Designer Gemma Kahng fashionably charges on
By Jane Han
Korea Times correspondent
NEW YORK ― Gemma Kahng doesn't like thinking things over too much. Even when it comes to her intricate fashion business, she likes to follow her heart and just charge ahead. This spirit, she says, is what got her entire design career jumpstarted 20 years ago. But how things have changed.
"Now, I have a Harvard graduate looking at my clothes meeting after meeting," Kahng said in an interview with The Korea Times. "Back when I first started, there were no meetings, no brainstorming, no nothing. Everything was just very spontaneous."
Did this mean her work was sloppy? Not at all. In fact, her first collection, put together out of complete spontaneity, instantly blew away the New York fashion industry.
Top designers such as Christian Lacroix and Franco Moschino praised Kahng's whimsical work, mixing both exaggeration and simplicity.
"My design was fresh, light and raw. I didn't think so much about it. It wasn't like anything else and that's what people really liked about it," recalled Kahng of her 1989 debut.
Her collection was small with only 15 pieces but the immediate reaction was huge.
Not only did she get a full-page editorial spread in Vogue Magazine, she also had orders coming in from dozens of boutiques and specialty stores across the country, all of which was and still is a rare turnout for a new designer.
Over the years, the Korean-born designer continued to blossom, dressing high-profile celebrities from Madonna to Sharon Stone. With a super vibrant persona, she quickly secured her place in the fashion world and became known as the first Korean designer to make a significant impact in the U.S.
None of this is what Kahng nor her parents expected.
"My parents were traditional Koreans. They were more interested in teaching me how to cut apples, bring out tea and be submissive so that I could be a good wife," said the Masan native, who immigrated to the U.S. with her family when she was 14. "But I loved fashion too much."
Kahng enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago, flew to Europe for a few months after graduation and moved to New York thereafter, with virtually no breaks in between.
"I'm a just-do-it person. I never think, 'Is this the right thing to do?' I proceed as if there are no other options," she said.
Kahng's first job in New York was an assistant designer for Cathy Hardwick, a contemporary designer who was also Korean. After working there and a few other places, Kahng successfully launched her own brand.
"I felt like I was standing on the top of the world," Kahng said.
Her business tripled and quadrupled, but suddenly, everything started slowing down after a few years.
"It was like something was pulled out from the bottom and I couldn't balance anymore," she said.
The media attention, buyers and all the other spotlight dimmed but Kang, who didn't seem to mind the "break," still moved forward. She continued to put out collections every season and used the time to reorganize her business.
"This is the reality of the fashion industry. People like new and fresh names," she said with ease. "But I can't judge myself by the way other people evaluate me. I have to believe in myself."
Kahng is currently working on re-launching her brand. At her studio on Manhattan's Seventh Avenue, known as America's fashion Mecca, Kahng is getting ready to crank out more of her design work she sums up as "romantic with a hard edge."
Kahng said she doesn't purposely try to integrate Asian and Korean elements into her work.
"No need to push that to customers since people already know I'm Korean," she said. But the veteran designer says "in the end, I want to become more successful to make Korea proud and give something back."