I first was introduced to stellar new line, NAMI, during Concept Fashion Week Los Angeles at the Ace Gallery. The designer, Sarah Ahn, was kind enough to give The Icon Concierge a post-show video interview that discussed her inspirations, design aesthetics and what it means to her to be a designer. Instantly captivated by Sarah’s amazing story and designs, we got a more in-depth interview that fully told this burgeoning designers story and the personal struggles she has had to overcome in order to fulfill her dreams. Read on to find out what real courage is, the woman behind NAMI and to preview her Spring 2012 collection.
ICON: Tell me about your background and history.
SA: I’m an Army Brat. I was born in Daegu, S. Korea but my parents were both American citizens. My dad was in the US Army for 24 years. He brought my mom over in the 70′s. Their first house was a trailer home on the border of Tennessee and Kentucky. When it turned to winter, the septic tank in their tailer home would freeze and make the whole trailer home lean to that side. They’ve come a long way since then and have made many sacrifices to allow me the opportunities I’ve had to take advantage of growing up in the US and abroad as an American citizen.
I moved 22 times before I was 18years old. Moving every 2-3 years was tough as a kid and got tougher as my brother and I grew older. Always leaving friends, uprooting… to try to replant roots in another place, trying to make new friends and getting to know new teachers. All of this has really made me into the extroverted person I am today. Looking back on the experience now… I wouldn’t trade it for a more traditional childhood. I now have friends all over the world and have managed to keep in touch with a large portion of them. I think it brought an interesting outlook on life. I love getting to know, learn, experience various cultures by living there as a local.
I went to UCLA for my BS, MS, and PhD degrees in the neurosciences. My PhD work was in spinal cord injuries and paralysis. We worked with Christopher Reeves and his foundation when he was alive.
My art background+history:
I loved art all throughout my “younger” years. I won local art contests in elementary school (my work was published in the city calendar of Sun Prairie, WI), my art teacher in junior high really fostered me and challenged me to expand (Mr. Kronkle: very grateful for teachers like him, he really believed in me and taught me many many skills), won multiple awards in high school in Korea (on the military base – I’m still in touch with one of my most influential art teachers that really made me want to pursue art as a career) and in my high school in Texas.
One day, I submitted an art piece that didn’t follow the teacher’s instructions for the art piece. I chose to add something else to the piece that I felt was more conversational and thought-provoking. While she said she would give me an “A” for the quality of the artwork, she gave me an “F” strictly based on not following the assignment. She explained at the time that she wanted me to understand that an artist in the real world must follow the instructions of their clients or they would not be paid for their work. The idea that I would have to make art for others was suffocating. I always drew for me … it was my escape, my savior from the loneliness that follows an Army brat that has to make new friends from place to place, my outlet to express things I could not do in words. So overnight, I chose my next favorite topic: biology. I became a certified nurse assistant at the age of 17. I also entered an essay contest about the future of medicine in the 21st century and won the grand prize in the state of Texas.
ICON: Why did you decide to make the switch from Neuroscience to Design, was that hard, did your family oppose?
SA: After being a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University for only three months, I got a phone call from my parents on January 7, 2007. My brother had gotten into a motorcycle accident. He was in a coma for two months then onto rehab. He had endured severe brain injury. With the efforts of my parents, we were able to get him to eat and talk again, to raise his arms and finally, to walk again. When he was well enough to go home to my parents, I went back to my position at Northwestern. I was alone in my lab space performing neurosurgery on mice to study the spinal cord with respect to walking. At the end of the day, I could no longer euthanize the animals as I did before my brother’s accident. When I was back home and away from the lab is when I couldn’t go back to doing what I did before. It was at this juncture where I made the pivotal decision to pursue another career. And after all these years, I am back to art.
I believe things, initially apparently good or bad, always happen for a good reason. My brother is doing well now … well on his way to recovery. If it weren’t for this crisis in my life, I would not have had the push or courage to make the change. As a result, even though the future isn’t always clear, I know that I am very happy with my decision.
It sounds like a cliche… but most dramatic risks and changes in life occur at the juncture of some form of crisis. It forces us to look at our daily routine and reevaluate what we’re spending our time, our lives on. I find life to be incredibly beautiful in the details… precious… short… delicate. I can’t say that I am not afraid of trying ANYTHING but for the most part… I’m not afraid of asking. Asking if I can show at fashion week when I’ve only just started my line a month before… asking for WWD to show to up to my show. I am the main character of my life. I need to live it to the max.
My parents and I do not speak right now. It’s unfortunate but it is part of the culture to expect their children to pursue a career in the traditionally respected fields such as medicine or law. In their eyes, my choice to change careers is an insult to their sacrifices that they’ve made to come to the United States to give me all the opportunities to be successful… specifically in those two areas. From their perspective I can see how they think I’ve thrown away a career in the health sciences to become a seamstress.
ICON: When you design what inspires you?
SA: Inspirations from the fashion world… I loved the Marie Antoinette days where she decided to throw out the stiff underwire and go with a more prairie-like, bohemian ease in her gowns. It looked effortless to wear yet romantic and feminine. I hope that others will use these adjectives about my own collection. I am constantly mesmerized by the movement of fabric.
Most recently, I’m also inspired by my visit to Nepal in October 2010 where I went with Habitat for Humanity International. I find the colors they use and the easy way to wrap the beautifully vibrant fabric around their body as a sign of their individual personalities and a way to really embrace their existence against the breathtakingly green landscape of their pastures and mountains.
ICON: What is a typical day like for you?
SA: I’m up and working by 8am. I’m checking emails, coordinating photo shoots, pulling looks for stylists, interviewing with media, working on my technical flats and tech packs, choosing fabrics and trims, reviewing pantone colors for the next collection.
Working with my showroom in downtown Los Angeles to get celebrities fit into NAMI for future public appearances. I work with my manufacturers overseas for samples of the next season while discussing the production of the current line to coordinate delivery dates to the boutiques.
ICON: What is your favorite part about being a designer? The hardest?
SA: Like: I love the collaborative part. The fashion industry can be creatively limitless with the amount of collaborations you can have between artists from many different disciplines (fashion, photographers, models, graphic designers, textiles design, interior design, make-up artists, hair stylists)… so many different types of creative fields can converge into one.
Dislike: I don’t understand why things are so disorganized or why being creative inherently means that you’re flaky with everything else. Or better yet… that being creative and being organized/punctual are mutual exclusive. Drives me nuts. Maybe it’s not fair because I work at warp speed and I expect others to be on board.
ICON: What can we expect from you and NAMI in the future?
SA: Expansion! I’d like to ideally be able to design the entire look and produce it.
On another note, I stand by my mission to include sustainable materials into the collection and am making plans to visit factories in Nepal to discuss how this may become a reality and support their local economy.
Finally, I would really like to get to the point where this brand becomes autonomous and becomes the means to an end. The end that I speak of is in the form of a humanitarian philanthropic foundation. I find that I am happiest when I’m giving utterly without any sense of self to someone or something else. This is the attractiveness of meditation, to clear the mind and feed the soul.
Don’t be afraid