Origin Story: Fashion Startup IISE
What do you when you’re young, broke and living in a foreign country (South Korea) with your brother?
If you’re Terrence and Kevin Kim, you create IISE (means second generation in Korean), a fashion company that started out with designer bags in 2013 but is now launching its own men’s streetwear line.
So how did these two young entrepreneurs go from a few bags three years ago to a budding company that’s making a huge statement with modern designs and slick videos of their newest products?
It all came down to online forums and blogs while they were in school. These platforms helped them create relationships with other members who would become their future customers and peers.
“Since high school and early college, we were into sneaker culture. In college, buying and selling sneakers online was our introduction to fashion and we made $800 a week doing it.”
The forum that they were most active on was HYPEBEAST. This was before HYPEBEAST became the online streetwear fashion authority it is today.
“Lots of people started on that forum like Street Etiquette, Odd Future, Lupe Fiasco, and others sharing their interests.”
The Kim brothers originally tried starting a canvas shoe brand, not realizing its pitfalls. They made a dozen samples but the manufacturing minimums were way too high for their bank accounts. Shoes are also seasonal and carrying an inventory of all the different sizes wasn’t realistic so they quickly scrapped the idea.
Still focused on building their own business, they met a designer (through their father’s connections) who got them to Korea, introducing them to natural dye products. There, they came up with the inspiration for their first product, backpacks. Why? Because one size pretty much fits all.
“Our first design was based on sack bags being carried by Buddhist monks in Korea.”
The IISE bag isn’t your typical cheap knapsack assembled in China. These are handmade in Korea from natural dyed leather, a labor intensive process that significantly drives up manufacturing costs.
In turn, each bag can empty your savings account in a heartbeat. $400 a pop. But you’re paying for quality.
The relationship with the designer soured as he dropped them and took the samples with him. With nothing more than their connections to a factory, the Kim’s used up their remaining funds to make their first 25 bags, which Terrence documented on his Tumblr blog, which he had started while living in China.
“We blogged every step of the process of making the bag and our followers were growing with us. We kept blogging and letting them know when our bag was going to be launched and we had our first sale the very first minute it went online. WE SOLD ALL OF THEM IN A WEEK.”
It was an impressive strategy: Build an audience and consumer base before having a product to sell.
After filling out email information on HYPEBEAST’s website about their initial product launch, they got a quick response from the site’s founder, Kevin Ma. A few correspondences later, IISE was featured on the front page, giving the startup the exposure it needed.
EXPANDING THEIR BUSINESS
Through their family connections, Kevin and Terrence secured a six figure deal with Dreamplus, a South Korean investment company that’s helped them open up a new office in a wealthy enclave of Seoul called Pyeongchang-dong.
In charge of marketing, Terrence tells us where the money goes.
“With that money, we opened up this office space, started a clothing line and built out a new website.”
Capitalizing on their momentum, Terrence and Kevin also struck a side deal with the Gana art family (Gana Art Gallery and Seoul Auction) which owns their office building. Again, it was through networking that connected them to this company.
In return for the using the space, they’re curating future tenants for Gana and working together with them on expanding IISE’s lifestyle brand.
“Big picture is collaborations such as furniture, ceramics, candles that are Korean inspired. We want to have our own store like the Japanese shop Muji.”
With the rest of the funds, IISE spends it on marketing videos, a look book and have turned their two interns into full-time employees.
Companies reach out to IISE because of their impressive backers, street scene cred and media support from HYPEBEAST.
They recently struck a deal with the retailer, Steven Alan boutiques, to carry their line of products.
Even though they are based in Seoul, IISE sells 90% of their products to the U.S. market.
Which is why all their social media marketing is focused on American platforms like Instagram, Tumblr and Facebook, which are rapidly growing in South Korea.
They couldn’t give us specific numbers on conversions from social media traffic, but the platforms are the crux of their business since they don’t use paid ads.
When fans and customers post about IISE on Reddit, they get “six or seven times” more traffic than they would from the other streams.
Just like most startups, IISE has experienced their own share of growing pains from lack of funds to lack of products.
Since bag customers may only make one purchase from them a year, IISE has created an extension of accessories to offer more choices like wallets and cardholders.
Terrence explains the mistakes they’ve overcome.
“We learned company structure, funding and budgeting from our first failure. We always went over budget but we’re very strict on that now.”
The success they’ve attained sounds simple, but it’s taken a lot of hard work with a strong belief in themselves to get this far. And they’re just getting started.
Lastly, Terrence sums up the hardest part of building your own business as an entrepreneur.
“Fear is the hardest part of staring a company. Fear of failure. Fear of leaving security. My opinion of failure has changed to a positive thing. It is not the end if you fail at a venture.”
Check out IISE on their website.