It’s 11 am on a weekday morning and South Korean perfumer Kim Soohyang is in a floor-length Miu Miu gown. The dress hangs on her shoulders with two bejewelled straps, and the velveteen grey fabric hangs low around her décolletage; If Kim is overdressed, it’s only because she wants to be.
One might say she’s confident. It’s a word she used to hear a lot, growing up in Gwangju, a city better known for its pro-democracy uprising in the 80s than for fashionable debutantes. “I got that a lot—‘Oh, you’re so confident’,” she says, with a smile that implies it wasn’t always a compliment. But that didn’t stop her from shimmying into satin slip dresses and shucking on her blood-red Margiela Tabi boots.
That’s because clothes, as Kim says, are just one way that she likes to express herself—all the more if she can show some skin while she’s at it. “But it’s actually very rare in Korea to see people dress like this—” she gestures to her cleavage-baring gown, “Because people are still very conservative.”
It’s also why the 39-year-old started her eponymous fragrance brand, Soohyang: To give people the opportunity to express their personalities through scents.
Kim was in Singapore recently for the launch of her brand’s latest global outpost at the newly opened The Atelier & Co. headquarters at the Delta House. Her range consists of candles, diffusers, home sprays and wax tablets, all packaged in a pleasing millennial pink and emblazoned with the brand’s motto, ‘Life’s better when you smell good’.
Each of the brand’s 33 scents have curt but evocative names, like Gangnam 8 or Secret Garden (yes, the K-drama). Others would make a more prudish person blush: There’s the pruriently named Kiss Lesson, and the piquant Love Spell, which Kim says was designed to mimic the inherent muskiness of a person’s skin (“It’s very animalistic and sexual,” she affirms, smiling).
She came up with 33 scents in part because the number three in Korean is akin to the Chinese perception of the number eight, but also because she wanted a wide range of olfactory profiles to suit as many people as possible.
“I wanted to help people reveal their traits and personalities through fragrances,” she says. “That’s why I made a really wide collection, so people can find their true scent.”
Before starting Soohyang in 2013, Kim worked in the music industry. She joined in the early aughts, when it was less about the dewy boybands of today and more about alternative electronic music.
The crux came in 2010, when Kim helped bring Kanye West into Korea for a music festival. “This was during his feud with Taylor Swift, so it was kind of a down period for him,” she says. “And since he wasn’t touring, his guarantee was really high—I remember it was a lot of money just to bring him in!”
To complicate matters, the festival wasn’t held in the capital city, or any of South Korea’s other fashionable, well-heeled districts: It was in Naksan, a small town by the sea that hardly had any room for an international celebrity—much less the entourage he’d bring with him.
She pulled it off with her team, but by then, working in the music industry was beginning to take its toll on her. She loved what she did, and wanted to do more; She also couldn’t take the stress of working 20-hour days that had her nursing a two-pack-a-day habit for almost a decade.
Kim had been into niche perfumes at the time, and while she was working on her day job, she started reading up on scent-making.
“I started making perfumes because it was a lot like music,” says Kim, whose first name literally—and perhaps prophetically—means ‘excellent fragrance’ in Korean. “They both use different tones to create something special, and also reveal a lot about your personality.
“We live our lives trying to cover our faults. But I prefer to reveal everything about myself, through things like clothes or scents,” says Kim. “And I hope that my fragrances will help people talk a bit more about themselves as well.”