Higher Education: Sundae School
Exploring the friction between Korean society and recreational marijuana use, we take a look at how new streetwear brand Sundae School (@sundae.school) tackles these issues through their recent pop-up exhibition, Sunday Recess: Cartharsis. We also sit down with co-founder Dae Lim to discuss the brand's designs, influences, and the quiet subversion of counterculture.
Smokewear? Smoke what? Smoke… weed?
Introducing Sundae School (@sundae.school), a recently launched “smokewear” brand. Cleverly joining traditional Korean artwork and motifs with cannabis culture, siblings Dae (@dae.slim) and Cindy Lim (@zerohabits), the creatives behind the brand, are injecting marijuana into the society that condemns it.
Marijuana has been criminalized in Korea since the passage of the Cannabis Control Act in 1976, but Korea has had history with the plant. At one time, it grew wild in Korea’s countryside. Hemp has also been cultivated in South Korea for the industrial use of its fibers up until present day. Sambe cloth, a thick, sturdy fabric woven from hemp, was used to make dailywear Hanbok (Korean traditional clothing) and customary funeral shrouds.
Now, marijuana for recreational use is forbidden. Not only does Korea have some of the most severe drug laws in the world, it also has strict cultural taboos against drug use of any kind. The recent scandal involving K-pop superstar T.O.P of Big Bang, who is currently under investigation for his admitted use of the substance, has made Korea's stern stance against pot use very clear.
The Lim siblings launched Sundae School on 4/20 of this year with the hopes of painting weed in a new light. In a way, they’re reshaping what it means to be fashion forward. Through word of mouth and smart marketing moves, they’ve blown up, receiving coverage from major media outlets in both the U.S. and South Korea.
MUTZINE visited their pop-up art exhibition, Sunday Recess: Cartharsis, produced in collaboration with Seoul-based multimedia artist Jiyen Lee (@leejiyen) and Sketchedspace (@sketchedspaceseoul) at Contra (@contraseoul). The event drew in Seoulites for a Sunday of chilling and mingling. The first level housed Sundae School’s pop-up shop, which displayed pieces from their latest collection, "Chapter 1: Genesis." The third-floor lounge offered cool seating, a bar with everything from beers to deluxe cocktails, great DJs, and panoramic view of the street below.
Walking into the installation, viewers are greeted by a row of neatly placed Maria statues on a ledge. A looping video of Lee’s work, River Flows In You Page 1, was projected over the entrance. The reel was a recombined image of people walking on a staircase, meant to symbolize the fast-paced and socially constraining nature of Korean society.
Stepping further in the darkness, rotating black lights, the scent of burning incense, the ambient background tune, and the enchanting green glow of the Garden of Mari(juan)a caused patrons to fall into whispers and silence. Those elements were chosen to induce a meditative state similar to the effects of smoking weed.
303 Maria sculptures were arranged facing in varying directions as if they were seeking guidance or reassurance. The field was split by a path that led to a centerpiece as if it were an altar. There, the largest Maria stood mirrored deep in self reflection. She is shown in same contemplative state known to be brought on by prayer, meditation, and smoking weed.
Although Maria is normally depicted with her palms open, in front of the mirror her hands are fisted, representing the artist’s resistance against the oppression from her religious upbringing. It also serves as metaphor for rebellion against Korean taboos surrounding marijuana, politics, sexual orientation, and ethnicity.
Q&A with co-founder Dae Lim (@dae.slim)
We sat down for an interview with one of the brand's founders, Dae Lim. We wanted to get to the heart of what Sundae School is about, and have a discussion about the controversial topic of weed in Korea.
What is it about streetwear that aligns with the concept of “smokewear”?
Dae: I’m all about wearing things that makes me feel comfortable and confident and that’s why I love and respect streetwear brands. We had smokers in mind. For instance, the ‘nightcap’ has a spliff hole for spliffs. We emphasized using good materials to get that feeling of comfort like when you smoke. The innuendos are geared toward stoners; there’s design with King Sejong smoking a spliff. It’s a really small spliff, I like to call it a PJ… a personal J. If you look at streetwear, most of it is about skate culture. There’s surfwear for surfers in California. But, if you look at urban kids in Korea and New York, not many of them skate or surf. The common denominator is that a lot of them smoke whether that be cigarettes or weed. We wanted to represent that so we used the name "smokewear."
Your designs walk the line between bold and subtle. How do you find that balance?
Dae: Some things are very overt, and some are less overt. like our "Sinisterhood." It has an image of Ungnyeo, the mother of Korea, a folklore figure who gave birth to Dangun, the first king of Korea. Usually you see her carrying ginseng while riding a tiger, but we just changed it to her holding a giant ass spliff. And the spliff hole in the hat, I mean, unless you stick in a spliff you can’t tell. For us it was really about having fun, not about treading a fine line.
Streetwear brands often align themselves with a certain subculture, like hip hop, or the skate scene. Sundae School is aligned with cannabis culture, but is it deeper than that? What is the true core of Sundae School?
Dae: We talk about weed culture, but it's more niche than that because there are different types of smokers. We are one type of smoker, we are "yellow smokers," and the way we interact with weed is different. Because there is such a huge stigma, it’s more discreet. There is no strong community around it. It's a very individualistic exercise, I smoke alone a lot. Everyday before bed, I roll a little PJ. I get that nice release at the day’s end and I really feel cathartic.
