Misu Kim


Misu a Barbe, Knit designer

Seongsu-dong, Seongdong-gu, Seoul

Amongst the webbed allies of Seongsu-dong lies a studio that belongs to knit designer Misu Kim. And behind one of the front doors of an old villa built in the 1980s opens up to a world of her brand, Misu a Barbe. She usually finds beauty in things that people wouldn’t agree as beautiful, but yet her knitted items are pretty, friendly, filled with her distinct charm. In the middle of the trendy neighborhood that changes day by day, her place is like a distant island of silence.

Yoojin Jeong

Tell us how you became a fashion designer.

I attended college here and then worked as an assistant at a fashion magazine for about a year and a half. After that I moved to Paris and enrolled at Studio Berçot to study more, where I was able to expand my learning and experiences.

How did Paris inspire you?

France is a country that provides a large deal of cultural benefits to younger generations. Students are privileged with free admissions to lots of museums and big discounts on tickets to performances or trains. Compared to that it’s not so easy to find such student offers in Seoul and you have to be able to pay the full price. Encountering a variety of culture in Paris helped discover my own taste. I wasn’t really in the state of recognizing a personal taste during my teenage years and it was only after I got to Paris in my 20s when I was able to absorb a lot of things out in the world.

How did your brand name Misu a Barbe came to be?

At a flea market in Paris I found a book about a woman with a beard titled ‘La Femme a Barbe.’ In the beginning the woman agonizes about her peculiar feature but at some point she gives up shaving, meets someone she loves, gets married and lives a happy life. I loved the supernormal beauty about it. So it’s a mixture of my name and the title of that book. I thought it’d be fun to unfold a brand based on that story.

Misu a Barbe is a brand majoring in knitted items. Is there a particular reason?

Both my grandmother and mom had extraordinary hand skills. I used to play with scraps of leftover cloth from the two so I’m very used to making things with my hands. Many of the brands I worked at after graduating from school in Paris concentrated on a large portion of knitted items which led to my interest in those. I’ve always loved stuff that were cute and warm, which makes knit the best suiting material for me.

Do you ever feel limited working with knit?

The boundary of knit is actually really wide but yet in Korea many see it merely used for sweaters or something the elderly do for past times. Knitting isn’t only about knitting yarns into sweaters and mittens; it covers anything and everything that’s knitted. For example, I wrapped a large teddy bear a couple of years ago by linking vintage sweaters altogether for a project for Hyundai Card, and that’s also called a knitted work. There are a lot of artists that choose to work with knit in other countries but it’s still rare in Korea which I think explains the biased views. Moreover, people see summer as the low season for knitted stuff but it’s not so because there are always alternative materials for the hot days.

Misu a Barbe not only covers fashions but also accessories and lifestyle-related items.

After my college graduation in Paris I was able to work at fashion houses like Martin Margiela, Bless and Bernhard Willhelm, which were brands that covered a wide range of fashion to lifestyle and that led to my broader interest quite naturally. Rather than the functionality or plain beauty of clothes, there were many brands that focused on expressing their own distinctive charm which inspired me greatly.

We see rare beauty in Misu a Barbe. Simply taking a look at your large, rugged but warm-feeling cactus objet explains everything.

I wouldn’t go as far as considering weird or odd things pretty unconditionally.(laugh) There always exists ugly but lovely things and those are what attracts me as beautiful. I prefer broken but cute stuff over perfectly neat things. I believe everything, even the imperfect or the raw, has its own beauty inside. It goes the same for my knitted cactuses. They started out by wondering ‘what kind of a plant would I plant if I had my own garden?’ I am well aware that people would disagree with the things that look beautiful to me. But obviously, everyone has different standards of beauty.

We’re curious about the process of your work.

I make drawings before I start but I don’t make a perfect plan beforehand. I usually decide on the materials or change colors as I go along. There’s a huge variety of colors out in the world and because many work with black and white already, I rather try to use as many colors as I can. And working with a free mind often enables me to reach a fortuitous result. The handcrafted process makes slight differences in details of identical products and that’s what the customers like about my work, which I’m really grateful for.

