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How Kim Phan of Yumi Kim Conquered Uptown and Downtown

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Welcome to Better Know a Store Owner, a weekly Racked feature focusing on the people who run our favorite boutiques around the city.

Kim Phan and the Upper East Side store. Photos by Driely S

Kim Phan, the owner of the flirty womenswear brand Yumi Kim, started out her New York career by opening Project 159 in 2004. "I just bought a bunch of different brands, mainly local designers that were my friends," she said of her offerings. She continued her boutique domination with one exclusively selling her own line on the Lower East Side—and in 2011, she landed on the Upper East Side.

Phan's other stores have included Project 234, Project 36, and "bohemian sister" Blessed Peacemakers. We caught up with the designer and business owner to discuss how she distinguishes her uptown and downtown customers and where her silk-based brand is headed.

You must really be a pet lover if you named your line after your dog!

I opened Project 159 and six or seven months later, I got Yumi. That was when I was doing a house brand and I didn't feel comfortable putting my own name on the label, but I loved the name Yumi Kim. At that time, having her in my life, she just added joy and I was going through this phase of, "Wow, I just opened a store, all these great things are happening." It just sounded naturally fitting to go and name the brand Yumi Kim.

Where does the name Yumi come from?

It's Japanese—it means beauty.

How did starting your own line come about?

I never thought I would have a clothing line—when I moved to New York, I wanted to open a boutique store in the West Village, and from there I started creating stuff in the store and everything just fell into place organically.

And why did you want to open Yumi Kim on the Lower East Side?

It was my favorite shopping neighborhood. The owners worked in the stores. It was kind of like, we're all up-and-coming people doing our own things with our dreams. When you walk into a store here, you see they look nothing like the big box stores. In every store, you see there's personality.

Have you done anything to adapt to how the neighborhood has changed in the past five years?

With all the bars? That's all [only] at night. I love being in the store on the weekends because before 7pm., you have tourists, families, people coming down having brunch. I think a lot of the cool restaurants down here, like Beauty and Essex and Stanton Social, they bring in a great crowd and then those customers are introduced to the brand.

You've recently made some updates to your LES space—can you tell me about those changes?

I was actually passing by this store in Nolita the other day and I saw these beautiful fixtures that people were going to throw out, and we just put them in the store. If we had a bigger budget, I would dream up a store that I wanted, but when you have a small budget, you make the most of what you have and make it pretty and make it seem like it's a big budget store.

And why have you always included a sitting area?

I love all my stores to have this homey experience—I didn't want it to just feel like this was a store with racks and lots of shelves and I'm trying to sell everything. This is a place where you can play dress up and you feel at home. And that's what I want people to feel—like they don't have to rush to leave.

Why did you decide to open your second store in the Upper East Side?

I thought it would be a good time to cater to my uptown girl, because I always look at the brand as being very uptown and downtown. I wanted to expose the brand to not just the downtown girl. I wanted to see the uptown girl: What is she like? How does she dress? And that's all I ever wanted—one store uptown and one store downtown. I think that helps us see a lot and allows us to grow as a brand.

How is that store different than the original on Ludlow?

It's a bigger space, so we're allowed to carry more items up there—a lot more home goods. I like to have an arrangement of different things when you walk into a store, like a specialty boutique. And consumers [there] are a little bit more conservative. A lot of our girls are either stay-at-home moms or professional women, so their main concern is, "Can I wear this from day to night?"

You seem to know your customer demographics really well.

It's because I spend a lot of time in the stores. The best way to learn from your customer is actually spending time as a salesperson, and so a lot of the time I don't let people know I'm the designer or the owner. It's really good to be in the shop and get real-life feedback from your customers, like, "This would be so cool if it was a maxi dress, or had sleeves to it."

Let's talk about your clothing. Why do you go toward this bright aesthetic?

You get noticed when you walk in the room with color or print. There's just something about a floral dress, or a printed dress, or a color—you just automatically come to life, and I think people respond to that. They gravitate toward color and print and that's why I always naturally gravitated toward that.

It's also cultural—my background is Vietnamese, and I grew up around my relatives all wearing prints and color. If you ever go to Vietnam, you're going to notice that almost every single woman is wearing prints.

What else do you carry to round out the clothing?

We carry a lot of shoes from Dolce Vita. I also bring in a lot of jewelry from India. While I was there, I met some amazing artists that make great beaded bags. The assortment goes back to the girl who's wearing the Yumi Kim outfit.

What price point is your sweet spot?

We don't go over $200 for tops, and for dresses we try to stay under $300. A lot of people don't realize that in the past five or six years, silk has gone up, cotton has gone up, all these prices have gone up, and we really try and keep our prices as close as possible to what they were when we first started. That's really important to me, because it's aligned with our customers being loyal to us, and being loyal back to our customers and understanding their needs.

How are you expanding your collection?

Right now, I'm obsessed with beading. Our sales from other boutiques and department stores are very hesitant on it, but I don't want to be known as just "the silk girl." As you're evolving and growing, you're experimenting with all these different things. I want my customers to grow with me, and that's something I know takes time. Eventually, we're trying to make this into a full collection where you have pants, jackets, and a couple of other things, but if our customers aren't buying, we can't go to production with it.

Anything else?

Jewelry. I've been playing with a lot of different designs. Lately, I've been into a lot of statement pieces, going back to wearing that simple blouse with a beautiful piece of jewelry. So for spring, we're going to introduce a couple really cool statement pieces that are going to go back to the collection. And we're making beaded clutches to match our prints.

Are you looking to expand who your customer is?

Yes, and that's why I'm so obsessed with my online store right now. It's taught me so much about all the different customers who are shopping. Online, it allows me to see, "What are the girls out there buying?" And learning more about the different customers we have outside of New York …It's more like seeing the world as a customer. Now it's like, how do I get the world to come shop? It's allowed me to really understand my brand and where I would like it to go.

And speaking of online, you have a very active social media presence.

I think it's the only way to really get to know your customers right away and know what they're saying. We have this contest called #YKMyWay, and we choose the best person who shows how they rock Yumi Kim. We give a $500 online gift card. People come up with creative ideas, and seeing your clothes come to life with people in it, that's the fascinating thing to me.

Okay, time for the lightning round. 8am or 8pm?

8am.

Beer or wine?

Wine.

Mountains or beach?

Beach.

Cats or dogs?

Dogs!

Favorite vacation spot?

Thailand.

Favorite neighborhood lunchtime spot?

Bar Pitti.

Favorite happy hour spot?

Lure Fishbar.

Rap or country?

Rap.

Scandal or Homeland?

Homeland —always! I love Homeland, I just saw it last night!
· Yumi Kim [Official Site]
· All Better Know a Store Owner Posts [Racked NY]

Yumi Kim

105 Stanton Street, New York, NY 10002 212-420-5919 Visit Website

Dolce Vita

255 Elizabeth Street, New York, NY 10012 (212) 226-0635 Visit Website