Real Leaders

Rebel With A Cause

Sung-Joo Kim, the Chief Visionary Officer of MCM Group, one of the world’s largest luxury houses and one of Korea’s most powerful women, gives her view on fashion and how it can influence consumers for the better.

Originally seen as a rebel by her family for not simply settling for marriage, she was struck off the family registry and left to fend for herself.

The family business was left to her brothers, as per cultural norms, while she was expected to marry into another rich family and prepare for the lifelong role of docile housewife. Sung-Joo rebelled and started her own company. She now runs a global fashion empire in over 30 countries, counts Justin Bieber among her loyal fans and returns 10% of her profits to charity.

Who inspired you the most to become involved in fashion?

Fashion itself was the biggest attraction. I began my career at Bloomingdale’s in 1985, one of the most prestigious department stores in the USA, to learn the basics of the retail business. I came back to Korea in 1988 and established Sungjoo International, as I saw business opportunities in the luxury market in Korea. After starting my own company, I successfully launched globally renowned brands, such as Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Sonia Rykiel and Marks & Spencer as exclusive franchisees for the Korean market. I also acquired the global business of German luxury goods brand MCM in 2005. My father wanted me to do family-related business but fashion was what I knew best and enjoyed most.

Can fashion be good for people and planet?

I believe you can make a lot of money and do good at the same time – if you want to. The question is: do you believe in it enough to act on it? MCM is currently collaborating with musician and philanthropist and The  Coca Cola Company for the EKOCYCLE project – creating awesome products out of Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) bottles. It has been an exhilarating journey so far. With advancements in technology and an increased effort within the fashion industry, I believe we’ll be hearing more stories around sustainable fashion in the future.

What obstacles did you have to overcome in establishing yourself?

The path I took in starting my own business wasn’t the easiest. I was pregnant with my daughter at the time and doing business in the retail industry in Korea during the early 90s was not an easy game. When started off, a senior in the industry gave me three tips to become successful: bribe, drink and conveniently lie if needed. It was a cultural shock and an alarming reality that made me determined not to succumb to “tradition.”

It was a lonely war with no one on my side, but through perseverance and a belief that good will prevail, Sungjoo International was able to turn the tables and prove that you can indeed succeed without dirt on your hands. Being unconventional is always a challenge, but is rewarding as well.

Has fashion got the ability to change people’s perceptions about themselves for the better?

Honestly, fashion is about what meets the eyes, but if you take a careful look you’ll be able to read between the lines. I think the philosophy behind many fashion brands provides wisdom for life. For instance, MCM is a luxury brand that was built in Munich during the golden era of the city. The brand is a natural embodiment of a spirit that empower individuals: unconventional ideas, travel, and passion for life. Delivering this message in a more effective manner to consumers is something we continually work on, in the hope that our brand can assist individuals in becoming more empowered.

What are a few big upcoming trends for fashion globally?

Fashion, especially the luxury industry, is turning to the “smartness” factor. I believe people in the industry are searching for a more gender-neutral, unisex flavour. I plan to revolutionise luxury fashion accessories and travel goods, with craftsmanship that values the spirit of modern day Global Nomads.

Sung-Joo Kim was selected as one of the Global Leaders of Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum in Switzerland (Davos, 1997) and was chosen as one of The 20 Most Powerful International Businesswomen by Working Woman (New York, 1999). Asiaweek also named her as one of the 7 Most Powerful Women in Asia (Hong Kong, 2001), while CNN nominated her as one of the New Century Leaders for its The Best of Asia news feature (2003). In 2012, she was listed in Forbes’ Top 50 Asian Business Women and was nominated as one of the Top 25 Hottest CEO’s by Fortune Asia.


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