“When tigers used to smoke” is the Korean equivalent of the literary phrase “a long, long time ago,” referring to the days of yesteryear. For the new fashion line Sundae School, it’s also the motto of their latest Asian-influenced smokewear items.
“We wanted to evoke the nostalgia of when tigers”–the symbol for Korean people– “Were freely roaming the streets of Seoul, smoking puffs and spliffs,” 24-year-old creative director Dae Lim told Billboard, referring to their second collection, the follow-up to May’s debut collection Genesis. One-half of the sibling duo behind the brand, Lim sees the clothing brand he and 21-year-old sister Cindy, who is in charge of strategy and business operations, launched earlier this year as an outward portrayal of what he describes as “yellow counterculture.”
South Korean-born and arriving in the States in 2005 at the behest of their “tiger mom,” who wanted them to get an American education, Harvard-grad Dae and current Penn undergraduate Cindy, wanted to delve into fashion with a line that blended their east-meets-west mentality. “There’s no real clothing brand that represents this new millennial approach for Asian-Americans. Especially for people in America who are kind of exposed to the western counterculture but also have these ingrained traditions and values from our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Kind of tip-toeing around the balance between the two has been really amazing.”
The two work with artists and technical designers who have similarly globalized backgrounds and mindsets. Traditional Asian elements, predominantly Korean, are worked into the items and blended with western designs, as an outward depiction of their identity as culture-crossing American millennials. “The cuts are very Korean,” said Lim, referring to some of Sundae School’s hanbok-inspired pieces. “The oblique linings, the ties, even the way we do the pants, whether it’s a side slit or a huge pleat. We kind of interpreted [Korean clothing styles] through a western lens, using pinstripes, using Prince of Wales, using velvet. We Koreans don’t use that stuff.”
All of Sundae School’s merchandise features graphics derived from Asian motifs, most of which incorporate marijuana-related imagery to suit the smoker lifestyle that the Lim’s hope their customers prescribe to. “We portrayed weed as part of this traditional Korean graphic,” Lim said, showing the colorful sleeve of the shirt he was wearing while being interviewed, which featured brightly colored patterns with hidden weed plants in them. “We have a T-shirt from the first collection with [Sejong the Great], who is printed on the [equivalent of the] $10 bill, smoking a little spliff.”
“Every Asian designer probably says they’re inspired by ‘the dialogue between the east and the west’ but for us we’re applying a very specific, youthful, counterculture lens,” said Lim. “And obviously marijuana isn’t even that counterculture in America. But in Korea and different parts of the world where it’s considered very taboo we wanted to showcase and give a sneak peak into our lens, and how these clothes and how these value sets we grew up upon translate into this new age.”
When the pair started to work on Sundae School, there was no real intent to make it a “smokewear” brand. Lim, who had been working on an app at the time but always dreamed of moving into fashion, thought it was just going to influence some design motifs and have some cultural motifs sprinkled occasionally throughout the designs. But in the end every piece of clothing that they created for the first collection somehow had a marijuana element to it, thanks to his and Cindy’s smoker lifestyles. “Our caps have little spliff holes where you can stick a blunt or cigarette or whatnot,” he said. “Our clothes have a lot of pockets. For me, I hate carrying around a backpack, so I just carry around whatever in these different ‘stash pockets.’”
Though illegal in South Korea and many countries, including most of the U.S, marijuana historically was popular throughout the Korean peninsula. Lim sees the smokewear elements as a basic tenant of the brand’s relevance as a connector of past and present. “The marijuana banning law [of 1976] is kind of like McCarthyism, the advent of that really caused all this prohibition [in the States]. A similar parallel happened in Korea. They were growing marijuana and it was a prevalent thing, and it just got shut down.”
Beginning from the ‘70s on, South Korea’s strict drug laws affected culture. Many artists in South Korea, musicians in particular, have been fined or arrested on pot-related charges, affecting the state of creative expression in the country. As recently as this year, BIGBANG’s T.O.P was brought to court for marijuana usage, though he saw reduced charges in comparison to what popular stars have faced in the past.
Lim describes the counterculture element in Korean society right now as being more relaxed, in part because of the cultural shake-up that’s affecting the country. With the rise of popularity of hip-hop, alternative punk, and other artistic subcultures, and also in part because of the upheaval when former President Park Geun Hye was imprisoned due to a convoluted nepotism scandal that shook the country and resulted in mass protests. Combined with North Korea’s threat under Kim Jong Un, South Korea’s youth culture is amid a shift as millennials deal with the precarious state of the country.
“With the youth movement that’s really primed in Seoul right now, people are really curious. And for us, because we live in America–Cindy and I are Korean-American immigrants, we live in America, thankfully we have U.S citizenship so President Trump cannot deport us–and for us we just want to showcase our vantage point on how the Asian, Korean aesthetics can really translate into this realm.”
Sundae School is drawing a response throughout the world, with Lim recounting that the brand has recieved orders from as far as South Africa, while they’ve been contacted by a pot-legalization organization in South Korea to work together on promoting the drug there. “I don’t think we are pioneers in this, but we’d like to say that Sundae School is part of the movement that’s galvanizing young Asian-Americans, young Asian immigrants in western countries or any other countries, and kind of showcasing our flavor, our shades of yellow.”