KIM DAM DISPROVES THE theory that a fashion designer can succeed on creativity alone. The tiny Vietnamese-born designer darts about her downtown office like a hummingbird, solving a problem here, answering a question there, keeping things moving. Dam knows that talent is not all that rare. She credits her achievements to discipline, attention to detail, perse verance and commitment.
Dam clears a spot on her work table, pushing aside a bolt of turf-green fabric and the remains of a lunch that has been cold for hours. As she settles into a well-worn chair, her harried countenance is replaced by an intensely focused energy that helps explain how the 32-year-old designer has accomplished in a few years what usually takes much longer. "I can't stay home and do nothing," she says simply. "I like to work."
To Dam, \o7 work\f7 is a synonym for success. Sales for Dam's 4-year-old company, Kymio, a name she made up, climbed past $7 million in 1988, and this year looks even stronger.
Her Ba-Tzu boutique (another made-up name) at the Beverly Center is thriving, too, with annual sales of more than $1 million. In spite of these impressive figures, Dam says her goal is slow growth. "I don't want to grow really fast," she says, "because then you go down really fast."
These days, though, Dam doesn't have to worry about the downside. Her designs are turning up on the pages of top fashion magazines as well as at Nordstrom, Bullock's and Neiman Marcus. The hallmark of a Kymio design is unusual detailing such as the "necklace" of fabric loops that tops a simple two-piece outfit. Or a jacket that looks like a tailored classic from the front but features cutouts in the back. "One of the things I like best about Kymio," says Nordstrom buyer Eula Smith, "is that the styling is very contemporary, and there are always plenty of new silhouettes."
Dam works hard at keeping Kymio fresh. Nine or 10 times a year, she creates 30 to 40 new designs, about four times the annual output of the average designer. "To Kim, designing is like turning on a faucet," says husband Stefan Gerhardt, who oversees Kymio's production. The two met when Gerhardt was in the import-export business representing designer lines carried at Ba-Tzu.
The fashion press uses the phrase \o7 Euro-Japanese \f7 to describe Dam's work. She prefers to call her clothing "fashion forward," meaning, she says, that its classic quality transcends trendiness without sacrificing its contemporary look. Her customers are women age 17 to 60 who like stylish yet unusual clothes at moderate prices, she adds. (Jackets retail for $100 to $130; skirts are $60 to $70.) On a quick tour through the warehouse next to her office, Dam points out examples: accordion-pleat chiffons and cotton knits for summer, big black-and-white checks mixed with broad black-and-white stripes for fall.
More than anything, though, eclectic detailing sets Dam's designs apart. "Kim is extremely innovative," says Denise Cohen-Scher, fashion director at the California Mart. "She takes a classic approach but with a slant--lots of intricate detailing, stitching, pleats, appliques, tucks--that make her clothes different."
Dam tends to favor outfits like the one she wears today: an elegant white blouse and black rayon skirt, a look she calls "tailored, yet soft and feminine." She wears no jewelry, not even a wedding ring, with one exception: a gold bracelet that was a gift from her mother. Dam started wearing it as a child; now her wrist is too large for her to remove the bracelet. "I don't wear jewelry because I don't want to set myself apart," she explains between sips of tea so weak it's almost water. "I just want to be a regular person with a regular life."
Not long ago, the thought of having a regular life was something akin to an impossible dream. Still speaking in cadences of her native tongue, gesturing to help along her tenuous grasp of English, Dam tells of growing up in war-torn Da Nang, where a walk to school meant passing bombed-out houses and lawns littered with bodies. Dam had just completed her first year of law school at Saigon University in 1975 when her father, a prominent government official, began receiving death threats. Soon after, the family left behind a comfortable middle-class existence to seek refuge in America. "As we took off," Dam recalls, "we saw the bombs falling where we had been."