Maison Kitsune Channels Korean Cool With K.I.M. Collection Without Appropriating Korean Culture

Back in January, French cool-kid brand Maison Kitsune launched a Korean inspired collection for Fall/Winter 2015. Called the K.I.M. Collection, the clothing and accessories contained explicit references to South Korean design and culture, and this week, Maison Kitsuné's K.I.M. collection's first pieces arrived in stores, along with a new campaign shot by Pierpaolo Ferrari.

The newest campaign is inspired by the Korean national flag, which is itself rife with symbolism. The photos in this newest set feature two models, one male and one female, in a series of somewhat uncomfortable looking poses, but there's a method to the madness and the awkwardness. The shape of the woman lying on the man, stomach-to-stomach, is meant to be reminiscent of the Taegeuk, which is the red and blue circle at the center of the Korean flag. The Taegeuk is essentially the Korean yin and yang, representing balance between heaven and earth, the source of all things.

The theme of finding equilibrium is repeated throughout Ferrari's campaign, with the man and woman wearing matching sweaters and making a heart with their arms, or a picture of the woman in black and the man in white, clutching each other. It's a whimsical shoot that's not full of in-your-face references to Korean culture, but they're there if you know where to look.

The collection itself makes fun yet subtle nods to Korean design and culture, even down to the name. "K.I.M." stands for "Kitsuné Institute of Music," in homage of the brand's long musical history, but it's also a play on a common Korean last name. And the designs themselves have a similarly playful aesthetic.

Several items in both the men's and women's collections, specifically t-shirts and sweatshirts (because, really, those are some of the things Maison Kitsuné does best) include drawings by Korean illustrator Moonassi. This Seoul-based artist is influenced by East Asian painting, and works exclusively in black ink. That simplicity in line that is characteristic of ancient Korean paintings is evident in these logos, even with the inclusion of the trademark Kitsuné fox.

The South Korean-inspired imagery extends beyond Moonassi's illustrations, and the symbolism of the national flag works its way throughout this collection, especially once you're on the lookout for it.

In one design, the Taegeuk shape is mimicked by two sleeping foxes. This makeshift Taegeuk is then surrounded by the four trigrams, which are those clusters of black lines. These trigrams appear on each of the four corners of the national flag, each representing one of the four classic elements: earth, air, fire, and water.

Maison Kitsuné Tote Bag Matin Calme, €35, shop.kitsune.fr

The trigrams also appear on their own, as a repeated pattern on t-shirts, silk printed scarves, and crewneck sweatshirts. Out of context, these symbols appear as cool geometric designs, and even I, someone who's pretty well-versed in South Korean culture, had to take a second look to figure it out.

But there are also some less subtle uses of the Korean flag, my favorite appearing on a navy blue zip-up hoodie, which includes red, white, and blue drawstrings and an embroidered patch with a fox wearing a baseball cap with the Korean flag on it.

Maison Kitsuné Zip Hoodie, €180, shop.kitsune.fr

Another design from the collection features the slogan, "Au pays du matin calme," wrapped around the fox Taegeuk. The French phrase roughly translates to "in the land of the morning calm." This phrase, Land of the Morning Calm, was a mistranslation by English-speaking visitors to Korea of the country's true Korean name that became popular in the 19th century.

Even though Koreans never refer to their own country with this phrase, the mistranslated nickname stuck around, now even making a reappearance on a t-shirt. Yes, the phrase is a bit idealized and comes from a distinctly foreign perspective, but it's yet another subtle reference to Korea's history hidden in this collection that doesn't come off as appropriative or disrespectful.

Maison Kitsuné Tee Matin Calme, €70, shop.kitsune.fr

Korean culture and fashion often idealize European culture, especially French beauty and luxury brands, and it's not uncommon to see Korean designs with French influences, from French phrases to pictures of the Eiffel Tower. (If you've ever been to Paris Baguette, the South Korean chain of French-inspired bakeries that has salespeople in breton striped shirts and berets selling you croissants and baguettes and red bean donuts, you know what I'm talking about.)

What's refreshing about this collection is how the tables have turned, with a French brand attempting, and succeeding, to highlight Korean design. For me, Maison Kitsuné's K.I.M. collection is more than just a nod to Korean culture. It's validation of Korean cool from one of the coolest brands around, and that recognition, of South Korea as a unique place with hip things to offer, feels great.

Images: Courtesy Maison Kitsuné; kitsune/Instagram