Luxe be a Lady
Sung-Joo Kim may be one of the most powerful women in Korea, but it’s her personal relationship with life’s necessary luxuries and her passion for women’s rights that make her one of the world’s most fascinating business people.
Story by Meredith Fisher / Photography by Bogdan Teslar KwiatkowskI
Sung-Joo Kim sits in the back corner of the VIP lounge at her hotel in New York City — not The Ritz-Carlton or the Four Seasons, but the Sheraton near Times Square. But her decision to downgrade her accommodations has nothing to do with the success of her company Sungjoo Holdings or her recent purchase of the German luxury brand MCM — it is far more personal.
“I told my employees that we needed to start making more practical decisions,” says Kim, who is proud to say that her own office is one of the smallest in her company, a cue she took from her former boss and mentor Marvin Traub, whom she worked for at Bloomingdales. “When I first started working there I asked him why his office was so small, and he looked at me and said ‘how does the square footage affect my efficiency?’” she recalls. “He taught me to invest more in the front than in the back . . . I am not ashamed to stay in a humble hotel.”
Her hotel room might not have Frette linens and a view of Central Park, but Sung-Joo is no stranger to luxury, having grown up as the daughter of Kim Soo-keon, the founder of Daesung Industrial Corporation, the Korean energy conglomerate. But it was her willingness to give it all up to make a name for herself in business that makes her relationship with the finer things in life a very personal journey.
She doesn’t deny how she was raised (“like a little princess in a big palace”), but at that time in Korea, all the money in the world couldn’t buy her what she really wanted – independence. “In Korea, boys inherited the business, and girls were supposed to wait for their white horse.” Her struggle with this patriarchal tradition was evident to her parents at an early age, “they were worried because they thought not only was I too smart, but I was also too tall.” She saw education as her ticket out of immediate marriage, but when she mentioned a far off place known as Amherst in the U.S., her parents didn’t even listen.
Undeterred, Sung-Joo made it her mission to attend Amherst, and how she convinced her parents is one of her most favorite stories. “I rounded up the most prestigious Amherst graduates in Seoul, many who were prominent members of the international community, including the Japanese ambassador to Korea,” she recalls. “I invited them over for a big banquet and when I told my father, he laughed at me, saying ‘big men won’t listen to a little girl’s invitation,’ but he was wrong. They all came, and by the end of the night my journey to Amherst had started.”
Despite her educational achievements, first at Amherst and then at London School of Economics, when she returned to Korea her parents still tried to marry her off, and even hid her passport to prevent her from leaving. It was at that point, that Sung-Joo decided she needed to leave Korea. She moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts and soon after got married, and much to her parent’s dismay, to a French Canadian. Her wedding budget was $150.
It was 1988, right before the Seoul Olympics and there was a lot of curiosity about Korea. The American interest in her home country helped her land a job at Bloomingdales under Mr. Traub, despite having no fashion training.
She describes Traub as her lifelong teacher and her years at Bloomingdales as the toughest training she ever had. Living in Battery Park City at the time, she took on two other jobs (as a writer for the Korean Economic Times and as a freelance consultant) just to be able to afford a third-hand car. But the nonstop working took its toll on her health, and then she became pregnant. She decided it was time to go back to Korea.
Things there had changed — the luxury import market had been liberalized and her father finally started letting her work. “He was working on a deal with a big automotive company and I went along on a meeting as a translator,” she says. But at the end of the meeting, she realized the two foreign companies were not seeing eye-to-eye, so she asked her father if she could interject. Her participation saved the partnership, but the company had one requirement — that Sung-Joo sit on the board.
“This was the first time that I was officially allowed in my father’s office,” she recalls, “he wanted to reward me for my help, so to his surprise I asked for money to start my own company.”
With her background in fashion retailing Sung Joo began her official foray into the luxury market, and by 1990 had secured the franchise deal for Gucci. Sonia Rykiel, YSL, and MCM soon followed, and by 1996 she had also added Marks & Spencer to her group (a company she still works with today). Then the Asian Financial Crisis happened, and she was forced to shut three stores. This prepared Kim for the current economic state, as she is again trying to make another mark on the luxury market with MCM.
“We had done so well with MCM just in Korea, that I thought — why don’t we just buy the company,” which is what she did. She lured Michael Michalsky of Adidas to become the creative director and embarked on re-launching the brand at a luxury level, but one that is affordable. They opened a flagship store on Sloane Street in London last April, and another at the new shops at the Plaza in New York opened this November. So far her instincts have proven right, and MCM has recorded a promising number in sales so far in 2008. But she doesn’t forget the lessons of her past, “we are already in 35 countries and in 200 stores around the world, so we are growing — but cautiously.”
But in addition to her goals for the future, her accessible approach to luxury is fueled by one of her other passions — women’s empowerment. “Selling luxury isn’t just about exploiting women and getting money out of their purses, it’s about making a connection and giving women what they want.”