Hankook Kim

In the luxury marketplace, can the solid branding strategy of a newcomer compete with heritage brands?

The success of Gentle Monster would suggest so. Launched in 2011, the fashion eyewear brand is already well-known for its innovative, artistic retail spaces, where the focus is on the story of the particular store, rather than the product, with some flagship stores not even carrying eyewear on every floor. Gentle Monster chief executive officer and cofounder Hankook Kim, a former curator and professor with no prior fashion experience, developed the company to become one of the fastest trending fashion brands in Asia, and last year the company received investment from L Catterton Asia, the largest and most global consumer-focused private equity firm in the world.

Gentle Monster has 16 flagships in the U.S. and Asia, each with unique, changing, artistic installations. From scarecrows to aliens to a big brown bear controlled by a lemon, the concepts are weird, wacky and wonderful, with customers sometimes even queuing outside to get a glimpse.

“People quite often ask me how do I, or how do we, come up with those ideas or where do we get some sort of inspiration from? As I kept answering where or how, I was wondering, ‘What am I doing? Am I doing space? Am I a space guy?’ No, I’m not a space guy. Because space comes from strategy and strategy is always connected to customer behavior and customer behavior is always connected to the trend and change. Our product is very small. So, I am thinking, [if] I am not doing space, then what am I doing? I came up with one word: this is branding,” said Kim.

He explained his branding ideology by taking the coffee shop industry as an example; a marketplace he is familiar with thanks to his parent’s line of work. He believes that as coffee shops cluster together, they become similar, and then quite often go out of business because they are overtaken by a coffee shop doing it better — better coffee, better music, better food. Kim wanted to break the mold.

“We try to get out of that trap, but we become similar because we look up to other brands, other companies, other people too much. So, to me, branding is understanding myself. What’s my core? What’s my insight? Because that’s the only way we can keep doing it. So I’m asking myself, what’s my core? What’s my DNA? What’s something that I can keep doing even though I’m so tired? Even though I feel like I am going to die tomorrow? I found the word, and that is why I am so lucky: the word was unpredictable,” said Kim.

He has utilized that secret weapon, unpredictability, to create a branding strategy focusing on pioneering, artistic retail spaces and a nonlinear introduction of new product categories to ensure that Gentle Monster never becomes “similar.”

Not all of the brand’s unpredictable efforts have paid off. After considering the concepts of fast food and fast fashion, Kim decided to create a “fast space” at his flagship in Hongdae, completely changing the interior every two weeks as part of his efforts to remain unpredictable. However, after about a year, he realized that this rate of change was not sustainable for the company or his mental state. He also found that it wasn’t beneficial for the customer.

“We studied a lot about space and the customer feeling, because if we change too fast, the customer gets used to it too fast. So we have to think about the relationship with the customer. Changing fast is not always good,” said Kim.

After establishing its success in eyewear, Gentle Monster considered what product category to introduce next. It could follow the traditional path and perhaps add other small accessories. But instead, last September, the company opened an artistic space in Seoul dedicated to selling hand cream called Tamburins. Who was expecting that?

The hand cream has been a big success and Gentle Monster could easily have expanded more into beauty. However, the company went in the opposite direction — it recently introduced a line of cakes. Why cake? Because it was unpredictable.

With success comes imitation. However, Kim believes that by focusing on the brand’s core DNA, and remaining unique, it is hard for competitors to emulate the same success. “What is something nobody can copy? Just with my small experience, what we found out is there is sacrifice and concentration. If we concentrate on something, we don’t have a choice other than sacrifice,” said Kim.

“If we focus on one thing for many years, then it is not easy to copy. If you ask me about branding, it is this — understanding ourselves, then we have the possibility to become different.”

The goal, in the end, is to grow his company to the point where it can go for an initial public offering, he said — pointing to the L Catterton investment. Why an IPO? In order, Kim said, for his employees to benefit from Gentle Monster’s success. Houses are very expensive in South Korea and few Millennials can afford to buy a house. “I want my employees to be able to buy a house,” said Kim.