I met the founders of IISE, brothers Kevin and Terrence Kim, through a mutual friend when I first arrived in Seoul, Korea three years ago. Immediately, I could tell they were ambitious and driven guys with NYC hustle that happened to view the world through a different lens. What many see here as harsh incongruences in the contrast between the traditional and modern, they take and marry into a harmonious match.

IISE incorporates minimalism in their designs while drawing on Korean influences from a wide range of articles such as hanbok clothing, monk bags, architecture, and ancient lotus door rings. Recently featured by fashion publications like Hypebeast, flown out to London by Pepsi PR, and mentored by Jeff Staple, credentials are quickly becoming notches on their belts. RL of SeoulSync sits down to talk with them for an exclusive IISE interview regarding their newest 2014 S/S collection, inspiration, and highlights from their journey thus far. Commercial and look book photos shot by RL.

Goat daypack
Tell us about your stunning new collection. In addition to Korean silk/cotton blends, it seems you guys are incorporating fine leathers now as well. Most of your fans are familiar with your previous use of ‘hanji’ (paper from a Korean mulberry tree) cloth and organic dying methods. Is there anything that makes your leather special as well?

We tend to receive a lot of positive feedback on how well our bags age. As the cyclical dying, rinsing, and drying process makes the colors and textures unique, each bag also develops natural creases and wrinkles over time according to how the owner uses it – much like how people develop wrinkles from expressions. Each of these instances show signs of character and individuality. Although the dying process differs for our leathers, the same concept applies to its maturation. We also take the utmost care in sourcing materials. The new goat leather we sourced for our daypack and wallet is soft and supple, while the Italian leather we use feels luxurious and durable.

wine weekender

Interesting choice moving from buffalo to goat leather but I gotta say the latter feels like butter, seriously. It’s been a pretty crazy ride, hasn’t it? You guys have propelled IISE from very humble beginnings to an enviable Korean-inspired bag and accessories brand. Any words of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?

It’s definitely been pretty crazy. I think everyone that has pursued something of their own whether it be something creative or a business, has failed numerous times along the way. The important thing is to learn from all your failures and motivate yourself to keep going. Many people feel like they need to be 100% prepared before trying something new but the truth is you’ll never be 100% ready, so you might as well start as soon as you can and learn from the inevitable mistakes you’ll make along the way. Imagine how many great ideas never come to fruition because of this?

wine daypack

Well said. Getting started is a battle at times, and execution is a beast in itself. How hard was it to start a business in Korea as a foreigner with the language barrier and all?

It’s been a long journey to even get IISE started but we’ve been fortunate to meet with people that have been very understanding and helpful. We work with mostly an older generation of Koreans and many of them are intrigued as to why two foreigners are so interested in their craft and culture. The language barrier was a bit of a setback but we knew enough to communicate the basics. The more we got to know this older generation of people the more Korean we learned. In response to our efforts, they’re even eager to learn a bunch of English words and now there are hardly any communication problems. 

pearl white daypack

You know you’re going somewhere when you start getting attention from haters. I’ve heard some say that your products are too minimal style wise or believe prices are set too high. How do you respond?

Haha, honestly we don’t receive that much hate. Most people respond well, even if our designs don’t fall in line with their tastes. I’ve learned that people can always respect what you’re trying to do, especially when they hear your story and vibe with why you’re doing it. As for prices – they’re reflective of the labor, quality, and attention that goes behind each product. That’s another reason each style is produced in limited quantities; quality control. At the end of the day, we try to make things we would see ourselves buying and using for years to come.

navy x charcoal daypack

Kevin, nothing worthwhile comes easy and everything happens for a reason. Two maxims I’m sure you guys can relate to. I remember some of your initial struggles trying to get a brand launched, and how a proposed opportunity with a high-end fashion designer was what prompted you to move to Korea in the first place. Immediately after getting settled here in Seoul you stumbled upon a pretty massive roadblock. What was your thought process when that designer backed out?

At the time it was the worst thing to happen to us. We were living in China at the time, so we flew back and forth for months until ultimately moving here to finish the collaboration. After the designer backed out, all the hard work we had accomplished was for nothing. But we believed in our vision for the brand and decide it to just do it on our own. Now looking back, it was all a blessing in disguise and we learned that there’s always going to be setbacks along the way. When your back’s against a wall it’s human nature to fight with urgency and we’ve maintained that aggressive mentality ever since. 

navy pouch

Terrence, I know you’re a strong believer in the quote, “The next person you meet could change your life.” Could you share an experience where someone was pivotal in establishing IISE’s foundation? Do you have any other favorite quotes for aspiring entrepreneurs?

There have been so many altruistic people along the way that have helped us in ways both big and small. When we were living in China, we met the nicest Chinese man who worked for a huge clothing company. I remember the first time he invited us to his office building and it almost seemed like a Google headquarters building. He ended up giving us a free office space to work out of and even connected us to a bunch of factories all because he just wanted to help us succeed. It was an enlightening and uplifting experience. I hope we’re in a position to help out others just as he did in the future. 

I have a lot of favorite quotes about getting started, maintaining passion, and executing ideas, but the following succinctly sums up how I’ve changed the way I view work. It’s also probably one of the biggest perks to doing what you truly love. 

“A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.”

navy pouch

What does the rise in media attention these days do for your brand?

Exposure is always good. It provides us with more recognition, increases brand awareness, and is essentially free marketing for us. The networking potential is also huge as we can meet fellow entrepreneurs, collaborate with companies in a related field, or learn and gather inspiration from other people. It’s continually surprising to find out just how many people are willing to help when you display passion behind your ideas.

charcoal weekender

Let’s switch gears a bit. Have any funny stories to share with us?

Our Korean dye teacher always rags on us… like literally shuts us down. She mentors us and often gives us advice on the natural dye process and its history. She has the best intentions, but basically ends up schooling us when we think we know something. Another example is when we show her our new samples or products after toiling on them for months, she’s like, “ehhh… this is whatever!” Haha. It’s that tough love, but we enjoy it since it’s her actually caring enough to challenge us to aim higher and do better.

charcoal weekender

Where do you both see IISE heading towards in the future?

Well, in short, we see ourselves evolving into a full-fledged lifestyle brand. Design heavy and on point with the details, we look to enhance people’s lives through outstanding aesthetics and functionality of their everyday products. We feel that accessories are only the beginning for us.

goat daypack


For more on IISE and their incredible journey, be sure to check out their SM platforms.

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About The Author

RL

An eclectic soul with a diverse background, Rob has lived in Korea for the past 5 years. An avid interest in Korean culture, high-quality media, and content led him to co-founding SeoulSync. On his down time he plays ball, visits museums, explores new places, and shoots. These days, he channels his photography into the @seoulsync IG and his own personal @rlvism account.