Siki Im: A Fierce Warrior of Design Takes His Brands to the Next Level

photograph by Youngjun Koo

Growing up in Germany, New York-based designer Siki Im was passionate about skateboarding, punk rock, hip-hop, art, graffiti, and unwittingly, fashion. Luckily for his rabid fans that pick up every single one of his pieces released under his Siki Im or Den Im brands, Im has never abandoned those passions. In fact, his influences live and breathe within the materials found in every single one of his collections.

Originally interested in art, Im grew disillusioned with the business of art and decided to unleash his creativity in a more applied field. He studied architecture at Oxford University, but a chance meeting with David Vandewal, who was designing under Dries Van Noten and later Raf Simons, saw Im plunge headfirst into the world of fashion design, “He really liked what I was wearing, and offered me a job,” says Siki Im.

Im first worked as a designer for Karl Lagerfeld, and later took on the duties of head designer for Helmut Lang after the namesake designer retired from fashion for a full-time career in visual art.

In 2009, Im started his own brand Siki Im, and later the more relaxed brand, Den Im. His menswear collections are startlingly personal, and Im designs with his interests and passions embedded into every detail. He envisions his brand as more than just fashion; he thinks of it in terms of a multi-disciplinary creative studio. The studio has also designed cars, furniture, and all manner of design-friendly objects. Im has just collaborated on a highly successful collection of activewear with Isaora, and won the Woolmark prize for menswear for his innovative use of wool.

Im debuted his Spring-Summer 2016 collection, entitled ‘Youth Museum,’ at the first New York Fashion Week: Men’s in July. The collection was personal, reflecting on Im’s youth as a skateboarder dreaming of one day living in the city that fascinated him, New York. The presentation, that included opera singer Anthony Constanza singing LCD Soundsystem’s ‘New York I love You’ and a finale set to Sonic Youth’s ‘100 %’, was a revelation. For the first time in the two brands’ existences, Im opted to show the Siki Im and Den Im collections together, highlighting the garments’ transformative abilities. What makes Im special as a designer is his ability to draw on his own influences while still being talented enough to create garments that allow the wearer a multitude of options for styling. The whole collection felt very much as if Siki Im is about to be regarded as one of the best designers working today. Im and I sat down to speak about his collection, his interests, and the sophistication of taste created by the Internet.

Adam Lehrer: Growing up as a skateboarder, what was it about New York that obsessed you as opposed to say, LA?

Siki Im: It was probably that I couldn’t identify with the “LA scene:” the weather, the beach, “super chill,” and all that. In Germany, where I grew up, it was pretty rough and urban. I liked that, that’s what drew me to New York.

Yeah in Germany in ’91 to ’92, skateboarding wasn’t mainstream at all. It exposed me to music like the Descendants and Operation Ivy. In the ‘90s, skateboarding was kind of connected to hip-hop, and kind of connected to punk and hardcore.

It was a sub-culture that led to a lot of other culture. I’ve always loved hip-hop and hardcore punk.

AL: You have a wide breadth of influences and interests, have you always been predisposed to getting obsessed with various bits of culture?

SI: I always liked some weird shit but it’s not intentional. It might be because I grew up bi-culturally and was into sub-cultures and nothing mainstream. I was curious to see the world from a different angle. I never had a mentor. I just did a ton of research. We didn’t have Internet; It was all about going to shows. I saw Shelter, Youth of Today, and other bands. And then the hardcore scene had magazines and records. I was into vegan cooking and anti-fascist literature. It wasn’t just about music; it was a whole culture. I’d go to this record shop to buy DIY records. It was the same thing with hip-hop at the time: it wasn’t big. I went to youth centers and there’d be people with backpacks and spray cans that would be free-styling.

AL: Do you miss that at all?

SI: I just downloaded Spotify, and I think it’s great but I don’t use it. It’s too easy. I make music so I know how much effort and time goes into making a song. I remember buying a record and smelling the plastic, reading the lyrics, and looking at the credits. I do miss it. But I don’t want to be nostalgic. That’s kind of what the Spring-Summer 2016 collection, “Youth Museum,” is about.  I’m very proud of and happy about how I spent my youth. I did a lot of cool stuff. My memories are strong and inspiring. But, I need to move forward. I can’t live in my past or in nostalgia.

The way I read it, especially when you had that amazing opera singer come out and sing the LCD Soundsystem song, “New York I love you, But You’re Bringing me Down,” was saying that New York is different but we’re still here, we might as well enjoy it.

I think you wrote it quite well in your article: you love [New York] and you hate it. There are so many great things here, but there are also things that make you want to leave. But you can’t leave for some reason. The good thing about working in design and fashion is that while it’s all about trend and youth, the work is also about me.

