Ms Kim Sung-Joo is one of the world’s most successful businesswomen. Self-made and inspiring, she discusses with A&E, life as a female entrepreneur and the future of MCM.
Ms Kim Sung-joo is an inspiring self-made business woman. As the founder and Chief Visionary of Sungjoo Group, South Korean-born Ms Kim earned her reputation as Korea’s fashion leader after launching brands including Gucci, YSL and Sonia Rykiel in her home country.
In 2005 Sungjoo group acquired German fashion brand MCM and she has since taken the brand from strength to strength with now over 400 stores worldwide and offices in 15 countries. Ms Kim Sung-joo currently acts as the Chairperson of MCM Holding AG and represents the brand all around the world.
While Ms Kim Sung-joo day job is to manage her brands, she is also a philanthropist, public speaker and a charity worker who has a vision of inspiring women. In 1997 she was selected as a Global Leader of Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum and she has received a host of awards and recognitions throughout her career with perhaps the most memorable being an Honorary Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by HRH Queen Elizabeth. Ms Kim works with several non-profit organisations to spread her positive and uplifting attitude to life.
As a brand, MCM is traditionally known for its heavily logoed accessories, but it is so much more than this, striving (and succeeding) to achieve global status the brand is growing year on year. In summer MCM 2019 will launch a ready-to-wear collection that was recently presented at Pitti Uomo in Florence. A&E was there to witness this game-changing show and also to speak to Ms Kim herself.
What can you tell us about the SS19 collection?
First of all the name is “LUFT” – this is the German word for “air.” Air means light and free, so there is a lot of symbolic meaning there. We are a German brand. Germany is actually more known for cars it has never been associated with luxury brands. MCM is now one of the first cases of a global leading luxury brand to be based out of Germany.
When it is a young-minded customer, we need ultimate freedom in what we do. You will really witness an ageless, genderless and seasonless collection. There will be a strong neon orange. Of course bright colours, blue, yellow sunshine and white will be a strong colour. It’s more than colour it is the way it is put together that is truly function driven.
When the Asia and Middle East market is becoming so big, apparently millennials are leading the trend. Why? Because they are so exposed to social media and of course they have deep pocketed parents who can pay for it! So when youngsters are becoming the leaders, the approach to luxury changed. It is not anymore being dictated by just a brand name anymore. This is where the perception of freedom comes from. For MCM we are very millennial driven. All the retailers they need a new young, affluent customer.
Why did you choose Florence as the location for the show?
It’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world as you know. Actually I was first in Florence when I was a student in 1980 and it was one of the most beautiful cities I found. Secondly I worked with Gucci for ten years and came to Florence over forty times and finally we produce a lot of our bags here. This is our first time presenting at Pitto Uomo. Before the Pitto Uomo used to consist of more men’s shows but I have found a new kind of trend emerging that’s not only male, but more unisex. With millennials coming up it’s more casual and sporty and also now fashion is not just only product it’s more lifestyle and the whole package. That’s why we chose Pitti to be our first time to show our ready-to-wear looks.
What is an objective in life that you would still love to achieve?
When you live and run a business you have constant challenges. For me, I am a pioneer. On a personal and business level. My case is the first time a woman has run a European global luxury business. I have to deal with more than 300 factories around the world, and nearly 500 stores and 1,500 employees. It’s a crazy house and for some reason I manage it and you know why? Because I want to prove that women can do it. Myself, I am a true global nomad. So being a woman is still challenging for me but I am happy with my business and I am especially focused on helping women’s empowerment.
How are you helping as a company to empower women?
I think I am already inspiring and encouraging so many women by being the first CEO of an international luxury brand. And secondly we also stand up for transparency. As women we have to be smarter, instead of blaming men, just do it smarter. And thirdly we are going through a digital transformation – more Instagram, more digital.
We understand you are repositioning the brand – what can you tell us about that?
All of the luxury brands they used to say we are more affordable luxury – it’s not that. Around 1996 MCM was 10 per cent higher than Louis Vuitton, it has always had a very high positioning. The only reason it decreased was because of the change of license and secondly because a new generation of luxury is emerging we want to appeal to a wider audience so we have a wide price point. We do have crazy $5,000 pieces, but we do have really practical and affordable pieces that are affordable for youngsters. We make all of our pieces in Korea, Italy and Germany that’s it.
MCM has always been known for its logos – but with the recent trend of logomania and so many fashion houses using logos in this way, do you think this has helped or hindered the brand?
MCM was always very logo-driven and we used to be very heavily critisised for this. They said we are too loud – but guess what? Everybody started following us again! And now we are actually less logo-driven. The majority of our sales now come from non-logo items. I see fashion as a social phenomenon – millennials attitude towards luxury can be changed and what they are wearing can express what they are thinking. So I think this is why logos are very popular. I think the even younger generation will be even worse, they will be dictating us as they are so clever.
What else is in the future for the brand?
We want to be one of the true leaders of international luxury.
We are prepared for the future.
How would you describe yourself?
I had a chance to look through my bio and I thought “my god do I know this person? She’s absolutely crazy!” I feel like I’ve lived about ten people’s lives at once. I came from the richest family in Korea, I rebelled against a traditional marriage, I was disowned, and married my sweetheart. Then I had to start everything from scratch. I had to deal with discrimination in western society because I was Asian from a fashion background and I went through everything. I don’t want to be rebellious I just want my life to be something meaningful. My mission is that I want women to be encouraged. I want to prove myself and inspire a young generation of women.
What is luxury to you?
For me, true luxury is freedom.
What is a challenge you faced as a global entrepreneur?
I think the most challenges I face are cultural challenges. When you face these different time zones that is a challenge. When I set up this global team of 1,500 employees across 15 different offices around the world it is truly challenging for me but I think we made it through which is like a miracle to me. The challenges are still there because we are still competing with the giants in the same playground, without as much influence and money as they have, but we are not scared. My personal attitude is that I’m always taking crisis at my breaking point, to my winning point. One thing I can choose is my attitude and I am asking “how can you be smarter and more positive”. I never let failure defeat me.
What is a lesson you give to young entrepreneurs?
Last year I received an honouree doctor degree from London Art School. It’s not that I want to show off how great I am, but the one message I want to give to the young starters is to have a mission in life. Like a figure skater you get knocked down. Business is like this crazy spinning – everlasting challenges but when you’re so focused on your mission nothing will displace you. Money has never been my objective trying to achieve my mission has been.
What scares you?
One thing – if I want to give up because it is too tiring and start to compromise my principles. I am always re-setting myself and think compromising my principals are a big threat to me.
When you look after a brand that is for the whole world, how challenging is it to find a message that is appealing to everyone?
We are truly becoming the leader of new-school luxury because we are pioneering it. People are criticising us but I don’t care because I know we are already there. To consolidate our positioning is challenging.
Do you have any plans to set up a platform to educate the younger generation?
We are already starting to do this. Next year is 100 years of Bauhaus – we are bringing it to Salone des Mobile – we want to initiate a new Bauhaus movement out of this event because it is educational. The new generation means function comes first. So we want to bring the Bauhaus to the world and develop a new movement that will educate the next generation. We are working with the top art schools around Berlin and creating a new Global Creative Centre there and bringing the Bauhaus movement through that. We will do it also around Milan, New York, and Tokyo and maybe Beijing or Shanghai. I would love to do more with women’s education. We would like to as well do something in the Middle East. We are already setting up a big joint venture in the Middle East but I cannot disclose it yet. You will see at the end of this year, we will have a very big show in Dubai – you will see.