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Turning Heads

Eugenia Kim's daring hats have a passionate following.

April 26, 2002|BRONWYN GARRITY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Eugenia Kim sips chardonnay by the window in the lounge at the Hotel Casa Del Mar in Santa Monica. It's drizzling this afternoon, but the view is quintessential L.A: endless blond sand, blue ocean and desolate pier with its lights blinking into the wet haze. Kim, wearing a saucer-sized red beret to one side of her bleached bob, says the scene reminds her of "The Great Gatsby" and lights a cigarette, looking for a moment like one of F. Scott Fitzgerald's creations.

If, as the author wrote, "personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures," then Kim has struck out. Two astonished employees, who spot her lighting up, sweep her out the doors. By the time she reenters, she has become The Smoker. As she refastens her mini-beret to her now damp bleached bob, Kim notices that people in the lobby are watching her with curiosity. A front desk attendant roots through a drawer and proffers a cigarette of his own. Dropping the donation into her pocket, she returns to her table, an accidental criminal. Or a brand-new celebrity.

She's quitting soon, she says, but a law against smoking? "Where am I?" Kim, the 28-year old, Korean American "It girl" of millinery, is described as a "genius" and affectionately, as a "basket case" by those who know her. Sarah Brown, Vogue's beauty editor, who met Kim during their summer together at the Radcliffe Publishing Course, admits that "when people meet Eugenia for the first time, it isn't always apparent how smart she is. She seems whimsical and nutty. But, she's drawing on a wealth of literary and cultural influences."

The oldest daughter of Korean immigrants, Kim grew up in Pittsburgh and attended Dartmouth, where she took premed classes and was infamous for wearing hot pink instead of the Ivy League uniform of preppy pullovers and duck boots. Much to her parents' chagrin, Kim switched her major to psychology and later decided to become a literary editor.

After graduation, she attended the prestigious five-week Radcliffe Publishing Course, where students make connections and enjoy "sherry hour" with some of the biggest figures in the industry. After arriving in New York, Kim landed a job at Conde Nast, publisher of Vogue, Glamour and other magazines as a "rover"--assisting at any publication that needed her. She was fired, however, for "being disorganized," and, say Conde Nast insiders, "for leaving the office at all times for sample sales."

Kim's stint at Conde Nast instilled in her, if not order, at least an unquenchable interest in fashion. Then 23, she enrolled in a hat design course at Parsons School of Design in Manhattan and poured her energy into creating. "There were hat farms all over our apartment," recalls her then-roommate, Ava Scanlon. "We were finally kicked out because she was spray-sizing in the apartment, in the halls, outside, everywhere."

That first year, Kim had a taste of success, albeit one with no commercial value. "She was spray-painting Mohawk headbands," Scanlon says, "ugly, fluorescent orange things, and Gen Art [a collective of young artists] displayed them even though no one wanted to buy them." Putting that look behind her, Kim, who describes herself as obsessive and compulsive, knew when she was onto something with a new design when she wore it on the street and people stopped her to ask where she'd bought the hat. That year, 1997, she founded her eponymous design firm, which now sells to stores in Tokyo, Paris and London.

These days, magazine editors, celebrity stylists and Hollywood stars count themselves among her fans. Jennifer Lopez, Nicole Kidman, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Connelly, Cuba Gooding, Janet Jackson and Dave Mathews have been glimpsed in Kim's classic cloches, soft leather newsboys or eccentric fedoras. Yunnie Kim, the owner of Fred Segal Tiara, Santa Monica, calls the hats "special pieces that sell to a special clientele." Though Tiara is a jewelry store, people come for the hats, often purchasing three or four at a time, for $75 to $1,100 a piece. "

Now 28, and an established designer, Kim has discovered her biggest fans in Los Angeles. This year, she says, L.A. shoppers have bought her hats at nearly three times the rate in New York, previously her largest market. L.A. boutiques such Fred Segal Tiara, Curve and Diavolina have increased orders, particularly of the silk newsboys and straw sun hats.

"A lot of times, you feel like a wacko wearing a hat in L.A," says Sarah Stewart, women's buyer of Maxfield, who recently placed the store's first order with Kim. "That's why people here like the newsboy. It's casual and cool." Donna Nunley, a sales associate at Curve says that the straw hats and newsboy caps sold as soon as they hit shelves. "They [customers] hear we're carrying Eugenia Kim hats and they come in--just for that."

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