AL: How did you develop an interest in architecture? Was it just because you were fascinated with the urban environment?

SI: I was actually about to go to art school. I had my first exhibition when I was 17. I was really into graffiti and after that I started painting. I did an apprenticeship painting with a successful artist. I got accepted into some good art schools in Germany. But, I wanted to do something applied. I didn’t have much knowledge about architecture, but I always loved spaces and buildings without really knowing why. I admired a few architects like the Bauhaus architects and le Corbusier. I decided to study in England, because architecture in Germany is more widely regarded as engineering where as in England it’s more design.

AL: More creative?

SI: Exactly. The school that I went too thought of architecture in a conceptual way. Again, I was faced with weird shit.

AL: How’d you like living in England?

SI: It was cool. I was a studious super nerd. But we would go to London once a month to see a show. At that time I was really into breakbeats, ninja tune, all that stuff.

AL: Were you always interested in clothes; did you have favorite brands?

SI: Funny enough, I think I was always into fashion. Skateboarding helped me with style and gave me a taste for styling. I remember in 9th grade I was supposed to do an internship. I applied for fashion companies in Cologne, but I got an internship with a photographer. I was interested in fashion without realizing it.

AL: You started working right off the bat with amazing designers, how did you end up working with those guys?

SI: I met this guy who came from Belgium that was a designer for Dries [Van Noten] and Raf [Simons], David Vandewal.

AL: (laughs)

SI: No seriously, it was that easy almost! Like right away, I was his assistant. And now he’s my stylist.

AL: Oh shit.

SI: Yeah, now I’m his boss!

AL: That must be gratifying.

SI: (laughs) No we’re just a really good team, you know? We have really similar taste, so it makes working easier. I was really lucky. I didn’t need to apply for anything.

AL: I’m curious about what your day-to-day was like with Karl Lagerfeld, were you designing with him?

SI: Yeah I was designing men’s and women’s: fittings, going to factories, and traveling around the world. At that time he was really into New York so he would come once a month. He’s super funny and totally different than what people see from the outside. Among designers he’s known as super funny, witty, and smart. He has so much knowledge.

AL: And then at Helmut Lang you were head designer after he left the company?

SI: Yeah, the Karl Lagerfeld studio had closed and I was looking for a new job and they had just started the new Helmut Lang, so I just joined them.

"Everything is elevated now. We are making high fashion but we find inspiration in Cholos and farmers in Kenya."

AL: I can imagine that was stressful taking over for someone like Helmut, he was one of the most legendary designers of the ‘90s.

SI: Yeah, there was a lot of baggage, especially because he was one of my favorite designers and I have a lot of his pieces. It was challenging in the beginning. I think we did a great job to give the brand a new identity.

AL: So how did you come to the decision to start the Siki Im brand and design firm?

SI: I always dreamed of having my own creative studio and 2009 was the right time to do it. I had no idea it was going to start with fashion. I envisioned it as a multi-faceted design studio. So now we don’t just do fashion; we do furniture, interior spaces, cars, and products. That’s what interests me

AL: I was curious because it does seem like there are some pretty exciting menswear designers based in New York right now that actually just showed in New York.

SI: Which ones?

AL: There’s you, Robert Gellar, Alexandre Plokhov, Patrik Ervell, Proper Gang. But then there’s so many designers that still do shows in Paris. It’s obviously the first NYFWM, and I know you were a big part of putting it together, do you see it maybe growing to the same level as Paris and London, or is that the idea?

SI: I think so. It’s just started. I think it’s a strong city. But I think it’s just as important to have an identity. It was great to separate the men’s shows from the women’s to give us more of a voice and to show our true colors instead of playing second fiddle at the womenswear shows.  

AL: For me it felt like, for you and Robert especially, those shows are going to take the brands to the next level, and I feel that type of creativity puts New York Fashion Week: Men’s on the map, maybe even more so than your Calvin’s and your Ralph’s.

SI: I think that it’s all important. If it was all Robert and I, that would be boring too. That’s what makes us human. I think everyone has a voice. I’m just blessed that people like what I do. I love showing here. Everyone is always telling you to show in Paris, and there are business reasons, such as buyers and production, to go to Paris, but I love New York. Let’s make New York cooler. New York, will never and should never be like Paris. We should have our own identity.

AL: Do you think that menswear as a business is really as on the upswing that the New York Times Style section says it is?

SI: I mean, if the New York Times says it then it must be true….? No I’m just kidding.

