Over the years, the fashion world has adapted to the ever-evolving style of stoner fashion. During the '90s, it was easy to spot a stoner from a mile away--a tie dye shirt, a baja hoodie, hemp pants, and Birkenstocks instantly identified them. By the 2000s, anyone wearing HUF's marijuana leaf-printed accessories with a pair of Vans was probably your go-to dealer in college. Now Sundae School is here to upgrade your smokewear for the modern era. The New York-based street style brand was established by Dae and Cindy Lim, a pair of siblings joined together by their common love of smoking weed.
The Lims grew up in Seoul, South Korea, with a background based around the pillars of education (like early after-school math classes that lasted for five hours) and religion--not exactly a gateway into the stoner lifestyle. After moving to America for boarding school at the age of 12, Dae had what he describes as a "'yellow' awakening" during his college years at Harvard. He connected with more Asians like him for the first time and stopped assimilating to the mainstream white culture that was constantly forced upon him. Cindy also returned to the U.S. for high school and then enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania for undergrad.
The more the siblings smoked together in their adulthood, the closer Dae and Cindy became--both of them refer to each other as their best friend. "I think it's our six or seven year anniversary," says Dae. During a trip to Korea last year, the siblings began conceptualizing their own streetwear brand. Fast-forward to 2017 and Sundae School was born into the world on, appropriately, 4/20. The debut collection, Chapter 1: Genesis, consists of Seoul-made longsleeves, hoodies, jackets, t-shirts, patches and hats with spliff holders designed with punny slogans like "honor rollers," "higher education," and other visual references to their Korean childhood. The majority of Sundae School's customers are Asian-Americans that also share the feeling of under representation in terms of what they term "yellow counterculture."
"Asian-Americans are viewed mostly singularly as the beacon of stability that are lawyers, that are accountants, that work at desk jobs in finance. Honestly, that is only one aspect of us," says Dae. "Our culture like every culture is so multi-dimensional. My best friends in New York, most of them are Korean and guess what we do when we're chilling together? We smoke weed. We just wanted to encapsulate that experience into our designs."
Even though Cindy and Dae initially envisioned Sundae School as a brand for stoners and smokers, they use it as a platform to pay homage to their roots as well. While capturing "the essence of high through making comfortable clothing and accessories," they strategically nod to different elements of the Asian-American experience. As first-generation immigrants, they continue to navigate their own version of what Asian-American culture means to them, which Dae describes as an "interesting journey."
"I'm really excited to share one version of the yellow counterculture story amongst many. I really hope that other Asian-American kids feel free to share their experiences no matter what their experience is," says Dae. "As long as we show all of the different shades of yellow whether it's through counterculture or gastronomy, we're just building our culture in this country that we are a part of."
Sundae School unveiled its second collection, Chapter 2: When Tigers Used to Smoke, at a NYFW: Men's presentation in collaboration with CFDA. We talked to the Lims about the brand's name, diversifying Asian-American representation, and whether their mom is cool with smokewear.
Tell me about the origins of Sundae School. When did the idea to create this brand come to mind?
Dae: As Cindy has mentioned, marijuana, and spliffs especially, has been such a catalyst in our lives. I think it was partly an ego death process for us, because there was a whole bunch of self-importance built up through years of conditioning where your mother is telling you "Oh my god, you have this family to take care of" and you have so much weight on your shoulders, right? That self-realization that you are just one piece of the puzzle in this fabric of society, that really hit home for me as I was smoking weed in college. I kind of really wanted to translate that into my clothing.
Last year around this time, when Cindy and I were both in Korea, I would always engage her with different ideas, but we were just like "You know what, why don't we try this? We are in Korea and we don't know anyone, but we can try to make something happen because we are together. My name is Dae, and whenever I introduce myself to other people I say, "My name is Dae like ice cream sundae," so that's where the name came from. And then after that we were high and like, "Because this is our first collection, why don't we try to do it very small and why don't we tell the story of Genesis because it's Sunday School?" That's the first thing you learn in Sunday School, so we came up with the concept to outline the story of Genesis in "high fashion." I started designing right away and my sister started sourcing, going to different factories and different mills in Korea in the garment district. Luckily enough we found a designer in Korea who worked with us on tech packs and the technical aspect so that I could just focus on the graphic design. That's how we really started, that's the Genesis.
