Interview with Siki Im about his work and time in the Oxford School of Architecture
I THINK WHAT’S IMPORTANT TO ME IS THAT MY WORK IS CHALLENGING, AND PROPOSES A NEW PERSPECTIVE ON A CERTAIN GENRE.
Great architects build structures that can make us feel enclosed, liberated or suspended. They lead us through space, make us slow down, speed up or stop to contemplate. Fashion designers in High fashion do the same; they devise, narrate and choreograph the structure of clothes - along with theatrics to alter our perception, foretelling the ideas and the visions that reflect the contemporary world.
I interviewed award winning men’s fashion designer Siki Im to discuss his views + stories in architecture, his training, his time at OSA . Along the interview, he has very much enriched the narration of his career through his personal tales regarding: the studio culture; the profession (factors that made him switch to fashion); the development of his style (architecturally + fashion); and his influences. (Architecturally + artistically +musically etc)
This Germany-born graduate of OSA moved to New York in 2001. Siki Im cut his teeth in the fashion world while working under Karl Lagerfeld and Helmut Lang as Senior Designer. This was before he won the prestigious 2010 Ecco Domani award that provided his first show at Bryant Park. (SIDE TEXTS)
Please could you tell us briefly about the origins and evolution of SIKI IM Studio?
Well I think it goes way back, probably in middle school or high school. I mean I don’t know even know where to start because it was such a long time ago. Obviously, the thought having the studio occurred when I was in Oxford. I dreamt starting a company someday - and that’s when I thought of founding an architectural studio. But then again, at early age on I was interested in so many other things. Growing up in Germany, I was making music and I did graphic design in high school. All of these kind of interest accumulated as I grew up. Later on, I developed a special interest in movies. We even tried to have a film club as OSA (Oxford School of Architecture). I think Matt was even supporting it. But, he was too busy to make models and drawings. So at certain point, then I realised I think it was in England or when I was 20 that I wanted a creative studio where we can design everything.
After my studies I wanted to move to New York; it was always a dream of mine to live there. I knew already that the design language wasn’t an interest. I was interested in skateboarding, music so New York was the place for me in that case; the lifestyle suited me. I Work for a few years for ARCHITECTONICS, a New York boutique; a quite progressive forward thinking firm, even for that American standard you know. After 2 years, I even got to be project architect. I was really young and I was using an array of industry standard software’s like Maya form, vector work etc. It taught me to be more open minded.
I met this person who came from Belgium who works Raf Simons and Dries van Noten and he really liked what I was wearing and stuff, and then he offered me a job in fashion - I was like why not. Just try out new things you know. And that’s how I got into the fashion world. But, it was always a dream of mine to have a studio. For some reason, it got to be really fun in the industry. I was always teaching myself in the evenings, pattern making, and I love that stuff you know. But my love for architecture never disappeared; I feel like I’m just taking a break from it. I like learning new things, so I was working for several design houses for a while and doing all the corporate American structure you know… After a few years or so, I decided to set my own studio, first with fashion, you know that’s the first language I think I was good at. And In the design language, I think it’s the most acceptable, tolerable and media friendly language. So that’s why you know I’m doing it. The goal for the Siki Im studio is definitely to expand its design language.
So basically I never changed or switched my profession you know; architecture is always my love.
How would you describe your work/ style to someone unfamiliar with it?
I think what’s important to me is that my work is challenging and proposing a new perspective on a certain genre and not in terms of saying this is the truth, right or wrong. It’s just like a new or a different type of design language you know. So obviously the product which is maybe the subject is not as important. It has to be obviously remarkable and from the highest quality no matter what it is. But I think what for me is the most important is beyond that. The same thing with architecture is not about buildings – it’s about space about the entangles, the same thing to me. Fashion is not about garments it's about that kind of physiological the same with other design language it’s about certain aspiration certain image and certain world that I create.
Coco Channel once said Fashion is architecture: it is a matter of proportions. What kind of cross-pollination do you think there is between fashion and architecture, if there is any?
Like I said, I don’t think architecture is about buildings it’s not about brick and mortar. What we study and what matt was so good at is to teach especial me is that architecture is about space, it’s so abstract it can be everything. So you know it's phycology. It's political, it’s anthropological and its spiritual and the same thing with fashion, as I mentioned before it’s not about just garments. Of course, there is a certain appeal and sex, proportions but it’s something more like there’s a reason why you would want to wear that item of clothing from this set of this brand to that set of brand. And so that’s definitely the similarities. Then you can go into in terms of technicality, for instant like how I design sketch is very different like I always sketch both from the macro to the micro, for me proportion and silhouettes are very important to me like the exterior but then also the interior, I go really into detail so I don’t know,, I think fashion designs do that like for instance I sketch all the details like how what kind of seems there how, how they’re going to be sawn. There are so many different construction in terms of garments that It can influence the make and not feel and that’s very important to me. The inside of the garment is as beautiful as the outside of a garment. It’s the same thing lets say if you design a building, a lot of architects neglect bathrooms you know. Because they assume it's not important, but bathrooms are beautiful communal spaces. I love it when buildings are well thought through to every little detail, to the hand rail, to the lighting and to the bathrooms you know those kind of things. What I’m trying to do at the moment is working on new pattern making Shifting patterns, relooking into traditional pattern making in how can I updating and make it more interesting and use other references to help to come up with new designs.
