Staying Focused With PLYS Knitwear
Advance Copy caught up with Joon Lee, the designer behind unisex knitwear brand PLYS and recent winner of Samsung Fashion Design Fund. PLYS is a reaction to the always-changing assortment of products in fashion, which Joon decided to counteract by creating a continuous line of contemporary knitwear shapes. The brand stays loyal to styles that are flattering and easy to wear, using high-quality yarns and seasonal nuances that customers can rely on season after season.
We met in Joon’s Berlin studio to talk about his early years in Seoul and London as well as the influence of his father’s career in the video-games industry on PLYS colour aesthetic. Our conversation highlights the importance of core collections in meeting client needs for everyday practicality.
Advance Copy: Hi Joon, would you mind introducing yourself and your knitwear brand PLYS?
Joon: Hi Natalia! I studied menswear design at London’s Central Saint Martins, after finishing the course I moved to Berlin and wanted to do something different. I didn’t want to start a proper menswear collection because I have ADHD and when you look at menswear there are so many pieces: T-shirts, shirts, vests, coats…but it’s difficult for me to focus. I thought for a person with ADHD it would be better to pick something to focus on, something I could achieve.
Before this, and joining the South Korean army, I did one year of a Bachelor course in textiles at Central Saint Martins. I remember the knitwear course was my favourite, because you start from zero: buying the yarns, testing the swatches, drying them and then they really become yours. Of course, someone can still copy your work, but you can’t copy full garments because there must be very certain washes, detergents and details. I’ve also always enjoyed creating colours and developing different shades, so I was interested in working together with yarn manufacturers. That’s how I decided to specialise in knitwear and start PLYS.
“I’ve also always enjoyed creating colours.”
AC: Did the idea for the brand come together in Berlin? How did it develop after that initial spark?
Joon: Yes and at the time I was cycling a lot, so I kept carrying my knits, wrapping them around my waist and thinking ‘why don’t I start knitwear?’ something easy which will allow me to play with colours. In Europe, we need sweaters, because there are only a few weeks of very hot summer but when cycling in the evening you need a sweatshirt or a knit.
Personally, I would buy nice sweaters from A.P.C or sometimes from COS but then every season they would change shapes, which I didn’t really like. There are certain sweaters that I always love, for example roll necks, but then stores would change the style every season. My plan was to create a few main carry over styles using different colours every season, keeping it simple but with cute ideas and details.
AC: It sounds like you from the start you set very clear parameters for PLYS. How do you feel about keeping to one category now that the brand is up and running?
Joon: It’s funny because PLYS’s first collection consisted of only six styles, which is very small for a brand. These six styles sold very well, for our second season I added in a few more options and the third season I had 30 styles which felt like a lot more.
AC: Why did you decide to expand the line from your original idea of six sweater shapes?
Joon: I thought I had to show progress, the brand developing from season to season, but in reality our sales were okay, not bad but not as great as I expected for the change. Then I tried to focus on growing PLYS’s sales, stores were telling me to lower prices but that didn’t work as a solution because using lower quality yarn made sales decrease. My fifth season went back to the first idea of keeping the collection small, super simple with a focus on nice colours and beautiful materials, the reaction to this was great.
“My fifth season went back to the first idea of keeping the collection small.”
AC: As you mentioned colour, let’s talk about the unusual inspirations behind your work with PLYS. Last time we met at Sprueth Magers, an outpost of an international contemporary art gallery in Berlin’s Mitte district. You chose this place to show me a video installation that left a big impression on you. That installation was Jon Rafman’s Dream Journal, a looped animation fearlessly mixing ideas of surreal fetishism, technology and early computer games, offset by the soundtrack of Oneohtrix Point Never. Dream Journal was a visual and psychological rollercoaster that gave me a preview of your love for digital colours. Could you tell us more about this?
Joon: My father is a video games programmer, he was the first distributor for Sony PlayStation and also worked with a Japanese company for Streetfighter. So we always had prototypes at home and I grew up watching video games like Super Mario. When these games were ready to be launched my dad had to set up 6 computers at home and my classmates would come to test the games, putting stickers on the ones they liked best. To be honest, I wasn’t really into it, I was telling my friends how to play, but I never played. I was always watching monitors and maybe that was my inspiration, my friends say that the colours I work with now are pretty much like 8-bit computer games. I was always obsessed with colours, even at the age of six or seven, I think that’s very natural to me. I went to Japan many times to join my dad while he was working, I was influenced by the crazy toys that I saw and I loved buying them! My Little Pony and Hello Kitty, Doraemon…I watched a lot of animation too.
“I was always watching monitors and maybe that was my inspiration.”
AC: Do you continue to be inspired by comics and digital references here in Europe?
Joon: I’d say it’s a lot calmer now, but every season when I start my work I look at Japanese comics and I still go to Japan to do research.
AC: You recently went back to South Korea, could you tell us about the differences in the fashion scenes of Berlin and Seoul?
Joon: Korean people are very sensitive to what’s going on in the world of fashion, they are very on-trend and tend to buy European brands like Vetements and Balenciaga. But the Korean fashion industry itself is isolated, it stays within Korea and doesn’t really go outside of the country, in that way it’s similar to Berlin.
AC: Could you tell us about the benefits and challenges of setting up PLYS outside of classic industry capitals like Paris, Milan or London?
Joon: Before I moved to Berlin I thought it was such a great city, but when you start living here you feel like some aspects are underdeveloped. Of course, you have amazing spaces and you don’t feel stressed but manufacturing can be difficult. For example, I tried to find local production because German knitting machines have a long, amazing history and I would love PLYS to have a “Made in Germany” label, however, local factories mainly export and it’s very expensive. On the other hand, there are many interesting magazines with offices in Berlin but they often commission work abroad because there is no professional industry here, so that can be kind of difficult.
AC: Are you tempted by the idea of moving PLYS to Paris or London instead?
Joon: Not really, I think it’s totally fine for me to be based in Berlin but for other fashion designers it can be hard to grow here. That’s another reason why I chose to do knitwear because I didn’t want to deal with toiles, rolls of fabrics and so on. With knits you don’t have to do pattern cutting or sawing, you draw the design and the factory can make the pattern.
AC: How would you like to develop and grow PLYS in the future?
Joon: For now, I would like to engage with more Instagram influencers, that helps a lot at the start. From a sales perspective, PLYS is sold at international department stores but I’m also interested in boutiques and different kinds of customers.
AC: Finally, looking back on your achievements so far, what recommendations do you have for brands that are starting out now?
Joon: You need to be very consistent with your first idea. I’m sure it’s the same for other designers too, but when I first started PLYS I was thinking about a niche market that I could get into. I think it’s good to research what’s missing and find your place. I tested my products in the first few seasons making special neon colours that customers couldn’t find anywhere else. I didn’t give up on my quality, using beautiful yarns and special techniques from the very beginning.
AC: Thank you for your time today Joon.