In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
In 2013, Irene Kim was working as a model in Seoul when she got bored and, well, decided to dye her hair. First, the ends went blonde. Then blue. Then pink, then yellow, then every other color under the rainbow. Before she knew it, Kim had unknowingly coined the term "unicorn hair" to describe the kaleidoscope that could always be seen atop her head (and that she dyed every other week to keep fresh).
A year later, Kim (and her signature hair de la unicorn) was a bona fide global rock star, a model-turned-"It" girl who inked a blue-chip Estée Lauder contract and hobnobbed with Kendall Jenner and Justin Bieber. Today, she's gotten even bigger, having launched fashion label Irene Is Good, named after her social media moniker, last summer.
Kim's path to influencer stardom began in earnest in college, when she moved from Seoul to New York City to study textile design at FIT. (She was born in Seattle, where she lived until middle school when her family relocated to South Korea.) After years of obsessively reading the internet's original fashion blogger class (she name-drops the likes of Susie Bubble, Bryanboy and Chiara Ferragni), it wasn't until she arrived in New York that she felt prepared to strike out on her own.
So that she did. In 2012, Kim moved back to Seoul and began a career as a model, then as a television presenter. She started working with brands all over the world, like Ferragamo, Calvin Klein and Chanel, all while putting more time and energy into her personal brand, also called Irene Is Good. Then the Spring 2014 shows hit, and that's the turning point she says that her career went global.
It's been almost six years since then, and Kim has since adapted her business to grow and evolve with her. Right now, that means growing her clothing line, the Spring 2020 collection for which debuts at Paris Fashion Week in a new, inventive presentation format. As for what's next, she's taking it one project, one launch, one partnership at a time — all the better to stay true to that young girl once refreshing the feeds of Susie Bubble, Bryanboy and Chiara Ferragni.
"I don't have an end goal where I want to, say, build this empire and make lots of money and be known," she says. "It's more that I want to keep doing what I'm doing, and hopefully that inspires another young girl to do what they love."
On an around-the-world-call across 12 time zones, I spoke to Kim from her home base of Seoul about all of the above. Read on for the highlights.
What first interested you about fashion?
My mom and my grandma were my biggest influences. They're very stylish. I remember playing in grandma's jewelry box, putting on my mom's shoes, playing with their makeup — all those things. My grandma, still — she's 80 now and she still wears full makeup; her nails are always done. She's always best-dressed in the family, so I get a lot of influence from her. My mom is a little bit more simplistic and feminine with her style, whereas I'm more of a mix-and-match. I get that balance from both my grandma and my mom.
I've just always loved clothes. When my mom would dress me when I was five or six, I’d disappear and come back in a new outfit. I’d change three times a day when I was six years old, and I still do that now.
You were born in Seattle but moved to Seoul in middle school. Did that transition affect the lens through which you viewed fashion?
I think so. I moved back to Korea after middle school. And up until middle school, I went through a lot of stages. I went through a tomboy stage, where I was wearing baggy Calvin Klein jeans and Tommy Hilfiger windbreakers and boxers under my jeans. I went through a very girly stage, and a very preppy stage, where I was wearing a lot of Abercrombie.
I hit puberty very late in the game, so all my friends in America were growing up and buying bras and I was still small and tiny. Then I grew a whole head during my transition between eighth grade and ninth grade.
By the time I got to Korea, I was taller than everyone at school. I was still unsure of my style when I got to high school. I was just trying to not stand out too much because I was already so tall. I have to say, it was when I got to New York that was when I was like, "Oh my gosh, there's so much I can do here."
How did "Irene Is Good" get its start?
My email was always "Irene Is Good." I signed up for Instagram when it first launched; I thought it was cool from the beginning. I started blogging, but purely as a hobby at first. Honestly, I think the fun of it was that I didn't know what I was doing. There's no book on how to be a blogger — I was purely posting things I liked. I'd do self-timer photos, then I'd edit and post them myself.
Once I started modeling in Korea, I was posting more about my job and people got really interested in what was going on behind the scenes. Eventually, two to three years down the line, I started doing TV, and then three to four years after that, I decided to go to New York again.
When did you know this could become a career for you?
I'm a late bloomer; I’ve always been a late bloomer. There were bloggers who were already doing what I was doing professionally for years before I started, like Aimee Song and Chriselle Lim and Chiara Ferragni and Bryanboy. There was Susie Bubble and Fashion Toast and Leandra Medine, as well. They were the ones who actually paved the way.
I was looking at their blogs when I was in college and high school, and I was a huge fan. I admired that they were doing something so different — so why couldn't someone in Korea do that? I mean, there were bloggers in Korea, but I think it was the language barrier at the end of the day that really didn't allow them to break out internationally. I'm first-generation here, and I think I started getting recognized in America because I spoke English.
What were those early days of fashion blogging like, and how have you seen the industry change since?
I had so much fun with the street style photographers back then. They'd scream my name every time they'd see me; every time I'd take a picture, I was running around, twirling my skirt. There was so much energy then and it's so different now. It was just pure fun.
It's all become so globalized now, in a positive way. People are now able to get access to what was once so exclusive, so it feels a lot more inclusive and engaging. It's more direct and real and honest. But in some other ways, I feel like some are losing their creativity because of what's on social media or what other people are doing. We now have amazing platforms like Diet Prada that call out those people, so it's become a lot more exposed, too, which allows for more honesty. Big, big companies can't bullshit you. [Laughs]
In 2018, you took Irene Is Good to the next level by launching a clothing and accessories brand — how did that venture come about?
I never planned it, but in my gut, I always knew I wanted to launch a clothing line. It takes so much time and I didn't want to do it halfway.
I was at a point where, as an influencer, I was working with all these amazing brands, doing all these amazing projects and flying everywhere to go to all these amazing events. But I felt like I was getting lost. You know when things get repetitive, you just feel comfortable where you are? I didn't feel as inspired as I had been because everything started to feel a little bit like work.
This was what happened when I was modeling, too, and that's why I'd transitioned into this influencer lifestyle. But the influencer lifestyle was becoming just like everything else. I didn't feel inspired and I wanted to do something to have another outlet of creativity.
That's what triggered me to launch the brand. Again, I did it without knowing what I was doing. It wasn't very well-planned from the beginning. But I think that's the beauty of it, when you don't know exactly what you're getting into, but you have this gut feeling that you're going to love it. The business has grown, and it's still growing into something that I'm very excited about.
What's your ultimate goal for yourself?
My career so far has been very influenced by staying true to who I am. I'll always be creative, and I'll always be creating things for my fans who are essentially very young girls who love fashion. I just hope to continue to inspire them in a positive and lighthearted way. When people see me, they may think that I don't take things too seriously — which I like, because I like it to be fun and playful. But behind the scenes, I take my business very seriously. I want to continue to grow my business, and as we grow, I want to inspire other girls to follow their dreams.
What advice would you give to someone like one of your young fans who's looking to follow in your footsteps?
Don't listen to what other people say because being an influencer, no one knows you and your image better than yourself. You have to find something you love to do, whatever it is, cooking or music or fashion. You have to be bold and you have to take risks and not be scared to just be yourself. As far as business advice: Don't sell out. [Laughs] Don't do what everyone else is doing, or do it at your own pace. Just make sure that you don't take 'no' for an answer, too.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.