You’ve worked with Karl Lagerfeld and Helmut Lang, what was that experience like? How did they receive your architectural training, background and approach?
I think they could definitely see that I was more structural in design or aesthetics you know with the garments I designed there .I was definitely doing more less drapey garments. In the beginning, I love draping; I always liked the relationship between drape and structure, soft and hard was always important to me. So they definitely used me for that more and also for technicalities. I’m very much interested into certain things, methods, technicalities most than other designers. But yeah, it was amazing, I’ve learnt so much - because you know I never went to fashion school!
How has your time at OSA + acquiring an architectural education helped enrich your design training?
Obviously, I haven’t visited other schools, I was very subjective. For me it was really interesting; I was actually very close to going to fine art school then last minute I changed my mind to architecture. Then, all the other architecture school, not all but most in Germany were more in a way geared towards the engineering side rather than design. So I decided to check out schools in England. And throughout the other school of architecture, I choose OSA. Once I got there I realised it’s very artsy to begin with. And so I couldn’t escape it, thanks Matt for that. It really opened my eyes, like what everything I loved before: movies I’ve been watching, graphic design, graffiti, portions and then coming with that, I loved going to OSA. Then everything made sense you know what they were teaching there. I did like projects with FAT, I did a short movie, and in one crit we even played music. I also studied choreography there. And that was for me the most wonderful that this is all architecture. My dissertation was about identity, ideology and anthropology. I’m really thankful for those professors there.
What were your favourite moments + experiences during your time here at OSA?
I’m so fond of it – I remember my English really sucked when I came to England. I remember the first class, Matt was there. I had no idea what the fuck he was saying. You know it’s the Scottish accent, I thought it was some foreign subtitles you know. But one thing I remember he was saying the beginning was ‘’ you have to be a prostitute. I don’t know if he still says the same thing. But he’s right you know like what we’re doing in away also. We are not artist. We can’t live in our cave and that’s what I’ll always remember and have taken with me in away and try to work on that being a prostitute. You know we had at that time such a studio like. It was good. I had really fun memories of my time there. The weather sucked always and the food too. I had too many good memories there to be honest with you.
Did you enjoy your architectural crit days; what were the most unforgettable comments your tutor has said about your work?
Well I always the lucky one that they always chose to go first most of the time – so it fucking sucked you know I didn’t sleep, the printers always not working you know and I mean for some reason they always made me go first, I hated it, I hated it. I’m nervous as crazy and my English wasn’t that good you know. I was lucky, I don’t think I had many bad crits. But, I do remember in some crits where they were just destroying the models of the student and shit like that, I was like Woah! That was powerful you know. No I enjoy it a lot. Now I’m teaching in parsons, so I try to think you know the other way round. But, yeah I don’t think I had any major bad crits. – I was a great student maybe.
During your Architectural studies, what particular kind(s) of architecture (figures, movements + architects) inspired and influenced your work the most?
You know it’s funny enough I knew about Le Corbusier, the brutalist and the Bauhaus in high school, because I was into that. And so I was always more of a minimalist; always clean, and people were always like Oh that’s Siki’s work you know. At some point, maybe beginning of second year, I thought like, man that just kind of scary; I’m really young and people can already recognise my work. I’m I going to improve or learn, right? So in second year I started learning Photoshop and at that time there was no history function so you had to always save as, save as and go back – you could only go back once you couldn’t go three steps backwards, so it was a complete nightmare. Alongside this, we were still using those rotring drawing pens you know. This is how I still learned representation wise. I think the year below me only started learning computer work; this was also the time I got my first email address. I was really anti-computer growing up you know. So I got really fascinated with all the notion of cyber-space, so all of this hyper surface Columbia shit and so I taught myself all this weird computer stuff. I remember making a weird jelly fish space as a building and I hated it! But. I loved it because it really made me become more open minded about techniques and aesthetic – it really helped me to challenge myself.
To the present day, how have these movements inspired your work in your designs + artistic vision?
I’m the biggest Bauhaus fan and you know it has influenced me tremendously. Like for me, Bauhaus for aesthetics - there was always certain honesty and a certain transparency. Meaning they wouldn't hide things, they didn’t do meaningless decoration and I think that kind of notion I still keep with me all the time. Like let’s say for instance our blazers, they are fully hand tailored so like in a traditional way as it would be with a canvas in front. So what we do is like to make the outside very clean, so you don’t see any buttons and seams. While on the inside it has this sheer silicone organza, so you can see how the garment is made; all the imperfection, the hand stitching and the canvas. You know for me that am a reference to what I’ve been learning from certain architecture movements.
