In this third installment from a series of reports from Seoul, Suzy Menkes meets one of South Korea’s most successful fashion entrepreneurs
Even if Sung-Joo Kim were not clutching a super-sized leather rabbit and running up the stairs of her MCM store to reach an installation of a space station, you would have to warm to this dynamic, enthusiastic South Korean entrepreneur.
Anyone who can take a fading German travel-bag business (originally Michael Cromer Munich) and turn it into a thriving accessories company grounded in Seoul, but sold across the world, deserves respect.
The fashion tycoon’s other day jobs include being president of her country’s branch of the Red Cross. And on her office wall, with its panoramic views across the re-constructed city, ringed by mountains, there is a citation from 2015 from Queen Elizabeth II declaring Sung-Joo Kim an Honorary Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to humanity.
To have a powerful business position and a strong sense of corporate responsibility is exceptional. To reach this position as a woman, in a country where her own father originally rejected her strong, independent stance, is an impressive achievement.
But Sung-Joo Kim, 59, is not one of those icy figures striking fear across the boardroom. She strode in — white shirt, mannish jacket and narrow trousers ending in immaculate sneakers — and immediately showed me the video of the fashion show that MCM had recently held in China.
Among the flashing lights and K-Pop soundtrack by the South Korean-Chinese boy band Exo, MCM filled the huge arena of Phoenix TV’s International Media Centre in Beijing with scores of male and female models. This video showed me why Korean style is the fashion ideology of China.
But Sung-Joo Kim is not just basking in Asian fame. She has new lands to conquer in September, when MCM takes part in London Collections Men. With Britain’s Christopher Raeburn as guest designer, this will be another step towards giving the brand global recognition.
Before I had time to absorb the 3-D graphics and fashion-as-theatre vision from the Beijing show, the screen was filled with a video of Exo — Asia’s top boy band. When the K-Pop stars made an appearance at a recent opening of a Seoul store, 11,000 fans showed up, Sung-Joo Kim said. “We had a lot of fun shooting this series! It’s because in Asia the young generation tends to lead the luxury market. They are vey exposed, firstly from the Internet, to what’s going on with all the brands. Secondly, they are very brand conscious. They are born with a computer and the way they relate to luxury is so different from the traditional way.”
Looking at one of Seoul’s MCM stores — and the shops tend to have different personalities according to the district and the clients — I could see a switch from the glitzy, over-the-top embellishment that had once been the brand’s DNA. That was when the US global TV sensation “Dynasty” set the tone for 1980s style and Joan Collin’s character, Alexis Carrington Colby, travelled the world with MCM luggage.
On my visit, the shelves of the Seoul store had some Swarovski bling and bold logos, but the merchandise has certainly developed since Sung-Joo Kim, the long-term license holder, bought the brand in 2005 when its total annual sales were around $70 million. A decade on, I was looking at cute, make-you-smile bags that suggested robots, bug-eyed insects and rabbits. But there were also smooth, plain bags in sleek Céline and YSL style. They were the fruit of a newly established production base in Italy, expanding the reach of a brand whose sales rose to $650 million in 2014 through 300 stores in 35 countries.
It seems that Sung-Joo Kim has a different strategy from the global luxury houses, from Dior to Givenchy, that surround the MCM store on upscale Cheongdam-dong, the heart of Seoul’s “Gangnam style”, promoted by K-Pop singer Psy.
“We want to be different from the rest in the fact that MCM has origins in Germany, but has had this great success in Asia,” said the CEO. “We understand the tastes and needs of young people, which is the key that everybody else hasn’t been able to figure out. The young generation are born with computers, so they expect brands to be interactive and for luxury to be functional,” she explained.
I realised how nuanced the approach to the local market has to be when we visited another store in Seoul’s Myeong-dong shopping area downtown, where the MCM letters shone brightly from a metal shop front and lettering on the windows announced “Space Odyssey”. The inside was even more full-on: a space capsule poised for take off, and a moving rail with Perspex baubles encasing the bags.
This journey into space was aimed at the Chinese market, and the store’s content — from white bags splattered with rhinestones to clothing with silvered sparkle — seemed to shout “Bling’s the Thing!”
This seemed in stark contrast to the story that Sung-Joo Kim was telling me, about how she convinced Harrods, London’s classic department store, to stock unisex, luxury backpacks as intrinsic to practical modernity. “It’s streetwear and high-end; luxury and kitsch,” she said of the brand’s offering.
Now that MCM is installed in China, Sung-Joo Kim’s aim is to achieve something not yet seen in the luxury market: for the brand to return to its roots in Europe and early popularity in America via its pan-Asian success. “With this strong base in Asia, we could go back, while everyone else has followed the reverse path,” she said, referring to the usual global progress from Europe or America to Asia.
“Even though we will need to adjust our marketing and product offer, we are reviewing our collection because of the great success we are having in America,” Sung-Joo said. “We launched our E-commerce in America in February and it is doing very well. We are learning a lot because communication with the final customer provides a lot of information to fine-tune our offers and make them even stronger.”
Another example of MCM’s success in the West was its appearance in the American television hit, “Gossip Girl”, while a triumph was having Beyoncé and Rihanna carry the bags.
I felt exhilarated by Sung-Joo Kim’s enthusiasm and the sense that this was a brand with a fresh, youthful take, in spite of its Germanic roots and the fact that most of the bags’ decoration — such as the Fendi-style furry characters — looked familiar.
This entrepreneur’s back-story is also intriguing, and not only in her strength of character in breaking the glass ceiling in a way that initially shocked her family but ultimately impressed them. Rather, I was fascinated that she had worked at Gucci when, in her own words, “they turned around from being such a traditional Italian company to being the most edgy, chic and modern brand”. The fact that she had also worked with the late Marvin Traub, the legendary retail impresario of New York store Bloomingdale’s, is another clue to MCM’s retail success.
Sung-Joo Kim’s view is that the rejuvenated MCM brand has touched the heart of Asians because of the authenticity of its European heritage melded with the small details — not the traditional luxury stereotypes — needed to communicate with the Asian consumer. “You can sum it up in one German word: zeitgeist. That is very MCM,” she said.
To have taken a word that has never found a precise translation in any other language, yet to distill its essence to Asia, is MCM’s success story. “Our life is just a journey,” Sung-Joo Kim continued. “We are constantly moving, not only physically but mentally, so that we can assist the needs of the new 21st-century generation.”