Bursting at the Seams
Ahyoung Kim is the driving force behind stylish children’s clothing brand Joah Love.
by Rebecca U. Cho
Ahyoung Kim’s designs for children are a little off. And that’s exactly the way she likes them.
One shoulder on an otherwise solid ruffled tee is a capering burst of blue and white stripes. Pockets are not just pockets, but abstract gray cutouts against a red-striped dress.
“A lot of the stuff I design, I would want to wear it myself,” says Kim, the 38-year-old founder and designer for Los Angeles-based children’s brand Joah Love.
She smiles conspiratorially to me as we sit on a Saturday afternoon in June in her downtown Los Angeles work room.
“I do squeeze into a size 14 T-shirt,” she says, laughing.
Joah Love—with its asymmetrical layered dresses, bright bubble skirts, striped unisex pants and buttery soft fabric—puts a playful and classy spin on contemporary children’s sportswear.
After first building a following in high-end children’s boutiques across the U.S., Joah Love broke into mainstream retail this year when Nordstrom picked up the brand. The spring 2012 collection is now on sale at the department store, and it’s not stopping there. Nordstrom is asking for more Joah Love for the fall.
“Joah,” which means “to like” in Korean, is also a combination of the founders’ names, Joy and Ahyoung. Joy Marie Smallwood, a professional photographer, and Kim became pals after meeting at a fashion shoot. About a decade later, in 2008, the creative pair started Joah Love with Smallwood’s entrepreneur husband, David.
Kim’s work room, which serves as Joah Love’s corporate headquarters, shows clear evidence of the company’s success. Stacks of inventory encased in plastic and rolls of fabric are piled high at every end of the 1,000-square-foot space.
“We’re bursting from the seams,” Kim says.
Kim moved to Los Angeles from Seattle when she was just 18 to chase her dream of a career in fashion. The gamble seems to have paid off. Joah Love’s sales have doubled or tripled annually since its inception, and may begin to start licensing out for other products such as shoes.
But it took persistence.
Kim, who was born in Seoul to an opera singer mother and TV and radio host father, remembers attending her mother’s concerts and marveling at her avant garde style. Today, she still travels to Korea to gain inspiration and absorbs the fashions that tend to be a few years ahead of the States.
“It’s amazing, I love it. It’s the kind of stuff I grew up seeing my mom wear,” Kim says. “Very different, out of the box.”
The family moved to Seattle when Kim was 9, and she flourished in school, serving as cheerleading captain and making the honor society. When she decided to forgo her undergraduate academic scholarship from the University of Washington to attend the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles, she met resistance from her parents, who believed fashion designing was a hobby, not a career. They decided not to support Kim financially through her FIDM schooling, although her mother handed her $1,000 in cash before she left.
Despite her bold move in the face of her parents’ disapproval, Kim longed to make them proud.
“I just knew I had to make something of this, or else I would disappoint my parents,” she says.
Kim graduated from FIDM in 1995, and after a stint as a women’s wear designer, she became a costume designer, notably working on the Wayans Brothers’ comedy White Chicks. A friend of both Shawn and Marlon Wayans, Kim helped to create their children’s brand, Thugaboo, in 2003, which led to animated specials, books and various customer products. During this time, Kim was vice president of product development for SMK Merchandising, the product development company founded by the Wayans.
Over time, her parents came to support her creative efforts.
“My parents were proud of me for doing exactly what I wanted to do,” she says.
She left SMK after about five years and took her experience in the children’s merchandising market to launch Joah Love.
The brand has grown rapidly—it is currently carried in 300 boutiques in the U.S. and Canada, South Korea, Japan and Australia—but the Smallwoods recently departed from Joah Love. The couple, who live in Nashville, Tenn., decided to focus on their photography business, Kim says.
All of the production that goes into Joah Love, including the garment dying, sewing and pre-shrinking, takes place within blocks of the building. Kim’s tiny staff of four takes care of all the packaging, sampling and mailing of their inventory.
Joah Love, as a small business, is also a family affair. Kim laughs as she confesses that, when her parents visit from her hometown of Seattle, she plunks them into the production line. One of Kim’s nieces, an adorable 4- year-old with plump cheeks and a bright grin, serves as a model in the Joah Love catalog.
Despite the heavy workload in recent years, Kim managed to fall in love and plan her wedding, which took place in December. “I ask my [parents], ‘Would you have wanted me to do something different?’” she says. “They say, ‘We’re happy you’re happy doing what you love.’”
This article was published in the July 2012 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the July 2012 KoreAm, click below.