Designer Diaries: Kitri’s founder Haeni Kim on the secrets of building a cult fashion brand

Written by Naomi May

In our new monthly series, Designer Diaries, digital fashion writer Naomi May chats to the faces behind some of fashion’s buzziest brands to pick their brains on the future of fashion and what an average day looks like for them.  

When it comes to crafting cult collections, few do it better than London label Kitri, which was founded by Haeni Kim in 2017.

The mid-market label, which has a successful sell-out collaboration with content creator Jessie Bush under its belt, and struggles to keep certain dresses in stock, hits the sweet spot between high street and high-end in a way that few do with such panache. Kitri is the go-to for wearable, fashion-forward and timeless fashion; looks that are both on-trend but will also stand the test of time.

The direct-to-consumer brand cuts through the noise in a way that no fashion insider can deny and if its five-figure waiting lists aren’t proof, its famous fanbase, which includes Candice Brathwaite, Zeena Shah and, of course, Bush, certainly is.

We caught up with Korean native Kim as part of our new series, Designer Diaries, whereby we ask the names behind some of our favourite labels what a day in their life looks like and their hopes and dreams for the future of fashion.   

Haeni Kim, the founder of Kitri

What does an average day look like for you?

I normally start the day with a very strong cup of black coffee and put on some classical music to prepare for the day ahead. Pre-Covid, I would walk to our studio which is a lovely, brisk 10-minute walk from our house in east London but as we now work from home most days, I fire up the computer and catch up on emails before I start checking in with the team on Slack and Zoom. 

We’re a small, close-knit team and I really miss working with them every day in the studio but we were all surprised how well we adapted to working from home during the first lockdown and we only go into the studio when we need to at the moment. 

No two days are the same in a start-up world and that’s what I love about my job. My day ranges from a design meeting to a finance meeting, or a fitting to marketing, so it keeps me on my toes all day. Work doesn’t finish until quite late usually – around 8pm most days. I’m still working on finding the ever-elusive work/life balance!

Do you have any rituals you follow every day to get your creative juices flowing?

I find a brisk walk listening to great music always gets me out of a creative funk. I love any music with a good melody – anything from K-pop to classical music! I also love watching TV series and movies for inspiration. Particularly during the numerous lockdowns in London over the last year and a half when I couldn’t people-watch or travel, I’ve been finding solace in revisiting old favourite movies.

What was your journey into fashion?

I was born in South Korea and moved to England when I was 12 years old to pursue my dream of becoming a ballerina. I absolutely adore ballet to this day. I was 19 when I decided that I wanted to work in the fashion industry. I had this very abstract idea in my head back then that I wanted to work in the business side of fashion, so I studied French literature at university with the aim of working in Paris when I graduated. 

Once graduated, I focused on getting as broad of an experience in the fashion industry as possible – everything from design, marketing, merchandising, finance and production. I think I always knew deep down that I wanted to start a fashion brand at some point. After a few years working in London for luxury fashion brands, I lived in Hong Kong for 5 years, travelling throughout Asia and learning about product development and production for European and American brands, then came back to London to finally start my own brand, Kitri.

Kitri is one of London’s worst-kept fashion secrets

How do you go about designing bestselling pieces and collections?

It always starts from a mood and functionality – a feeling we want to capture and how we would like to dress. We look at ‘trends’ but our aim is to create styles that will be loved by our customers for a long time, not just for a season or two. Our bestselling Margot dress in green gingham was from our summer 2020 collection originally that returned this season due to popular demand. At the time of designing the dress, we were all in lockdown and our best hope was to be able to spend the summer in our back gardens or the nearest park. So we created a picnic in a dress basically! 

For our summer 2021 collection, we wanted to transport ourselves to a gorgeous beach so we focused on sun-drenched hues and easy silhouettes in breezy fabrics that you could throw on and go.

The Juicy Yellow dress

Where do you turn for inspiration?

Anything and everything! Films, TV series, music, Instagram, books and discussions with friends and among our team. Our team is always very curiously aligned in what we want to wear and how we want to feel for the upcoming season, so it’s always very exciting to bring together our references at the beginning of each collection and refine our ideas into a cohesive mood board together. We know it’s going to be a good collection when we’re all giddy with excitement talking about it!

Fashion is a saturated industry – how do you cut through the noise?

It’s not easy but you have to have a strong identity and have the courage and tenacity to be consistent. There are so many brands that come and go in a blink of an eye and it’s a lot to do with timing and luck as much as talent and hard work unfortunately. We have a great team that really believe in what we do. We work super hard and have fun while doing it, so I think it comes through in our work and hope our customers love it as much as we do.

Kitri’s leopard print Apollo pyjamas

Which three words summarise Kitri best?

Playful, colourful, confident. We never take ourselves too seriously and want to help our customers feel their best when they wear Kitri.

If you could go back and give your younger self a sage piece of advice, what would it be and why?

There are so many pieces of advice I would give to my younger self! If I had to choose though, I would say trust your instinct and ask for help when needed. I think as a young woman in the industry, I felt undeserving of any success and had a huge imposter syndrome. I thought that asking for help was a sign of weakness and an admission of not knowing my stuff! Looking back on it now, I could have saved a lot of time and learned quicker had I asked for help and had the conviction in trusting in my instinct.

What does the future look like for Kitri?

Bright, I hope! It’s been a very challenging time for everyone, and our industry has suffered a lot like all industries, but I also feel like it’s given us a much needed opportunity to reassess what’s really important and make plans on how to rebuild in a responsible and balanced way. We’re really looking forward to getting back on our plan and focusing on bringing great, feel-good clothes that our customers will love.

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Images: courtesy of Kitri.

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