Irene Kim hit the American fashion radar during the spring 2014 shows in New York last September. Her rainbow-hued hair set her apart from the legions of street style wannabes, but she remained somewhat mysterious. Sites tagged her as "Model Irene Kim," but she didn't walk any runways in New York. Who was this pretty unicorn?
Fast forward a year, and Kim is now a global brand contributor for Estée Lauder, the same company that also recently tapped Kendall Jenner as a spokesmodel. After speaking on a panel about Korean beauty at KCON, a three-day music and culture festival for K-pop and K-drama fanatics in Los Angeles this weekend, I snagged some one-on-one time with Kim, who was there to meet a zillion screaming (yes, really) fans at a meet-and-greet, and to run a workshop on fashion and beauty. After speaking with her for a bit about her career, all I have to say is, watch out, Alexa Chung, because there is a new "It" girl in town.
Here are six things you need to know about Irene Kim.
1. She's global
Kim, who is Korean-American, was born in Seattle and moved to Seoul when she was in middle school. Her parents put her in an international school, where she was one of only two Asian students. She claims she got in a lot of trouble because, as she put it at her meet-and-greet, "I was very Americanized. I was what you call a banana — yellow on the outside, white on the inside. When I moved there I barely spoke Korean." But soon the country became home. Years later, she left to study textile design at FIT in New York. She's since been living in Seoul for the last three years.
2. She's a model
Kim, who is 27, says she became a model only a few years ago. "I started really late in the game. I’ve always loved fashion," she says. "I just googled 'Korean modeling agencies' and the first one that came up I called." She's now signed to Esteem in Korea and to Society Model Management here in the U.S. She walks frequently in shows during Seoul Fashion Week.
3. She's an "influencer"
This is really her biggest job right now. While Kim's not frequently employed as a model in the so-called "Big Four" fashion cities, she still gets plenty of exposure. She attended the Chanel resort show in Seoul in this role, and did a photo diary for Vogue.com while she was there. She spoke to me glowingly about hanging out with fellow Korean models, like Soo Joo Park, who walked in the show. If she was disappointed that she wasn't on the runway, it didn't show when I spoke to her. (She was disappointed that she didn't get to meet Karl Lagerfeld, however.)
She also does influencer duty for Calvin Klein, and this is her role with Estée Lauder as well. She told me that the company asks her about what's hot in Asia, what she and her friends are wearing, and what types of products she's using. (And for the record, she says she's newly obsessed with teen clothing retailer Brandy Melville."Is that weird? Am I too old for that?" she asked.)
4. She gets treated like a rock star by fans
Or more like a K-pop star. This is because she is the co-host for a show on Mnet America called "K-Style," which is a sort of "House of Style" show for all things Korean. At KCON she packed a room, with a snaking row of disappointed fans (mostly young women, but several enthusiastic young guys were there too) left outside. Those of us inside the room could hear her approach thanks to the ear-splitting screeching that followed her. She has almost 600,000 fans on Instagram and her reach is growing.
5. She can hold her own with Kendall and Bieber
Kim found out that she landed the Estée Lauder gig while being introduced to Kendall Jenner at a Calvin Klein party. And what does Kim think of fellow Lauder girl Kendall? "She’s just a normal 19-year-old girl.... She’s a very chill girl and very professional." She also says that Kendall is getting more popular in Seoul, but still hasn't topped Miranda Kerr.
During the meet-and-greet, Kim told fans that Justin Bieber was "sweet," when she interviewed him at a Calvin Klein party. When I talked to her afterwards, I told her to tell me what he was really like. "He was really sweet. He was not shy. He was like, 'Oh you're so beautiful.' He was charming. He was a gentleman," Kim laughs.
6. No one wanted her to dye her hair
She dyed it two years ago. "I just got bored with black hair and decided to dye the ends blonde. I did it myself because I wanted ombré," she says, adding that no one was doing it in Korea. "Then some girl copied me and I was like, 'Uh-uh we’re not going to have the same hair.'" She then dyed it blue. "I didn't even tell my agency. I went to the agency and they stared at me for like five seconds in shock." Her hair has since become her trademark, and her trusted hair stylist in Seoul dyes it every two weeks or so. She recently freaked her agency out again by chopping her hair into a bob, but at least she prepared them little by little before she did it. "I was imprinting it into their brains for a couple months and they kept saying, 'No, no, no, no.' Finally six months later they said, 'Fine, cut it.'"
Doubtless her many fans will follow suit.