Haeni Kim, the South-Korean designer and founder of KITRI, beguiles us with her brightly patterned, feminine garments pitched at affordable prices. Born in Seoul, and raised in the small town of Uiwang, Haeni Kim is a businesswoman on a fashion mission. Unable to find chic, quality clothing at an accessible price point, Haeni's exacerbation exposed a gap in the market.
Straddling the space between high street and high-end, KITRI pieces are on-trend yet timeless, hitting both a sartorial and monetary sweet spot in one punchily-printed garment. Catering to the luxury-loving woman who hasn't got time to rifle through the sale racks in designer shops or battle with tourists at Bicester Village, KITRI's tuxedo jumpsuits and silk wrap dresses are closet musts.
Here, Haeni lets us in on the perils and rewards of running her own business, the best place for Korean BBQ in London and why Bianca Jagger is a permanent feature on the KITRI mood board.
Where in Korea are you from?
I was born in Seoul but grew up in Uiwang.
What's your first memory of fashion?
My aunt worked at a fashion atelier and her and my mum always made me try on endless outfits when we visited her at work. I hated it. We didn't have much money growing up but my mum always made sure that I was well-presented. My favourite outfit was this long, camel-coloured corduroy skirt paired with stompy black lace-up boots.
What aspects of your childhood in Korea have impacted your style?
My childhood was dominated by training to be a ballerina. Ballet has shaped who I am and there are lots of elements from dance that I've held onto through my style. I love fluid and feminine silhouettes that accentuate the body, but also functionality that allows for easy movement.
What was your first foray in business?
When I was working my first job in fashion, I craved a creative outlet and came up with the idea of selling affordable antiques online with two of my best friends. We'd go antique hunting at markets and auctions, sifting treasure from junk before selling a "highly curated" selection of pieces. Our side hustle became large enough that we had to make the decision whether to quit our jobs to pursue it full-time or put the antiques business aside. In the end, we decided to pursue our individual dreams. The experience taught me about the importance of branding and photography as well as how to run a website that's both beautiful and user-friendly on a bootstrap.
KITRI has been credited with filling the gap between high street and high-end. Was this a conscious decision?
The idea for KITRI came from a personal frustration - I couldn't find anything that looked and felt great without breaking the bank. Combining my experiences in high-end, high street and direct-to-consumer e-commerce, I set out to create a brand that speaks to a new generation of women who are looking for interesting and affordable alternatives to high street and designer labels.
What does the name KITRI mean to you?
The name comes from a passionate, independent and free-spirited character from the classical ballet Don Quixote. As an aspiring ballet dancer, I always wanted to dance Kitri's solo. When I moved on to fashion I loved the idea of trying to capture her spirit for the women who will wear the brand. Plus, I heard somewhere that businesses with a strong 'K' sound are more memorable, so that's a bonus.
Who is the KITRI woman?
She's smart, fun and creative. She's a busy professional, working in the creative industries and living in a city. In the summer, she enjoys travelling to beautiful and inspiring cities for culture and sunshine - provided she can find time away from work.
What informs your designs? Where do you find your inspiration?
We do look to current trends on catwalks but we're more interested in engaging with what's happening around us. Our approach is item-driven so while we'll have a seasonal mood, each style is distinct. If it's something we love, it doesn't necessarily have to fit into our mood board.
You've lived in many different cities, which is your favourite?
London, without a doubt. Maybe it's because I came of age here but I just love the different mix of people and cultures in this city.
The best place in London for Korean food?
Soju & Co. in Soho for Korean barbecue and soju or Hamgipak on Fulham Road.
Where should we visit on our next trip to Seoul?
Garosu-gil (for shopping and Gangnam style), Myeongdong, Dongdaemun, Itaewon and any big department stores around the city. Common Ground is pretty cool too. For some culture, visit Leeum Samsung Museum of Art and Dongdaemun Design Plaza. Definitely visit the night markets while you're in Seoul and sample spicy pancakes, Korean blood sausages and Korean-fried chicken while you're there.
Where in the world do you feel most inspired?
At night, in bed, or in my studio. I do my best work when I'm bouncing around ideas and collaborating.
KITRI runs on a limited stock run policy. Is sustainability important to you and the brand ethos?
The policy was actually first born from the idea of not wanting to bump into someone wearing the same outfit as you, but it also means we can manage our inventory better. High-end and high-street retail produce thousands and thousands of garments without knowing what customers will respond to. We work in small quantities to see what our customers like and only when we know do we produce more of it.
What's it like working with your husband?
It's the best. Strangely enough, I've always wanted to work with my husband; starting a business is hard and is going to take over your life in one way or another. The long hours and stressful situations are infinitely more manageable when we have each other to lean on - we can make each other laugh through anything.
What have you learnt about yourself as KITRI has grown?
To not be afraid and to trust my instincts. It's easy to get swept up in other people's opinions and let them confuse you. Focus on what made your vision special from the beginning and have the courage to push forward as intended. It took me a while to realise the value of failure; the important thing is to keep innovating and learning from your mistakes.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career?
My father. When I first stopped ballet and decided to work in fashion, he was really against it, but since then he's been my biggest supporter and has given me invaluable advice on how to start and run a business. We don't always see eye-to-eye but we're family and I know he will always have my back.
How do you see KITRI evolving as a brand?
I would love KITRI to become the go-to brand for all creative passionate, hard-working women. We've opened seven pop-up stores in London, Manchester and Dublin so far, with plans to open up a flagship store in the near future. Until then, we're fully committed to making our customers happy from our online store and continuing to expand our reach.