The title Sundae School references religious education and you play on that heavily in your lookbook. What’s your reasoning for referencing the "Most High"?
Dae: I used to be religious—especially growing up in Korea, which is very religious. I started smoking weed in college and it helped me rationalize. It made think about things that I never even questioned, things that I held as ultimate truths, like God. I started to understand that I was just a single agent in a world of different individual agents and that thought process help me let go of some self-importance. That enlightenment came from lighting up a spliff. For me, weed was the catalyst to a higher meaning than the one I was given from my family and from society. It was a big self-discovery process which is why we link it to education. "Chapter 1: Genesis" is about God being high every single day and still crushin’ it and creating the world. Our goal is to quell the prejudice against stoners and highlight the creative energy they feel from smoking. We’re not preaching to the world to smoke weed, we're just showcasing one way to be introspective and to feel that catharsis.
In your visuals and branding you use double meanings. What about double standards? Korea has a heavy drinking culture. What do you think about soju glorification versus marijuana demonization?
Dae: I think it comes from lack of awareness. Daemacho (the Korean term for weed), literally means devil’s lettuce. Maybe it comes from fear of the past like with the opium epidemic and fear addiction. As for alcohol, I don't understand why it is so gloried. Especially in Korean hetero-male culture—if you can drink a lot you’re a G. If you drink a lot everyone likes you. But it’s not anyone’s fault because people just don’t really know what weed is about. What’s even more perplexing is that Koreans idolize other celebrities who do it. Hip hop culture is all the rave in Korea right now. You’ll see Snoop Dogg, smoking on instagram and T.O.P. hits a vape pen and he gets crucified. I just think there needs to be more familiarization. So many people live with it and live by it. The first step is learning. Hopefully Sundae School can light the way to more understanding.
Where there’s weed there’s controversy. Was there any backlash or criticism from the public or even privately?
Dae: In New York this is not a big deal at all. In Seoul, there has been a little bit of public denunciation especially with the recent scandal. My mother actually had no idea the brand was about weed culture until the Vogue Korea article came out and she was like WTF. But at the end of the day, this is what I believe in and even if there is backlash I am really proud of what we made and the story we’re telling. Especially the story of yellow counterculture. My parents are both doctors and they really wanted my sister and I to become doctors. And here we are... not doctors. There are so many different shades of yellow, we all have different experiences. Not everyone is a doctor or an accountant. Not everyone loves stability, especially amongst the youth, it's really changing. Yet the public just does not see us in this way. I am just one person with one opinion, but I wanted to showcase this story as a part of the mosaic that is yellow counterculture.
As a young Korean-American, being brought up in Seoul and living in NYC, you have the unique experience of being a part of youth culture internationally. Marijuana is relevant in places like the U.S., but are young Koreans aware of it outside of negative propaganda? Does weed have a place in Korea?
Dae: I believe there will be a place, but it will take a lot of time. A good parallel is the rise of hip hop culture in Korea. Weed culture is about the same freedom and self-expression that many Koreans associate hip hop with. There’s a shift happening. The freelancer community is taking off. The government is finally starting to fund start-ups now, and as the deconstruction of the salaryman happens, creative industries are being bolstered. It’s up to different cultural agents of change to speak up for it. If you hide behind conformity nothing will happen. You’re living your life and it shouldn't be for anyone else, which is why I am doing this. This is my voice, and I believe that if people stand by what they believe in, change can happen.
In what ways do you find Korea oppressive and in what ways do you find Korea liberating?
Dae: Let’s start with liberating. In terms of style, there is no place like Korea. People are so vibrant with their personal expression of style. You can wear whatever the fuck you want and you can’t say the same about many places in America. I mean in New York, I’m blessed you can wear whatever but still. What else is pretty liberating here? Um... I think that’s it… wow.
In society here, there is so much "giving fucks" happening. Everyone is like "What would they think?” There is so much conformity. There is always the "right answer" here. There’s "the path." That's changing, as I said before, with the rise of creative industries, but there is still the path of stability. Also with sexual preferences, it’s wrong to be gay, that’s fucked. It feels like you're not living your life but you're living society's expectation for your life. It’s really sad. I love this country, I love the culture, it's my motherland, I just don’t think I could live here. The counterculture here is so niche. It’s growing, but here, joining the counterculture is such a privilege whereas in the U.S. or Europe it’s a right.
What’s up next for Sundae School? Are you going to hit harder?
Dae: I want to tell a fresh story. Because of the huge response to the first collection, we’re able to expand beyond t-shirts and sweatshirts. We’re working on Chapter 2 which will be released during Chuseok (Korean traditional holiday) in New York. The first collection was streetwear and very graphic heavy. We’re experimenting with form for the next collection. We’ll make our version tracksuits called ‘smokesuits’ inspired by the design of traditional Hanbok. We’re weaving a nice little story around it too. We’re also doing pants and outerwear. In terms of hitting harder, one of the most insightful things we've learned is that more than 80 percent of our consumers are Asian, “Fellow Yellows” I like to say. We contacted them to find out why they support us and a lot of them said that an authentic “yellow voice” in streetwear is what they identified with. With that in mind, we want to show what the streets of Korea can do.