Minju Kim has just been ‘spotted’ for the first time. Yesterday, the Korean designer – and newly crowned winner of Netflix series Next in Fashion – was stopped in the street by a fan in New York. She has flown into the city to attend a cocktail party being thrown by the streaming service and its fashion partner Net-A-Porter in honor of, well, her. Fans of the show will rightly suspect that all this attention sits rather uncomfortably with Kim, whose humility and humor won over audiences from the very first episode. Despite beating 17 other hopefuls to secure the top prize – $250,000 worth of investment, plus the opportunity to have her winning collection stocked on Net-A-Porter – she remains remarkably level-headed. “I’ve always worked really hard on every element of my collections, from developing the concept to designing prints and ultimately bringing it all to life. I put my heart and soul into my work and that’s what I’m going to continue doing,” says the 32-year-old designer.
Having wrapped the series five months ago, Kim has been busy producing her collection, but admits it didn’t feel as if her life had undergone a major shift until the show was released on January 29. In the weeks since, it has gone stratospheric, which Kim concedes is “pretty exciting”. However, the success of the series also means the spotlight is now squarely on the Seoul-based designer. Before taking part in the show, this kind of pressure may have overwhelmed the immensely talented yet introverted Kim, but she credits the process with instilling her with the confidence to believe in herself. “I’ve grown so much. After completing an entire collection in three days, I know I am capable of anything. The timing was so tough, but it made me fall in love with design all over again.”
Kim might be effusive about fashion, but her trajectory hasn’t followed the traditional path. She chose to study design at university because it was the closest she could get to fine art. Studying at Seoul’s Samsung Art & Design Institute, she learnt intricate techniques and the business side of the industry, but it didn’t stir her creativity. It was a deep-seated desire to explore that side of herself that compelled Kim to pursue a master’s degree in design at the illustrious Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium. It was here, under the tutelage of designer Walter Van Beirendonck – a member of the fabled Antwerp Six – that she developed a true fervor for her craft, and honed a distinct aesthetic, a kind of future-facing take on traditional femininity.
I’ve always worked really hard on every element of my collections, from developing the concept to designing prints and ultimately bringing it all to life. I put my heart and soul into my work and that’s what I’m going to continue doing”Minju Kim
In 2014, just after graduating, Kim was shortlisted for the prestigious LVMH prize before she had even fully established her label. Since then, she has built her business (and a strong fan base) in Korea, with her sister taking care of operations – although their professional and personal dynamic came under scrutiny on the show. On camera, Kim’s sister seemed to acknowledge that her own desire to make the brand commercially successful came at the cost of Kim’s artistic freedom, saying, “She has been holding so much back… I am so sorry that I might have been the one stopping her being creative.” What’s changed since then? “Nothing,” says Kim. “Look, my sister was portrayed as a strong character, and she is, but it’s her job to make the business work. She has always trusted in my talent. When I started out, she was the only one who saw that there was something special in me. She wants to bring my designs to the world.”
So with a successful label already in the making, what inspired Kim to take part in the show? “I had come to a point where I needed to push my work further and get some feedback from true experts. But I was super-nervous, because I knew at that level good enough wouldn’t cut it.” Kim need not have worried; co-host and judge Tan France said he could tell right from the off that she was one to watch: “It would make for a much more fun story if I hadn’t – but it’s true.” For France’s fellow host and judge Alexa Chung, it wasn’t until later in the competition, when contestants stopped working in pairs and had to go it alone, that Kim really came into her own. “It was the gradual uncovering of Minju’s personality, talent and confidence as a designer that I found most moving. After one of the challenges she just said, ‘I’m really proud of myself,’ and, far from being cocky, it was the most vulnerable, amazing thing.”
The show had a stellar line-up of of cameos from industry power players, but Kim says it was designer Phillip Lim who left an indelible impression on her. “He encouraged me to overcome my shyness, telling me to stand up and talk proudly about my history and my motivation. I felt such a strong connection with him. That’s exactly what I want to do with my work: encourage women to be proud of who they are and provide them with the means to express themselves.” France, for one, is convinced that with her rare combination of raw talent, endless creativity and genuine warmth, Kim is the full package. “With Next in Fashion, we’re not just trying to make great TV, we’re actually trying to find someone with the potential to be wildly successful,” he says. Chung has similarly high hopes for the designer: “Our goal is that this exposure opens Minju up to a global audience and turns her into a household name.”
Kim, with characteristic modesty, maintains that she never expected the win, but with the show’s ratings soaring, tonight’s party inching closer and her collection dropping imminently, you get the sense that Kim’s moment in the spotlight is far from over.