You seem to use a variety of materials, from yarns to plastic tubes.

The best thing about working with knit is that it has no limit in materials. So I try as many as I can; I probably tried everything that looked like threads. I even tried light screens that blocks sunlight, twisted fabrics to make into threads. I recently found out about paper threads. They may be weak against water but being quite durable, they don’t get wet so easily. I’m very much into them these days and would like to make whatever possible with those. 

What made you settle in Seongsu-dong?

My very first studio was in Hannam-dong but I frequently visited this neighborhood to come see my friend here, so I was pretty familiar with the town. I’m the kind who prefers old and humble neighborhoods rather than neat and tidy ones. After I moved to Seongsu-dong I found out that artists like Kwangho Lee and others were located nearby, which made me love the place even more. We began to interact and soon became a very collaborative group.

What do you like about Seongsu-dong?

I actually like the fact that the streets change day by day. This neighborhood here stays pretty low contrary to the busy streets in Seongsu-dong. Just over the wall stands one of the most expensive apartment building in Seoul, which is pretty crazy.

What triggered you to choose this studio?

After my rental contract was over with my last studio, I saw this apartment and went straight for it. I loved the little yard. This place was built in the form of row houses in 1980s and all other apartments are regular homes. It was very interesting to know that every house had slightly different layouts. My other studio used to be on the second floor by a big street which could get pretty noisy but it’s really peaceful and quiet here. All I can hear in the mornings are the birds singing. It’s just the right atmosphere I need right now.

As we see the little bedroom and kitchen on one side, this place is a combination of your studio, showroom and home. Does sharing work and personal space ever get in the way?

Personally I prefer to have them all in one space. My other studio had everything in one place too. There’s no need to ‘get off work’ so I used to work overnight pretty often, which I nowadays tend not to; I try to take the weekend off when there’s no heavy work. I began to look after my health and realized that in order to improve the quality of life I need to separate work and daily life. I’m the type that can easily become a workaholic. Work was so much fun I was literally addicted to it but now I try to keep a slower and steady pace in order for me to enjoy work for as long as I can without getting exhausted.

Under what concept did you arrange your little garden?

I’ve always dreamt of having my own garden. I planted trees and plants with the help of my friend who’s an expert, but unfortunately I’m very bad at taking care of them despite the love. That withering willow tree breaks my heart. The yard had long been abandoned before I got here and I found out that a large amount of trash was dumped beneath the soil, wrapped in sacks. It took quite a while to come this far. This place feels more like home than the one I used to live with my parents. Even more than the one I used to live in Paris.

Your knitted hats are receiving quite the attention.

For some reason hats were always the first to come to mind every time I prepared my collections, so I’ve been making them continuously for a while. I personally have a thing for hats. Some people see Misu a Barbe as a hat brand. They sell better than my clothes actually.

What kind of a child were you? Does your childhood ever affect your work?

I once dreamed of becoming a film director so I watched a lot of movies during my middle school years. It was a very naïve idea that if I watched as many movies I can, I could better the chance of becoming one so I had almost about 200~300 video tapes stacked in my house. I especially liked Alfred Hitchcock. <Rear Window>, <The Birds> and <Frenzy> are still beautiful movies to this day. Perfect composition, meticulous details are what I love about them. I was a big fan of Leslie Cheung as well so I watched <Farewell My Concubine> countless times. I definitely spent a lot more time on watching movies than studying.(laugh) Thanks to my parents, they let me do whatever I wanted to. My dad sometimes accompanied me to the video store where we would choose which videos to rent together. I never attended a proper art institute or learned art in any way. That explains my child-like drawings when I make my sketches. I sometimes surprise people even though I try my best at it. But I like the way they are.

What kind of new project would you like to work on hereafter?

I’m a fashion designer but I’m really into designing spaces so I’d love to work more on those. Objects that fill spaces are usually angular and solid but when combined, knitted items can add a bit of new fun with its softness and curves.