Cindy: It's not that different from other fashion brands. We're not very innovative in creating products, but I think that what's different is that Dae and I don't come from this background at all. We literally just jumped into it because we were like, "Let's take this opportunity and we have an idea."
You're still pretty early into this whole process, but how are you able to balance doing Sundae School with work and school?
Dae: Honestly, our goal is not to build a $10 million business in five years. That is not how we're trying to build out this company and project. Obviously, there will be times where work or school gets in the way, but as long as we are clear on what our mission is and what our capacity is and what our capabilities are then the only thing we can really do is try our best and if it doesn't work then we'll scale it down. We're not trying to grow, grow, grow into the next new thing. We're trying to authentically--
Cindy: We want to gather an audience that cares about what we care about.
Going off of that, how do you feel Sundae School differentiates from a lot of brands that we as a society typically label as "stoner fashion"?
Dae: For us, obviously we represent a subculture of stoner fashion. There are so many different, beautiful variations of what smokewear is. Even FENTY has an element of smokewear in it. There are other brands that kind of encapsulate this aesthetic, but for us we just wanted to narrate our story as Asian-American, as Korean-American, as someone who really values education. We love memes and we love puns so we try to incorporate as much of that as possible into the visual language of our brand and of our designs. I think on the most fundamental level, the biggest differentiating factor is probably the fact that we are very orientally based. Even more than that, we're just one example of different types of stoners. For us, there is that element of awareness by smoking where we get to think more and we try to intellectually yet light-heartedly delve into different topics, but then there's that indigo element as well where you just want to pass the fuck out. Every piece of our clothing has an elastic; we use the most comfortable materials.
Cindy: In the past, a lot of brands are just about smoking the shit out and going to a club or whatever. A lot of people in the past have smoked and thought and had intellectual conversations, but there was no light shed on that yet. So what we're doing is bringing that smokers can also be high-functioning or on their rollers and also in corporate Asian awareness just because that's their identity.
Do you feel that Asian representation is improving in the fashion industry?
Dae: Yes, and I think it is also improving in general in mainstream American culture. Obviously, it's disgusting how underrepresented we are. At the end of the day, it's not injustice that we're fighting against, because no one is patting my pockets, no one is stopping me to search me for bombs or for drugs, but it's really invisibility that we're fighting against. The under-representation is so stark, but as the tech industry is developing more and the growth of culture is happening, I do think that the trend is on our side, especially with what we were just talking about with the new generation of Asian-Americans and immigrants. That voice is being amplified and we are one example of that.
We have the American ideals in that we will speak up for what we want and we will work hard to get what we want to get. We are no longer visitors trying to put a stake on the ground. I think in the Asian-American youth culture there is a lot of galvanization of young Asian-Americans trying to get representation in mainstream media, whether it's in the art world or the fashion world. You look at designers like Alexander Wang and Phillip Lim, those are our inspirations and they have paved the way, they have made their name through talent and hard work. Honestly, the trend is only going to grow.
Cindy: I think what's also changing is, in the past when Asian-Americans made it to a celebrity status, they were usually fighting for that seat. We're trying to create this trend of Asians helping Asians out because we know how each other feels. We know the experiences that we have to go through to get to this level.
Dae: Yellow culture and unity amongst us yellow people, I think that's what's really crucial. Cindy and I got more interested in this as we were developing our brand and were getting responses with our brand, but the momentum is there. It's up to us to speak up, to share our stories, and really bring together a united group.
How does it feel to make your NYFW: Men's debut?
Dae: As Cindy and other Gen Z people would say, we are "shook." I couldn't have even dreamt about this day to come. We're so grateful for the mentors that we have here and for our supporters and our friends and fans. Without them, we are just two kids. We are just two fuccbois and fuccgirls…
Cindy: We weren't born with privileges or all these fashion connections. It was because of the people that helped us that really made this possible and we are grateful for them.
