NEW YORK — “Girls [in Korea] are raised to feel that they don’t have to be smart, they can go to a decent college and marry into the best family they can — that’s all you can do. Men are much more dominant in the society,” said MCM’s Sung-Joo Kim at the brand’s cheery Fifth Avenue offices here, its U.S. headquarters.
Self-assured, Kim — MCM’s chairperson and chief visionary officer — is pleased to share the life details that led to her becoming one of the few female executives in fashion accessories. Kim is also a member to another rare contingent — a small population of female entrepreneurs from Korea.
Under ordinary circumstances, Kim says she would have graduated straight from school to an arranged marriage. But she had other plans in store, leading her on a journey to become the protégé of Marvin Traub, pioneer luxury accessories in Asia, and sit on the Tom Ford selection committee at Gucci. “I decided to take my own life course,” she said.
Kim’s firm, the Sungjoo Group, counts MCM as its primary business. According to industry sources, the German accessories label grossed about $700 million in sales last year, and is expected to rake in $1 billion by 2020. Its U.S. business, which relaunched two years ago, is now breaking $100 million in annual sales with the brand a top seller at Neiman Marcus, among others. Globally, MCM is stocked at more than 500 points of sale in 40-plus nations. It will next look to expand its presence in Japan, through a retail partnership with Isetan Mitsukoshi. A shop-in-shop on the ground floor of Isetan’s Shinjuku flagship will open this year.
Prior to Kim’s watch, the German company — founded in 1976 — had fallen into stodgy disarray. Now with bags averaging from $800 to $1,200, the brand is appreciated by consumers for its quality, fun designs and price-value quotient. Its spring collection — now entering stores — is chock full of bright colors, pearl stud embellishments and riffs on MCM’s popular backpack and cross-body styles.
A range of versatile nylon products is rolling out for spring as well, to be fully realized for fall 2017 in an array of colors and shapes.
Before MCM, Kim spent decades honing her skills under fashion industry pioneers including Traub, Domenico De Sole and Dawn Mello — providing her the know-how to revive a flagging accessories label.
In 1979 Kim began her journey in an effort to avoid Korea’s patriarchal system, arriving in the U.S. to finish college at Amherst College. “I knew I would have a marriage arranged, so I escaped and came to America,” she said.
Amherst, where Prince Albert of Monaco was a classmate, was a primer in gender equality. “I was really exposed to women’s studies and feminism. I had never heard of a coed shower in my life, it was a culture shock but it was good for me,” she said.
After attending graduate school at the London School of Economics, Kim sought jobs at the United Nations and in Korea — before failing and deciding to move to Boston, where her older sister was studying at Harvard. Against her parents’ wishes, she married — a defiance that led to severed communication, and as a result, a loss of financial support.
The separation proved motivating for Kim. Now in need of a job, a family friend connected her with Traub — then the chief executive officer of Bloomingdale’s — who admitted her into the store’s trainee program, while also enlisting her as a project manager for Korean imports.
Their relationship was instrumental for Kim, who rose to become one of Traub’s protégés. “When I said I was the protégé of Traub it opened doors everywhere,” she said.
Following a three-and-a-half-year run with the retailer, Kim returned to Korea — where she gave birth to her daughter, in 1989. The year following, she became the Korean licensee for Gucci — bringing the then-stale brand to a burgeoning luxury market in Asia. On her initial trip to Florence, she had purchased $500,000 in merchandise, without a retail outlet or store to speak of.
“The showroom was so tacky and dirty when I visited, it was a very poor stage for Gucci. That evening at my hotel, I remembered what I had learned from Marvin Traub. No matter how bad the brand is, as long as you know how to merchandise and re-brand, you have the power and knowledge. At least the name Gucci was well-known,” said Kim of the decision.
When De Sole joined Gucci a year later, Kim was among those on the committee to select Tom Ford as the brand’s new creative director. In 1998, she sold the Korean business back to Gucci, for an undisclosed sum.
In the meantime, since 1992, Kim had also served as the franchisee for MCM in Korea. The label had performed well but its parent company fell into mismanagement in the late Nineties and early Aughts and the brand with its immediately recognizable logo became passé.
“I knocked on the door of MCM’s owners in Switzerland in 2004 and said, ‘I have two choices — I either create my own brand or you sell the brand to me.’ In 2005, we took over MCM 100 percent,” said Kim.
In the 11 years since, Kim has worked to “clean up” the label’s image — closing down much of its retail operations until she felt the product and vision were apt for expansion. In 2016, Deloitte ranked MCM number nine on its Fastest 20 list of rapidly growing luxury labels. The brand splits its sales between genders, with 60 percent of products sold to women and the remaining 40 percent to men. It will look to grow its men’s collection and business in the coming seasons.
“For us, engineering, research and development, hardware development is very important. As a German brand, we take the German mentality very seriously, the Bauhaus mentality of form and function — it’s a very different approach from the French and other design houses,” said Kim.
“I’m more like Miuccia Prada in terms of how I think about female beauty — we are strong and economically viable,” she added of her outlook on female aspiration, compared with those of flashier, celebrity-fronted luxury brands.
She says studying the market performance of brands like Kate Spade has helped contribute to the strategy for MCM.
“There is a debate between quantity growth and quality growth — I am interested in quality growth,” said Kim. With that, MCM will look to cap its U.S. retail presence in the coming year, to minimize oversaturation.
Patrick Valeo, U.S. president, said, “We have 150 points of sale, with 10 of our own stores and four more coming next year — including Canada. We are close to closing a deal on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.”
Whatever stores it opens, the goal is to make them as entertaining as they are functional. “After seeing the [success of] the Pokemon Go game, I realized how much Millennials want to have fun,” said Kim. “They are not as loyal as they used to be — the future of retail is not a selling space anymore, it’s an entertainment center. I told my visual merchandising team, ‘You are not just visual merchandisers anymore, you are making interactive visuals.’ It’s going to be fun, everything is revolutionizing and changing.”
Kim said the brand is still ramping up its ultimate form — which will grow to become a tripod-type business: “I have three different categories planned — in the future we will carry over a lot of the bestsellers, phasing them in and out while perfecting the engineering. A second layer will be seasonal and reflective of trends. A third, which is not yet done, is very much a capsule collection at retail — it’s not come out yet. This means the carryover of steady sellers is not overly done, we will keep the trend merchandise very small and frequent, and for the capsules — we will determine the quantity so it can be sold on a first-come-first-serve basis. Ultimately 2017 is about consolidating and preparing, the full realization will begin in 2018.”
In the meantime, she will also fulfill philanthropic pursuits. Kim, a staunch supporter of women’s empowerment programs (she has authored papers and essays on the topic) will sit on the organizing committee at the 2017 Global Summit of Women, to be held in Tokyo from May 11 through 13.