A woman of many strengths, Eugenia Kim's crowning achievement is the namesake hat range she founded in 1998, inspired by a fortuitous bad haircut. Today, both hair and brand are growing strong!
An interview with our founder, Sara Banks
After six months of navigating business as unusual, our founder Sara Banks sat down with fellow business leader Eugenia Kim to talk shop and soul. We are grateful to Eugenia for taking the time to give such a generous glimpse into her process, lessons, and life. If you have entrepreneurial aspirations of your own or simply want to know more about two women who make things you love, read on for many gems (and some sweet laughs) from their colorful worlds.
SB: Tell me, your design process sounds amazing and unusual. You like to design everything in excel rather than illustrator or indesign. How does this work? And would you usually make a prototype by hand out of materials available? Having designed hats for years is there a specific process you follow for each design?
EK: I believe I have both left and right-brained attributes which result in a creative and analytical process. I like the order of Excel which achieves cohesive structure for the creative process. The excel template, where all of our designs for the season or capsule begin, is highly visual. We have an in-house atelier where initial samples are created and allows for revisions and improvements before we issue to the factory. Regarding the design process, we use both inspiration and trend research resulting in ideas and materials which are then translated into cads. We also assess past season’s performance to ensure we are not only meeting trends but supporting our best sellers in new ways.
Happy astride her desk, Eugenia Kim has never minded turning things—including handbags—on their head.
SB: What is your studio like? Can you give us the inside view? I am an image of materials and feathers everywhere, but I know the reality is likely different—and probably much more organised!
EK: It’s a very efficiently designed space, and the materials are all organized into different bins marked “Feathers” or “Veil” or “Pearls”. There is a lot of sunlight in the space, which is great for design. I like working in an open room, versus having my own office, because I like having open communication and being at the center of the action. Design, Product Development, Production, and our In-house Factory all sit in the same room, so there is an easy flow and communication in the space.
"My designs are mindful of today’s retail practices in which our customers are investing in beauty, quality, and functionality."
SB: Where do you get your inspiration for collections? Do you design for people, events or places you’ve been (or going to!), or current trends you have seen?
EK: I used to design more theme-based collections, like the beauty of Cuba or an inspiration from an artist such as Klimt. For FW21, I decided to use our bestselling styles from archival and current collections as my inspiration with a twist. The updated materials of velvets, pearls and veiling as well as the color palette are both relevant to today’s climate and timeless nature of Eugenia Kim. These designs are mindful of today’s retail practices in which our customers are investing in beauty, quality, and functionality.
Always surrounded by an array of materials she loves, Eugenia Kim plans her collections strategically as well as intuitively.
SB: Where are you based now? And how is your team working together now that everyone has had to keep some distancing? Are people working remotely?
EK: I am based in NY in midtown Manhattan. Due to the current situation, we downsized our office space, as some of our employees are working remotely. Design, production, the atelier, and shipping are in office as they need to access materials and products. The sales and eCommerce team work remotely. I work half of the time in the office, and half of the time at home. We are able to distance those in the office because there are 8 employees who work in the 4000 square foot space.
SB: How has your business changed in the last 6 months? Are there any adjustments you have had to make to the business that you might keep—and others that you are dying to get back to the way they were pre-Covid?
EK: We launched a fashion mask collection of very on-brand Eugenia Kim styles, and that business has flourished. I do like the flexibility and space-reduction where employees work remotely, and it allows for flexibility. I read a NY Times article about how salespeople are more productive working remotely.
"As a CEO, I always welcome ideas coming from every individual in my company and encourage collaboration. I think it creates ownership and empowers everyone."
SB: I am very interested in leadership styles. Since you have been running your own company longer than you have been employed anywhere, what values do you most hold true to with your team? And is there anyone you turn to as a role model, or anything you read to help build your own vision of a leader? And maybe over the years, how has that changed? (Or even since Covid!)
EK: I think any leader’s values are reflected in their team’s values. All my employees are hard-working, dedicated, responsible, honest, intelligent individuals that have great senses of humor and are passionate about the brand. They are vocal with ideas on everything from how to improve the company to design ideas. As a CEO, I always welcome ideas coming from every individual in my company and encourage collaboration. I think it creates ownership and empowers everyone. My dad is my role model. His values mirror mine. Over the years, I have evolved and gotten more organized, and that helps my team to plan better. I’ve also created more structure in the company, but there is always room for improvement.
SB: You come from a family of doctors and your parents are originally from Korea. And your family seems so close. I know they were surprised by your career choice, but also it seems that you have a very playful relationship with them. Your sense of humor shines so strong in things I have read—I love this. Would you say this is a family quality? As a Korean-Americans are there cultural values that your family might have retained that might be unique to your perspective on life?
