AANHPI Heritage Month Feature: Designer Laura Kim

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East West Lifestyle

AANHPI Heritage Month Feature: Designer Laura Kim

May 29, 2024 By Angie Tang
Laura Kim

Every May, we celebrate Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month. May is also the month of the Met Gala, the fashion industry’s biggest event.

We are delighted to have met up with our client, designer Laura Kim, the co-creative director of Oscar de la Renta and one of the few Asian women leaders at a major fashion label. We chatted with Laura on what it’s like to dress people for the Met Gala, launching her own brand, and how she gives back to the community.

Many know Laura as one-half of the creative duo behind Oscar de la Renta, where she has worked for over 20 years, and her own award-winning brand, Monse, which she launched in 2015 with her co-creative director at Oscar, Fernando Garcia. Her work has been seen on numerous celebrities—from Taylor Swift and Amal Clooney to Lady Gaga.

At this year’s Met Gala, Laura and Fernando dressed no fewer than five stars in Oscar de la Renta, including Pamela Anderson, Kylie Jenner, Lauren Sanchez and Kerry Washington (she and Fernando were also in attendance). Monse is a favorite of Sarah Jessica Parker’s and won the Swarovski Award for Emerging Talent at the CFDA Awards, fashion’s version of the Academy Awards.

Despite the numerous accolades, Laura’s success was far from guaranteed. As one of the few Asian women creative directors of a major fashion label, she is truly a trailblazer in an industry where women make up only 14 percent of leadership positions at the largest brands (the percentage of women of color, while not disclosed, is undoubtedly even lower).

But some might say Laura’s success was inevitable because she was meant to do fashion. The Seoul, South Korea-born designer began sewing at the ripe age of three and—with the encouragement of her family who recognized her passion and talent—became a fashion student at the Pratt Institute in New York. Laura worked at several well-known New York labels, such as Jeremy Scott, TSE Cashmere and Donna Karan, before starting her decades-long tenure at Oscar de la Renta.

For AANHPI Heritage Month, we wanted to highlight—through Laura’s example—Asian women creatives who broke the bamboo ceiling to leave their mark on their industry.

Kylie Jenner, Fernando Garcia, Laura Kim, Pamela Anderson, Lauren Sanchez

Left-Right: Kylie Jenner (Photo by Kevin Mazur/MG24/Getty Images),
Fernando Garcia, Laura Kim, Pamela Anderson (Photo by Theo Wargo/GA/Getty Images),
Lauren Sanchez (Photo by Gotham/Getty Images)

The Met Gala was on May 6, and the Oscar team dressed Lauren Sanchez, Kylie Jenner, Pamela Anderson, Kerry Washington and Sabrina Carpenter—along with yourself and Fernando. Can you talk about that experience and what it’s like creating for fashion’s biggest event?

It’s really an honor because not everyone gets invited. We have to stage the best fashion we can, so it's a lot of stress on the talent and also the designers. There’s something really rewarding about seeing the people that we respect and love have fun. They’re not worrying about selling for one time in the year. They're not worrying about anything except doing art. When you see them doing the most that they can do, with very little inhibitions, you can’t see them smiling any bigger. That makes me super excited and happy, not just for me and our excitement for who we're dressing, but for the rewarding feeling that our friends are going to get.


You and Fernando not only work together at Oscar de la Renta, but also launched your own brand, Monse. What’s it like having a creative partnership like that?

Fernando was my intern—that’s how it all began. But I think there was something instinctual. Oscar, for whatever reason, had a hunch when he met Fernando that it would be beneficial for me to have him in my life in a professional way.

I'm Asian, and I am very attracted to Latin culture because it’s kind of the opposite. I loved what Fernando was bringing to me; that was a completely different way of thinking.

Fernando Garcia, Laura Kim, Angie Tang

Left-Right: Fernando Garcia, Laura Kim, Angie Tang

Monse and Oscar de la Renta have very different vibes: Monse has more of an edgy, deconstructed look, whereas Oscar de la Renta is known for its classic silhouettes. What’s it like balancing these two brands?

We’re two immigrants—we only have our first job at Oscar, to be honest. We learned everything through Oscar. We started our company, Monse, during a really interesting time in 2015. Now we do both of them together.

They’re very different aesthetics. It’s such a blessing as creatives to have both Monse and Oscar de la Renta because I really enjoy working from two very different points of view. When you get bored with one, you go to the other one, and you learn to appreciate both sides. Not only that, you work better because you have a fresher point of view the next day.

We did not know what we were doing in the beginning. But we stuck to something that became the DNA of our small brand—and that is to stand out as an identity. We had no idea that’s what we were doing, but we were starting to deconstruct everything. What we realized was that there were not many American designers doing the deconstructed look, so we capitalized on that by accident.

Taylor Swift at the Grammy's

Do you have a favorite story behind a garment you’ve created?

There was a collection we did during COVID. 2020 was a really difficult year for everyone, but that summer was probably my first summer off since I was eight years old.

We did a fall collection in memory of summer 2020, which was one of my favorite collections. We created this print that looks like pressed flowers we made from that summer—and then Taylor Swift wore it to the Grammy’s when she won “Album of the Year.”

2020 was obviously a tough summer, with the rise of the Black Lives Matter and Stop AAPI Hate movements. In reaction to COVID-19 and these events, you and your friends formed an informal support group for each other, which you nicknamed the “Slaysians” and eventually became a platform for raising awareness. In light of all this, what does AANHPI Heritage Month mean to you now?

Even for me, I’ve learned a lot of things about Asian culture that I didn’t know about because of AANHPI Heritage Month.

Before COVID, I honestly didn’t really have time to think about being Asian and what it meant. I was just busy working, not looking around. But, because we stopped working during the pandemic, I had time to think about it—then there were the Black Lives Matter and Stop AAPI Hate movements. I talked with my friends Ezra [William], Philip [Lim], and Tina [Leung] about it. We felt it, and I really learned to embrace it. I think this month is important for everyone to recognize what we have achieved in the United States and to support each other. It’s important to celebrate and spread the knowledge of our different cultures. Both the Oscar and Monse teams are very diverse—so diverse that I’ve become the visa expert.


How do you think about the next generation of creative directors and giving back?

We give back through initiatives that are meaningful to us. We have worked with animal shelters by donating proceeds of our sales and showing the rescue dogs with our clothing on social media to encourage followers to adopt them.

Additionally, we did a collaboration with City Harvest, where we charged a fee for all of the attendees at our September show, which is not a normal thing to do, and donated the proceeds to them for their mission to feed the hungry in New York.

Most recently, I started working with Dress for Success. I wanted to help women, and I thought, well, we know how to dress people. So we started working with Dress for Success to help women who are aiming to be financially independent, teaching them how to dress for their interview and how to dress for their job.

I do think fashion is changing, and it’s for the better. It’s giving more chances to the younger generation. I’ve been so lucky and have so many female mentors in my life, including Agnes Lew from East West Bank.