Thursday, February 19, 2015

Women and clothes: Helen Kim

Women love to talk about clothes. It's like a code. A secret language of the sisterhood which can bond females quickly and forever. Clothes can give us confidence. They express our values and our politics. They help us reinvent ourselves. For some of us, it's an almost-sacred daily ritual. Clothes serve as our armor or disguise.

Inspired by this fantastic book, I'm kicking off a new series on my blog called Women and clothes. There's more to talk about in fashion than, "Who are you wearing?" and I'm really excited about bringing those conversations to you. 

I knew immediately the first woman I wanted to interview. My friend and graphic designer Helen Kim has a style sensibility that's so indicative of her personality: fun, irreverent, smart, sexy and brave with a I-don't-take-myself-too-seriously vibe that's utterly charming. When Helen's not running her LA-based design studio, The Think Farm, she's pondering the big little things on her blog or knocking back oysters at the nearest $1 oyster happy hour.


Jennifer Cho Salaff (JCS): What is one article of clothing you cannot live without?
Helen Kim (HK): Bright-colored heels have permanent residence in my closet. They ramp up the fun quotient to practically anything, from everyday-jeans to that special “it” dress, and give this girl a boost of confidence as she heads out the door! People worry that bright colored shoes would be difficult to incorporate into their existing wardrobes but I find that the brighter the color, the easier the shoes are to "match" with neutrals. 

JCS: Should one keep up with fashion?
HK: I am of two minds about this. Fashion can guide, empower, inspire and revitalize. Trends are opportunities to consider something new or look at something familiar with a new perspective. On the other hand, fashion trends can be vapid derivatives of an original idea. I think it's completely fine for fashion to help you identity with a group and/or have a sense of belonging. Not to mention the fact that retail therapy is furreal! But when keeping up with fashion is simply about “keeping up,” it becomes a liability to your uniqueness and freedom of creative expression. If this happens, I’d say it's time to tune out the noise.

JCS: Is there a difference between fashion and style?
HK: Yes, particularly if ones definition of fashion is "trends." As such, fashion is a cultural phenomenon and can't exist without the multitudes. Style, though it can be embodied by and represent a larger group of people, exists also within the individual. Style is much more personal and fashion can be utilized to finesse and/or expand upon ones sense of style over a lifetime.

JCS: Is there a difference between style and taste?
HK: Yes. Style is, among other things, about aesthetic preference, cultural connection and personal expression. Taste is used to execute style. You can have great style concepts implemented with terrible taste or a ho-hum style elevated by good taste. Sometimes though, bad style and bad taste can be utterly delicious! As filmmaker John Waters wrote in his book Role Models, "You don't need fashion designers when you are young. Have faith in your own bad taste... Get on the fashion nerves of your peers, not your parents-- that is the key to fashion leadership." I don’t think this advice only applies to the young but Y-E-S.

JCS: Who is your fashion muse?
HK: Call me ageist, but I'm so over the early-twenty-somethings representing the complete spectrum of relevant fashion, from street to avant-garde. I love the ladies of the Advanced Style blog. This quote from Barney's creative director Simon Doonan says it all: "The whole idea of shifting the view onto these women who are older [60s to 90s] is quite anarchic and provocative, and very much against the prevailing fashion system. If you're looking for punk rock anarchy, look at Advanced Style." Also, Joni Mitchell in this photo in the February 2015 issue of New York Magazine is EVERYTHING.

JCS: Most ridiculous trend in fashion (current or past)?
HK: There is a special place in my heart for the ridiculous but I must say I’ve never been a fan of the uber-platform heels that became a pervasive trend as a result of the mainstream-ization of porn. I think any kind of aesthetic tradition is compelling at some level and I am a big fan of appropriation so I am not too bothered by the porn aspect.

My beef is twofold. I know people who favor platform heels say they elongate the legs but I think they actually make you look like your legs abruptly end in a pair of stumps. Also, there was a tortured period during which a whole parade of starlets wore them on talk shows. The talk show hosts had to hold them steady by both hands as they wobbled up the two little steps on to the interview, looking nervously down at their feet the whole time. Modern-day foot-binding, anyone? As someone who roots for powerful, self-assured examples of women in media, I thought this period was completely mortifying. I hope Julia Louis-Dreyfus bitch-slapped her stylist after she saw herself on Conan.

JCS: Can you remember the first time you were conscious of a thing called "fashion?"
HK: When I was about five years old, I went to a children's clothing store with my mom. There was a blue knee-length dress with a patchwork design on the chest that the sales lady referred to as "the Cinderella dress." In retrospect, the dress looked nothing like what Cinderella would wear but that didn't matter one bit. As soon as the sales lady said "Cinderella" my imagination exploded and I saw the possibilities of that dress. I knew I had to have it.

JCS: Describe your figure.
HK: I have sizable boobs considering I'm of Korean descent but they are normal for an American. Like a typical Korean, though, my butt is nowhere to be found. My midsection inflates or deflates depending on how many bars of Snickers I've had. Lately, I've had a lot of Snickers. This may not be the best way to describe my figure but I never understood my body in the context of apples, pears or oranges.

JCS: When do you feel most sexy?
HK: When I am not stuffing Snickers bars into my face. More specifically, when I am feeling confident and self-possessed.

JCS: What are you trying to do or achieve when you dress?
HK: Going back to the Snickers, they are obviously indicative of some internal stuff I'm dealing with at the moment. So, at the moment, I am trying to achieve invisibility or at least inconspicuousness when I get dressed in the morning.

On better days, which I believe are to come, I dress to suit the emotional needs of the day. If I am meeting with a client, I dress to create a connection or sense of empathy. I pick out things from my wardrobe that will give the client a visual cue that I'm on their wavelength. If I need a little pick-me-up, I dress a little fancier than usual as a treat for myself. If I am getting ready for a night out, I dress to feel sexy, powerful or rebellious (that could mean a lot of things), depending on what I'm anticipating.

JCS: What would you say is "you" and "not you?"
HK: I would say contradictions and a sense of humor are “me.” I love the juxtaposition of seemingly incongruous textures, patterns, colors and styles, and it's an added bonus when this is done with a wink. I would also say that simplicity is "me." I don't like to be fussy. With all the contradictions, juxtapositions and winks going on, it's good to keep things somewhat streamlined so as to walk the fine line between interesting and bonkers.

Much to my mother's chagrin, refined and subtle are "not me." I can do either when necessary but I can't help myself from sneaking something irreverent or out-of-place into the ensemble somehow. 

JCS: What do you admire about how other women present themselves?
HK: I admire women who are bona fide on-trend. I admire their energy and tenacity to keep up! I admire women who are effortlessly elegant. True elegance comes from within and is without affectation. If that’s not admirable, I don’t know what is. I similarly admire women who have mastered the understated cool. My friend Karin does this quite well and I sometimes feel like a Pokemon standing next to her. I admire women who go for it, put the pedal to the metal. No regrets and total commitment – how bad-ass.

Most of all, I admire women who defy the dictates of societal conventions and expectations, not with rebellion as the main intention but being present to the unique experience of their person. These women do this regardless of how they are represented, misrepresented or not represented at all in the public discourse. I hope to be thusly admired someday.

Photos courtesy Helen Kim from her blog, Facebook and Instagram
Photo of Joni Mitchell by Norman Jean Roy.
Photo of Christian Louboutin Daffodile pumps via 21cn-shoes.