You founded your shop (Zimmermann&Kim) in March 2011 as “an alternative to mass shopping“. Why this kind of elitist approach?
For us, quality of life has to do with making conscious decisions, it has to do with taking one’s time, with being relaxed, and choosing good things for ourselves and rejecting others. We wanted to provide an alternative to an over-stressed environment, to loud and noisy department-stores. We would like customers to feel comfortable when they come to us, we want them to forget the hustling and bustling outside for a moment. Before we had our shop, we experienced often situations where sales people didn’t really know anything about the products they were welling, and didn’t seem to care much about the customer. We wanted to be better than that.
The word elitist nowadays has a somewhat negative connotation, so I wouldn’t have used it myself in this context. It is not about feeling better than anyone else, but rather about feeling good about ourselves, about knowing what we, the customers, want and what we don’t want. It is about caring for the things which we bring into our lives as opposed to almost randomly buying stuff and throwing it out on a whim. Taking time to learn about oneself and about the things we buy is a huge pleasure. We want to support our customers on that journey.
Your business name is quite original, Ji-Yoon Kim actually being your wife. You confess in a past interview that you have met your wife in Germany both being students. Starting from this point please tell me more about your background. Why did you choose Gentlemen shoes and why was Seoul top on your list for starting your business?
My wife had a degree in German language and literature and was in Germany for further studies. I was on a gap year from University doing internships. One of them brought me to Germany and coincidence let our paths cross. We eventually ended up living and working in Switzerland. I for a global consulting company, she for a Korean-owned leather goods company. We visited Seoul about once or twice a year. Because I had developed a fondness for good shoes myself, we noticed very quickly how difficult it was to find any decent shoes in Korea. There didn’t seem to be a lot of choice of good shoes and there was no history of having such kinds of products.
In 2010 we came to Korea to spend a whole year here because I wanted to learn better Korean than I could in Switzerland. I started out with my language studies but after less than half a year the old idea of good shoes in Korea came back to us. We started looking into it more seriously and before we knew it we had started preparing our business. We saw so many things we wanted to do better for customers – bring top-end shoemakers to Korea, good shoe care, knowledgeable sales people, prices which are closer to the European market – in contrast to most imported products in Korea, which are usually significantly more expensive without any good reason why that would have to be the case.
Regarding the name, we wanted it to reflect the personal approach which we envisioned for our business. It is about people and there are people behind it. We live in a world where so many things are fake and superficial, that we wanted to carry through the honesty of the products into all aspects of our business.
What were the reasons for choosing Gaziano&Girling, Laszlo Vass and Saint Crispin’s?
For us it was important to work with independently-owned companies. We didn’t want to deal with huge fashion conglomerates, but rather with traditional crafts-people. We wanted to have a personal connection with people who share the same ideals and passion for the shoes they make. We feel very privileged that the three companies all entrusted us with their name and their shoes, which we consider to be the best in the world, and each with a distinct style.
Do you have special models made from Zimmermann&Kim in your shop?
So far we haven’t got our own branded products, because we want to sell products under the name of the people who made them, rather than just stick our name on it like so many big fashion companies do. For our one-year Anniversary we have come up with a special limited edition model of the Vass Budapester. But this, too, was still a Vass shoe. We may do things like that again in the future. Because all the stock shoes we carry are made specifically to our order, it is quite likely that a whole number of our shoes is available like that only in our shop.
What kind of models South Korean Gentlemen prefer? Does the Korean weather have any effect on their shoe choices?
The market for our shoes is still comparatively small, so all our customers are quite advanced compared to the average person on the street just by the fact that they know and care about good shoes. Because of that there is quite a big variability between our customers. On average, though, Oxford models are more popular than Derbies and very classic models such as a Quarter Brogue or Half-Brogue more commonly requested than others. The colors tend to be on the darker side. We have a loafer model from Gaziano & Girling in a light-brown calf which is extremely popular exactly like this in Japan, but only few customers in Korea so far dared to wear this color even though it is a fantastic summer shoe to go with brighter colored clothing. The weather doesn’t seem to make that big a difference. Most people choose leather soles despite the rainy season in the summer and snow in the winter, where it is a good idea to have a number of shoes with rubber soles in the rotation.
How important is the guidance between all that shoe options at Zimmermann&Kim? What would the customer expect passing your shop door?
As I mentioned earlier, it is very important for us to assist our customers and find something that fits to them, their style, and the intended use. We have many customers who spend an hour or two, sometimes even more, in our shop trying shoes, talking about styles, colors and different options. We enjoy this interaction. Rarely we have first-time visitors who come without a clear idea of what they want and no prior experience with the kinds of shoes that we sell. It’s a pleasure to introduce the concept of our shoes to them. In rare cases there are people who don’t expect that there is so much to know about their style and the shoes and that there is no good one solution that fits everybody. For example, a shoe may be as good as it gets but still not be a comfortable fit for a customer. That doesn’t make the shoe any less good, it just means the particular last, size, and width don’t fit the customer’s foot shape very well. Knowing that about this makes the whole process more enjoyable. We want to sell shoes to our customers with which they will be happy for years or decades. This attitude is what we want to convey in our work.
Living with all kinds of beautiful shoes doesn’t make your choices easier. How many shoes do you have and what model do you prefer the most?
Indeed, it makes it more difficult. Most people would be surprised how long I can brood over ordering a shoe for myself. This is probably also the reason why accumulating my own shoe-wardrobe takes me more time than many other people. I honestly don’t know how many pairs I currently have. Less than my wife but more than most men, I’d say.
My favorites are mostly classics. I don’t have one particular model but a number of them. On average I’d say I prefer a Wingtip to a captoe, but at the same time my black captoe Oxfords from Gaziano & Girling are among my all-time favorite shoes and I think every man who ever needs a formal shoe should have a pair them. I also like double monks a lot. They are very versatile, go well with more casual clothing and still work perfectly with an elegant business suit. There are probably few more versatile shoes than a double monk in a medium brown or bordeaux color.
What should we expect in the future from Zimmermann&Kim?
We are very careful when we add anything to our lineup. Of course you can expect that there will always be new models and configurations from the shoemakers which we carry. We have some exciting new collaborations planned which will make our shoes and shoe care available in other locations in Korea. We are also more and more serving customers outside of Korea, which we are very happy about and are looking forward to doing more and more. We also plan to expand our offering in new directions – but about that I cannot give you any details quite yet.
We have now been open to our customers for two years and want to thank them for liking what we do. We are looking forward to spreading the word ever more in a market, Korea, which is really only at the beginning when it comes to high-end men’s shoes.