AL: (laughs)

SI: I think it is. The average man is more into culture in general. I think Apple actually had a huge influence on exposing culture to more people and making us more aware of design and details. That extends to movies, to music, to better TV shows. All the TV shows are amazing! It all cultivates a more refined taste. It is all part of one evolution.

AL: Would you ever be interested in taking on womenswear?

SI: Yeah I love womenswear. That’s what I did in my past. We have women’s stores and women’s editorials. We cut in woman sizes. It’s just a matter of time and infrastructure to do a women’s collection.

AL: I know you’re probably crazy busy as it is, but would you ever run your own brand and also take on one of the big houses?

SI: That’s a good opportunity for sure. It’s a different way of designing. You are creative within certain outlined boundaries and parameters. That’s what makes a great designer. But, if I was going to take something on, I would want it to be a brand totally opposite to my own brand. I would rather do some really Madonna brand, like how Raf modernized Dior. If the ideologies are too similar to my own brand, than it’s almost boring.

AL: So, let’s talk about the new collection. You’ve said that this is your most personal collection yet. Why now did you feel like it was the right time to do an almost autobiographical collection of garments?

SI: I think I put my interests and soul into every collection, but this season it was just going back to how I grew up in the ‘90s. Instead of using a concept or theme, I used my story and my youth. When CFDA announced the separation of men’s and women’s fashion week and we wanted to be a part of it, we decided it made sense to do our extension line, Den Im, together with Siki Im in the show

AL: It looked great, by the way.

SI: Thanks! It was definitely because the main line is pretty out there and we wanted to make the show a little more approachable. It was a challenge because both lines have their own identities, but can also live together. It became a challenge to make the show feel natural. I usually wear both together.

AL: Yeah I have a few Den Im pieces and what I think is really cool is I have this asymmetrical hoodie with two zippers, and I can wear it like that or I can wrap it around me, or I can make it look a little more abstract if I want to. Is that a conscious decision at all?

SI: Yeah, totally. How you wear it is up to you, and I love that. We can only propose certain ways to wear it that we think are different and fresh. But we do love to give you a lot of freedom. I love movies that have an ending that is open to interpretation. For me, that is more human.

AL: That’s really cool, it’s like the Sopranos fade to black ending.

SI: Amazing, yeah.

AL: I hate how style editors talk about ‘elevated streetwear’ in that it almost feels demeaning. Like, you take someone like Nasir Mazhar and call it streetwear, but that guy is an amazing designer of fashion.

SI: Yeah, we’ve been doing so-called ‘elevated streetwear’ since our third season. When Americana was still in we started doing drop-crotch sweats and elongated t-shirts. But think of it this way, Jay-Z is an elevated rapper.

AL: (laughs) That is true.

SI: He is a CEO multi-millionaire. It’s the same thing with the iPhone, it’s an elevated gadget. Everything is elevated now. We are making high fashion but we find inspiration in Cholos and farmers in Kenya. It’s also a marketing tool.

AL: I feel like it just might be an overused term, to me fashion is being able to spot things that are beautiful or cool and re-purposing them for high fashion. Maybe I’m over-thinking it.

SI: Not over-thinking it, what it is, I can tell from your tone that you are maybe a little annoyed by the labeling.

AL: I just think an amazing designer is an amazing designer.

SI: But people just label things. I’m sure Alice in Chains didn’t want to be grunge. But it’s just easier for marketing. We’re humans, we’re dumb. We like to put everything in boxes.

AL: Yeah.

SI: What does streetwear mean now anyways? There are kids in the street wearing $300 sneakers, and there are yuppies wearing $300 sneakers. Everything is democratic, but also flat, and that’s great. My job is to make it less flat, whatever that means. At least people look cooler. In the ‘80s the yuppie was super ugly, now the yuppie has an iPhone and probably rides a fixed gear bike. That’s the new yuppie. That’s you and me.

AL: (Laughs) That’s true, and smart. So you have all these new collaborations coming out with the eyewear, I just saw the Isaora running gear. How do these collaborations come about?

SI: I really like the idea of being a design-led creative studio. For me, as a young small company, these collaborations are great ways to show people what I’m into and what I like to design. Our running line started because Rick from Isaora wears my clothes and I wear his clothes. And, we thought it would be cool to do a little collaboration, and it turned out to be a huge success, actually. It’s been crazy. And on trend. I love anything design: sunglasses, ceramics, homewear, water bottles. I love that shit.

AL: Does it feel like more and more of these opportunities are coming up?

SI: We just got accepted to be a part of CFDA and that’s a huge honor. The Woolmark next round is in January, and just keep designing good stuff and being challenged by it. 

You can learn more about Siki Im by visiting the brand's official website. Text and interview by Autre's fashion editor-at-large, Adam Lehrer