If this were a magazine spread, the title would blare something nuts like “YES SHUI CAN!” and picture Kim Shui looking very cool, very capable, and wrapped in a yellow snakeskin jacket.
The texture is one of her signatures, and helped make the 28-year-old's brand into a street style must-shoot, not to mention a go-to label for celebrities like Cardi B. and Solange. (Curiously—or maybe not—yellow snakeskin has already surfaced at Kate Spade New York, Lisa Perry, and Maryam Nassir Zadeh, and we’re only two days into NYFW.)
A look from Kim Shui’s debut collection.
“We do most of our leather work in Italy,” says Shui from her Canal Street studio, which makes sense since she grew up in Rome. (Shui also speaks Mandarin, thanks to her parents.) “Having a native understanding of the language and culture, makes being a designer—especially a young one—a lot easier.” Shui also has a degree in economics from Duke University, which she cites as “super helpful” for running a fledgling brand. “Although if I’d really listened to my professors, I don’t know!” she laughs. “Everyone says running your own business is the hardest thing you’ll ever do. But I had to do it.”
After Duke it was off to Central Saint Marten’s for an MFA in fashion design, followed by stints at avant-garde label ThreeAsFour and Christian Siriano’s patterns department. The whole time, Shui was creating her own capsule collection on nights and weekends, which she submitted to VFiles in 2016. She was chosen as a featured designer; three minutes before her big runway debut, she peeked at the front row and saw someone familiar wearing her dress: Kylie Jenner.
Kylie Jenner in Kim Shui
“I had no idea,” says Shui, who’s mastered the Millennial art of making news sound like no big deal. “They just said some VIPs were coming, and maybe one would wear something we made. That’s it. Then I look out on the [backstage] monitor and it’s Kylie. I thought, ‘Oh. Okay. This might change some things.’
It did. “I definitely think I got contacted a lot because of that opportunity,” Shui confirms. “The Kylie Effect is real. But the show itself, that was the most helpful in terms of letting the fashion industry know I was a brand.”
Cardi B. in Kim Shui on the cover of "Bodak Yellow"
Soon, Shui found herself managing production, cash flow, and branding at the age of 25. “Thank goodness I majored in economics,” she sighs. “It’s really helped. But a lot of working in the fashion world is learning along the way.”
One major lesson: bright colors and bold patterns get more Instagram engagement, which in turn leads to celebrity fans. “A lot of stylists reach out to me because of something we post online. A lot of artists do, too—before the Grammy's, I got DM’d by Kali Uchis to wear my stuff. Also, almost 100 percent of the people on our website got there from Instagram. So they’re buying the signature pieces with the prints and the colors.”
Kim Shui’s Fall / Winter collection
Those prints and colors continue on Shui’s Fall 2019 runway, which she describes with a question: “How do my Italian and Chinese backgrounds go together in my life? And does living in America make it any different?” She’s answering her question with tons of mash-ups—think a silk dress that’s been sliced open as a jacket and lined with fuzz, or snakeskin and camouflage panels sewn together with denim.
Also: some sex appeal, another Instagram home run. “There’s a lot of sexy fashion on Instagram,” Shui admits. “But there’s less and less designed by women on the runway. I just read something about how the prairie dress is a female response to #MeToo. Really? I don’t know. I’d like to give women the option to cover up or be sexy and show more skin, even with one outfit. I don’t think you should have to choose. And sometimes I think female designers need a reminder that being sexy isn’t wrong.”
Kylie Jenner—and her Kim Shui dress—approve this message.