As part of a recent trip to Seoul, I had the chance to meet with one of the Korean street scene’s most prominent players, Jayass Kim. Having founded both the distribution company HUMANTREE and subsequently the brand BURIED ALIVE, you could say he has a good understanding of the overall Korean landscape. Embodying an easygoing and comical personality, we spent an afternoon together visiting several shops and personalities. Often streetwear sometimes lacks that intellectual punch but you’d be surprised some of the smart and intelligent folk that lie within the industry, and speaking with Jayass I definitely got his deep understanding of the fabrics of Korean culture and its relevance to streetwear.
Can you introduce yourself and what you do?
My name is Jayass. I’m the founder/director of the company HUMANTREE in Seoul, Korea.
Can you explain a bit about HUMANTREE and BURIED ALIVE?
HUMANTREE is a brand distribution agency. We take fresh and fun brands that haven’t been introduced to Korea and work together with local accounts in Korea. Thus, we are a company that helps develop and market new labels. BURIED ALIVE is an in-house label that has developed within HUMANTREE. Alluding to the emotional sensitivity of the ’80s skate and punk rock culture, BURIED ALIVE utilizes all types of artwork and graphic design to produce a unique underground lifestyle label.
How did you get involved into the whole street culture scene?
After I graduated in 2001, my love for sneakers led me to open a small store. By bringing in shoe brands such as RARE, PREMIUM and DEAD STOCK from Japan and America, my atypical sneaker collection attracted friends from the street culture community (DJs, skaters and graffiti artists). As more people started coming to my store, I developed relationships with them and a natural movement toward streetwear began. In particular, someone who helped broaden my contacts and vision is the acclaimed Brian from the OG skateshop 8FIVE2 in Hong Kong. He coincidentally visited my store on a trip to Seoul and was shocked to see deadstock Wind Runners by Nike. He commented it was his favorite sneaker and as he purchased the shoes he gave me his business card. We became friends and he introduced me to many influential people. My connection with 8FIVE2 allowed me to start the first official street distribution shop in Korea for streetwear brands like HAZE, J-MONEY, UXA and In4mation. Again, thank you Brian! Mad respect!
What is Korea’s own particular flavor of streetwear? Has it developed its own style?
Korea is a country in which war is not yet a distant memory. As anyone can imagine, trying to rebuild a war-torn nation is no small feat. As the people of Korea busily strove to reconstruct their country, there was little time or place for cultural aspects to be promoted. In the 1990s, however, hip-hop clothing and memorabilia began to filter into the local American army base. I believe young people began to engage in street culture as elements of hip-hop music and fashion became more prevalent. In addition, streetwear gained influence in 2002 through students who studied abroad in Japan and America. Their interests and style helped usher in the gradual introduction and growth of shops, community and brands. Because Korea’s street and underground culture has a shorter history, the scene is not as well-known as it is in other countries. I’m not sure if it’s due to the tenaciousness of Korean people, but we do have the ability to absorb culture quickly in comparison to other countries that have had thirty to fifty years to develop their own. Now, however, as Korean streetwear gains momentum, other nations are slowly gaining interest in our particular scene.
You’ve mentioned that the current trends have moved away from streetwear towards more fast fashion. What are your thoughts on this?
I feel that fast fashion is a phenomenon being experienced all over the world. The boundary dividing the concept and genre of streetwear and fast fashion is no longer clearly seen. There are many Japanese and American brands that have evolved from streetwear into classic, vintage and rugged brands. I think many designers who began in streetwear have moved toward more classic concepts. At the same time, I feel youngsters these days have influenced the market equally as they look for more classic and vintage styles along with better quality clothing.
HUMANTREE has spent a lot of time introducing foreign brands, how does this help the scene?
As I’ve said before, the streetwear scene in Korea is very small. Although the scene is gradually growing, there were only five shops specializing in streetwear when HUMANTREE first began to develop. Moreover, streetwear magazines and media were nonexistent. At the time, Japanese magazines were the only source for young people to access information about streetwear, and they believed it was their only avenue to be connected. HUMANTREE doesn’t claim to have introduced every brand out there, but we believe that we have helped the scene by presenting a diversity of sources to youngsters who were largely unaware of the many great brands out there.
How would you describe the current Korean streetwear brands in existence?
Korean trends are very fleeting and on top of that, because the movement in street culture is very small there are not many streetwear brands that are genuine. However, a positive factor is that Korea has a diverse variety of fabric in a big market where these items are easy to obtain. There are also many skilled craftsmen with clothing factories who produce quality material at a reasonable price. Because the market and scene is still small, the combined effect of good quality and savvy culture signals great potential for new brands to develop.
You’ve amassed quite the collection of toys and random stuff, when did this passion start?
I love to travel. Despite my busy schedule, I still manage to take a trip once a year for at least a month. Wherever I go, I always check the local flea markets and vintage stores. What began as a few toys I found here and there grew into my own unique collection of toys and random findings. Also, my natural liking for discovering things has developed into a habit where I stay up all night “digging” for vintage items on eBay.
What needs to be done to develop street culture in Korea?
This is a good question. As I’ve mentioned earlier, because cultural trends are introduced later compared to other countries, the diversity of products is low and the movement of these trend is small. But because of the fast-pace of Korean society, the movement toward these trends is starting to take speed. Instead of streetwear simply being a dated trend or people just wearing clothes for the sake of it, street culture has turned into a lifestyle that the next generation will inherit/starting to inherit. The biggest problem is that corporations have an invested interest in the trends in streetwear and have begun to capitalize on the market. I believe that the neoliberal movement toward trends needs to stop in order for street culture to really develop.
What are some of the most difficult things to overcome in your job?
What I do doesn’t feel like work. I don’t experience too much hardship with my work, because for me, I feel like I’m just hanging out with my friends.
Any last words?
Thank you for coming all the way to Korea and having this interview with me. I am uncertain how this interview will be received, as HYPEBEAST is a well-known, worldwide online magazine with an international following. However, I would be stoked if people developed an interest in Korean street culture after this.