EK: It's definitely a family quality! My mother loves nothing more than being made fun of, like she dies laughing when anyone calls her out on things. Regarding Korean cultural values, my parents are immigrants, and came over to the U.S. with no money, but were extremely hard-working and became successful. I am extremely hard-working. In my family dynamic, hard work was the standard, but praise and encouragement were not. I have worked on developing this quality in myself for my employees. My family are all very boisterous and outspoken, and I flourish in our work culture where everyone can speak their mind and there is a lot of noise and interaction. I’m used to working around a lot of buzz.
Eugenia Kim inherited her mother's sense of humor and family work ethic.
SB: I love the story of how you and your husband met. I literally laughed out loud when I heard about your match.com profile and the tennis requirements. It is such a fun basis to begin a relationship. And the proposal was amazing! You left him after dinner and then went back to meet him at 3am as he was still out. And then he proposed at 4am? Is that right?
EK: Yes, it was very impromptu! It was the day after his first day of working with me, and he fell in love with working with me, and spontaneously proposed!
For our readers, this is an amazing interview with Eugenia and her stunning recent wedding that also sheds so much light into her wonderfully playful personality.
"In my family dynamic, hard work was the standard, but praise and encouragement were not. I have worked on developing this quality in myself for my employees."
SB: Do you and your husband still work together? I know that he is a designer as well and you started working together even before you got married! What is that like? My husband and I worked together for a few years after our second son was born. I feel I could write a book about it!
EK: Yes, we do still work together. I really enjoy working with him. I started working with Italian factories and vendors right before he started working for me and realized that a lot of Italian businesses are family owned. I wanted that same trust level that you can only have with family, so it made natural sense for us to work together. It is hilarious that he’s very masculine (he was a collegiate linebacker and a race car driver, and his background is in menswear design) and avant garde, and my brand is very feminine and playful. He says that I am an Aries (sun sign) at work with my eyes bugging out and my voice loud and barking, and a Leo (moon sign) at home, very feminine and girly. During Covid, it took him some time to get used to the “work” Eugenia when we were working from home because he was conditioned for me to “feminine” Eugenia at home.
We complement each other at work like we do in tennis. He’s very right-hand dominant and left-brained, and very purely creative and sometimes impractical. I’m very ambidextrous and equally left and right brained (My psychology major coming out with the left hand and right brain etc.). In tennis, he always goes for the perfect shot, whereas I always get the ball back. He’s very macro and vision-oriented, and I’m very micro and detail-oriented, so we don’t really have the same roles and our strengths and weaknesses complement one another to create a great collection every season. He’s also very tall, so he can reach a lot of the top shelves in the design room, which I always tell him is the main reason he is still employed.
SB: There is a lot of pressure on brands to be very active on social media. I personally haven’t been on IG for years. And never joined FB. Although it doesn’t necessarily help the business, it has been a game changer to my life. What about you? What’s your relationship with social media?
EK: I don’t have an IG account nor really follow it. I find it replaces real individual thinking and real experiences, like why do you have to photo each sushi in an omakase and allow it to sit so the temperature is not ideal, instead of just experiencing the pleasure of omakase? On the flip side, I love looking at the company’s IG. While I don’t have a personal account, our eCommerce team manages the creative and drive on our social successfully.
SB: Do you get to travel much? Where are some of your favorite places to escape to? And how do you pack your hats when you go?
EK: I travelled a lot before Covid. I love going upstate, Mexico, France. I put socks and underwear in the crown to protect the crown shape and lay the brim flat at the bottom of the suitcase. I am an efficient packer to the point where I critically reassess what I didn’t wear on the trip, whereas Chris will pack like 10 pairs of underwear and socks for a long weekend (again, impractical). We also have amazing packable straw hats which I can stow in my luggage or bag with ease.
SB: Want to collaborate on some hatboxes together? :)
EK: YAS!!! I love collaborating, as it opens up your mind to other people’s processes, and I LOVE your hatboxes. I have some ideas we can discuss!!!
Just imagine how gorgeous a Eugenia Kim and SteamLine collaboration will be! Pictured here are Kim's Mirabel and SteamLine's Entrepreneur Hatbox, which were prized in our giveaway.
Further Reading on Eugenia Kim & The SteamLine Luggage Travel Beautifully Blog
- Learn more about Eugenia Kim - The Story Behind the Brand.
- Shop the SteamLine Luggage Bestsellers and peruse our lookbook.
- Explore ways to use your SteamLine case as sightly storage and home decor between sojourns.
- Learn about the various materials we use for our SteamLine cases, including the vegan leather for our Entrepreneur Hatbox discussed above.
- Explore more ways to Travel Beautifully with SteamLine on Pinterest, Facebook, & Instagram!