Can you elaborate on the theme for your second collection, Chapter 2: When Tigers Used to Smoke?
Dae: "When tigers used to smoke" is actually the first phrase that every Korean folklore has.
Cindy: It's like "Once upon a time…"
Dae: "...when tigers used to smoke," that's the idiom for it. For us, especially from the early onset, we really understood that most of our consumers are Asians. Obviously, we are Asian-Americans so we're doing it for us, but we're also doing it for our customers. We want to keep them around and we want to make products for them. This collection is all about celebrating the yellow smoking culture, the yellow counterculture.
We are doing merch again like we did last season, so hoodies, t-shirts. We're adding a longsleeve tee which we are excited about. We are also adding "smoke suits"--so what they are is training suits in hanbok, which is a Korean traditional silhouette. Think of it as a more wearable form of kimono. It has the different ties, it has that open cut, it has those pants with the hems. We are using those silhouettes, but we are interpreting it through a western youth culture lens so we are using materials like denim, pinstripe, and velvet.
Again, it will be a little punny and puns to be revealed very soon. We're releasing the collection in September so this is a little bit rushed timeline for us, but we are aiming to showcase--whether it's through visual language or the story that we're trying to tell--the core essence of yellow counterculture and the cross-cultural bridge with western youth culture.
Cindy: Dae doesn't have direct contact with the customers like I do, because I'm the one who deals with the DMs and stuff, but a lot of the responses were from fellow Koreans and they were like, "You guys are so punny. This is genius." Korean people never thought that "when tigers used to smoke" translates to tigers smoking. The literal interpretation of "when tigers used to smoke" as smoking weed, people are kind of shook by that. I guess it never came across like this could be that because it's such an overused phrase… You say it without meaning.
So much of Sundae School's identity is about showcasing Asian counterculture but are there any stereotypes that you're aiming to break with your brand as well?
Dae: One thing is everyone always thinks of us as the stability focused nerd. Honestly, who am I kidding? I'm a nerd. I studied math in college and I love math. For my job I crunch numbers every day.
Cindy: I'm a nerd for sure.
Dae: I'm a nerd and I like to read, but my favorite TV show is The West Wing. It's not even about breaking that mold because it's not like we're trying to be like "This is how cool we are," but more adding a layer of depth to it. Adding some complexity to the multi-faceted identities that Asian-Americans have in this culture.
Cindy: Before, people stereotyped me as a well-educated, prestigious, whatever kind of girl and it's like "I don't give a fuck about the stereotype. I am who I am and if I'm a stoner then I'm a stoner and this should all be represented." There shouldn't be stereotypes that are just nerds. I might be a nerd, but I'm also going to embrace a part of me that you would never expect.
How does your family feel about the brand, especially as a reflection of your lifestyle?
Dae: [laughs] This is a funny story. They found out when we were in Milan together on our family vacation. We had a Vogue Korea article out and we were just so excited that we were like "Mom, Dad, check out this Vogue article that we have! You can finally read it!" not knowing that they were going to mention the world marijuana in the title. Honestly, they're taking it better than expected don't you think, Cindy?
Cindy: Yeah, I think so. A lot of my other Korean friends that have tiger moms are like, "If they were actually not about this, they would not even let this happen under their umbrella." The fact that they're just letting us do our own shit is kind of their way of being like "OK, you do you."Dae: One more thing I want to add is when we first started the company, Cindy and I used our savings but we were $1000 short and my mother gave me the $1000. When she gave it to me, she knew that I wanted to work in fashion for the longest time and she said "I am giving you this money. I expect to never see it again. Why I am giving you this money and why I am letting you invest your savings into this is because I want you to know how hard it is to start a business, especially to start an inventory business like yours." But then we paid ourselves back and we paid her back literally in like a week and a half and she was shook. So I think that has helped and I think that she thinks it's cool that we're showing in NYFW: Men's. She's like "Do whatever as long as you're not broke." It's all about that stability, you know?
All photos courtesy of Sundae School