Sunglasses Brand or Art Gallery? The What, Why and How of Gentle Monster | Pop-In@Nordstrom x Gentle Monster
The 2017 series of Pop-Ins at Nordstrom begins with three shops featuring the exciting cultures of Korean fashion and style, curated by Olivia Kim. To start: Gentle Monster, the youthful Korean sunglasses company with a penchant for artistic storytelling.
Gentle Monster sunglasses are striking, but the whole idea of the company is intriguing: a brand that’s trying to decorate your face as well as mess with your mind. The origin story is unusual too. It all deserves a proper introduction, so we broke it down with Taye Yun, Gentle Monster U.S. VP of Communications.
What’s in a name
Gentle Monster contains two distinctive characteristics within the name: gentle and monster. We want it to reflect the coexistence of this two-sided personality. So a gentle person can easily let out their monster and vice versa through just wearing our products.
Price and provocation
What makes Gentle Monster sunglasses unique? It’s our price point and quality. We try to stay within the most affordable pricing but also offer the highest quality materials that are commonly used among brands that sell around the $800-$1,000 range.
As a brand we are more than a sunglasses company because we love experimentation. Anything that can be disruptive to current modern culture or fashion trends, we love to experiment with, taking a different way to present things.
Empowering a visionary
The creative visionary at Gentle Monster is Hankook Kim, the founder. He used to be a curator and professor at an English academy, and never had fashion experience before. But there’s this certain point in life where people realize, OK, I have this talent. And one of the key partners in this academy realized Mr. Kim had a unique sense of creativity, creating programs about ordinary topics and engaging students very effectively. He thought outside of the box.
The person at the academy who introduced this business idea, Mr. Oh, our major investor, was willing to invest his own money. So Mr. Oh pitched this idea to Mr. Kim to develop a product that had a good business margin but also could be presented in very creative ways. When Mr. Kim started the brand, he found famous eyewear companies jumping on trends and getting popular with glasses. He wanted to chase that idea and engage with offline experiences, and deliver something valuable about places the brand can take the customer into.
We started with just four people, building a showroom that was very dramatic and theatrical, and people who walked through it thought it was an art gallery. Then they realized we were selling sunglasses. That gained a good first impression. Right now our 12 stores globally act as art galleries—where you can also see our full collection.
All the ideas are built from Mr. Kim and Won Lee, the U.S. CEO. They always look for creative directors who can interpret their thoughts. They both don’t have a complete sense of how their ideas can function, but they have the ideas. It’s hardly ever that we work with renowned artists or creative directors. We find underground people who have potential and try and grow their talent through Gentle Monster. We have a whole community we serve. We brainstorm together. It’s not like a club or anything, drinking a bottle of soju or something. It’s about valuing dedication to something that’s truly experimental and disruptive. Those are our two big vocabulary words.
There’s no story to any of the store designs. For instance, the Shanghai opening, or the Korea openings, or the U.S. opening—it’s about how Gentle Monster is feeling at the moment. We’ve been in business for five years now, and in Asia people are looking up to us for this high level of taste and presentation. We bottle our minds. People think about concepts and layouts and it all comes through our hearts. It’s unpredictable, the way we design dramatic interiors.
For NYFW, we had an installation about fencing. It didn’t come from research or data or anything like that. It came from Mr. Kim and Mr. Lee speaking to an Olympic fencing coach. We found that the art of fencing, the elements of fencing, were similar to Gentle Monster, gentle and monster at the same time. The movements were artistic, and also both those things.
Pop-In Shop design
The concept is requiem. It’s a spiritual, old-culture, Korean-traditional way of celebrating the afterlife. The linen clothing, the things that hang on the poles in the Pop-In Shops, everything goes back to this vision. It represents Korea at its most iconic, to Korean people. There are so many intricate overlapping cultures around Korea, China, Japan—everybody has similar traditions. But the requiem in Korea is really about deepness, and Koreans keep that to themselves. When a Korean person sees this shop, they will instantly recognize what we’re working with. That’s why we chose it. It’s very beautiful, looking at that history. We want to introduce our brand according to that. We wanted something to celebrate that positive thing. It’s not a bad thing, or a sad thing. We always remember our ancestors. The modern culture is inspired by that tradition, and now it’s more a celebration of family and the afterlife. But we don’t take it too seriously on that level, it’s more for us about the art and beauty and that recognition.
Gentle Monster has never had such outreach as the Pop-In is giving us. Really, people who haven’t experienced Gentle Monster, they don’t know clearly who we are. Maybe through word of mouth they know we fit Asian faces well, or that famous people wear our sunglasses. But it’s really through offline experiences that we can introduce ourselves. A lot of millennials are turning to online screen life, but we value real experience and making memories that way. We want customers to keep us in their memory. That’s how we began, and we intend to focus entirely on that basis.
We don’t push sales. We leave customers alone and let them do what they came to do: experience our art and look at our sunglasses. We want the customer to be free. It’s beyond a commercial relationship, it’s about creating a good synergy from just being there. It’s difficult to explain, but we want to do it from the heart. Roaming around our spaces is all we ask.
Most people think I work for an art gallery. Nobody understands we are a sunglasses company when they enter our spaces by exploring through our website. Rather than being direct, we are laying out elements of campaign videos and visual art to present this complication. You get confused coming to our site and our shops. We want to drive curiosity. It’s very psychological.
Everybody is a star
Celebrities are great resources for putting our name out there, and K-Pop stars wear our sunglasses because of what we are pioneered to do. But if you look at our Instagram or Facebook, you rarely see celebrities there. To us, our regular customers are celebrities. Selfie stars. We want to support that, to help them appreciate that and to have that experience for themselves.