When did you realise you wanted to switch to fashion; what were the factors and defining moments that led to this change?
I never did it consciously, like I said, for me I just wanted to do something different, try out something new and trust me it took me a long time to call myself a fashion designer. I still don’t call myself a fashion designer, because you know architects are so arrogant. And I think architecture is universal - the highest design language and fashion probably the lowest. It was never a concision decision of like you know- the change. But at some points after 5-6 years I realised that actually I enjoy designing clothes and making people happy or sexy and quite good at it you know. But, we are definitely planning on the strategy of our studio to go back to architecture and do special design.
Which part of your career have you enjoyed the most thus far?
You know the great thing about fashion is its fast you know, you keep moving and challenging. And also physically, you travel a lot and you work with so many different people you know factories, PR, sales. I think I enjoy that interaction. Maybe in the architectural environment it’s less diverse.
Architects and designers work within the grounds of a brief; do you enjoy working from a brief rather than having complete freedom?
I think my personality prefers a brief; I think I am not disciplined enough to be esoteric. I don’t take as much drugs you know so, that was joke by the way. No definitely always, I enjoy for instance concepts and having a story. Like if were to do every season, I kind of build a new world, a new movie almost - and so I’m writing the script, the concept, the plot and that’s obviously a brief. But, the differences between fashion and other design language is that fashion is very emotional. That was actually the hardest thing. Like before, I remember Karl - he would say that I can always be so rigid with a concept you know; It has to be more intuitive and emotional.
In your recent ‘’Defiles Menswear Fall/ winter 2014- 2015, I could personally see influences of modernism, brutalism, and minimalism. It’s very strong, masculine and attention to detail & materiality is apparent. You have a very distinctive style and your previous collections also have this aura. Can you describe your processes in the early stages of designing a new collection?
Usually when I design, I think about the next collection during the previous seasons you know. I start thinking while I’m almost in the end stages of designing the previous collection - I think about the next collection already. But then I keep checking if it’s relevant, if it make sense, If it’s something I want to study for the next half a year. That feeling is usually often driven by a book I was reading, movies or a New York Times article you know. Because that feeling starts something with that and I kept roaring into it you know - does this make sense and then I go back into the repertoire of my life. If I really understand that, then I keep researching deeper. I always sketch a lot and think about that feeling. While I’m sketching, I also look at the fabrics because of time. There is a certain time frame we have - We have deadlines too and in parallel with the fabrics and all of those components, I make a collection. So all of this thinking is part of the DNA of my brand you know. Is this going to confuse people? And also that is obviously the reality check. I do look into what sold well and didn’t sell well and hoping to make it better. Thinking about which garments from last season is worthwhile saving or improving. So there are a lot of different components within the collection in that sense - It’s never linear, it’s very exhausting and annoying actually - well for my little brain (laughs).
If you created mood boards at this stage… what kind of images + materials would go on it? + At the moment, what are you currently fascinated by and how is it feeding into your work?
You should check out my Instagram. I get fascinated by anything - I don’t like looking at other collections of clothes. I get more inspired by like you know an air-condition, some forest or I don’t know some details on a wall. Usually something that’s not finish and within the process; I love those in-between moments. Obviously I still go look at buildings, how it’s made, how it’s constructed and those kind of things really influence me a lot.
I am a great fan of your larger three dimensional designs such as the Siki Im Pavilion at Arnhem Mode Biennale in 2011. The design + renders that you produced, successfully complimented your brand and were aesthetically exquisite - Have any projects changed your outlook on design?
Every project change, because I learn a lot. Designing is luxurious thing, but then the execution is the hardest and the most important thing. With the Arnhem pavillion, It was really interesting, I went back to my old architectural studio, ARCHITECTONICS and along with the principle, we worked on the pavilion together. We started conceptually the blazer- working on the blazer, dismantling the pattern and then folding it a kind of Jule-waibel way with the folds. It all sounded great amazing you know – the renderings and imagery. But then making it was so difficult, because it was like concrete canvas you know. It was 18 tonnes heavy, the structure and all those little details needed attending to. The reality check you know helps me understand the process better. So everything differently changes where I can learn from.
What’s been your most satisfying project or collection to date?
Oh man I’m so critical; to be honest with you, the collection that I just showed last week on Friday is I think was a successful one. It’s a pretty intense collection.
What is ‘SIKI IMMS’ Studio motto?
It’s the Michel Foucault one, the philosopher and basically it’s the motto I used to start up my company. It something I have kept with me and think about. Basically he said “The work of an intellectual is not to mould the political will of others; it is, through the analyses that he does in his own field, to re-examine evidence and assumptions, to shake up habitual ways of working and thinking, to dissipate conventional familiarities, to re-evaluate rules and institutions and to participate in the formation of a political will’’ - So that is kind of the motto.
If you could turn back time, would you have studied fashion instead of Architecture?