When Kim Shui graduated from Duke University with a degree in economics in 2011, she had no intention of being a fashion designer. Last week she showed her third collection in a signature New York Fashion Week runway show. Her front row: young tastemakers like musicians Kehlani and Rico Nasty, YouTuber Nikita Dragun and fashion’s freshest front-row face, 6-year-old Taylen Biggs, who has over 200,000 Instagram followers.
“It’s Ming Dynasty meets Eurotrash,” said 29-year-old Shui of her collection, which subverts traditional Chinese prints with edgy, sexy and contemporary skirts, dresses and sets. In her almost four years as the founder and designer of her namesake brand, Shui has grown the brand’s revenue annually by fivefold, which she largely credits to a careful Instagram strategy that involves celebrity tagging and crediting, but not influencer gifting. “My clothing does tend to work well for Instagram, but it’s never like making sure this looks good for a social media channel.”
In 2019 Shui made the Forbes Under 30 list in Art & Style. Her revenue is almost entirely direct-to-consumer. She has done collaborations with Jeffrey Campbell, FitBit, Urban Outfitters and Samsung. Tastemaker celebrities like Kylie Jenner, Gigi Hadid, Solange Knowles, Cardi B and Maye Musk wear her garments.
When Shui, who was born in the U.S. and raised in Rome, graduated from college she intended to go into international finance. Instead, she worked in merchandising at Rick Owens and Helmut Lang. In her first design gig as a womenswear designer for Two New York, she began to stitch her namesake line on the side. Her big break was winning VFiles Runway for Autumn/Winter NYFW in 2016, which gave her brand the tastemaker seal of approval and exposure to fashion icons.
“VFiles was the first show I ever did, and without it I wouldn’t be where I am today,” she says. To win, her designs were uploaded to the VFiles platform and selected for the prize—mentorship from industry heavyweights like Virgil Abloh before showing the collection in the VFiles runway show—to the backdrop of a live Tyga performance and a front row with Kylie Jenner.
“[Kim Shui] stood out among the entries mainly because she had this snakeskin jacket that was so beautifully made. Her work was both innovative as well as commercial,” says VFiles founder and CEO Julie Anne Quay. “That’s a fine line to walk, and she was walking it well from the start.”
Shui has received criticism that non-Chinese women wear who her garments are engaging in cultural appropriation. “I want everyone to wear it,” says Shui. “It’s not making fun of anyone. It’s more appreciation than anything else. One of the most important things for me has been bringing people of different backgrounds together.”
What’s next for Shui? Expanding her direct-to-consumer business, and probably a line of handbags.