more and eventually become more of a lifestyle brand and do a home collection. I’m also looking into manufacturing little clutches and bags to add to the collection. I just take it one day at a time and see where the wind blows me to.