Notes on K-pop interview: Jinsol Woo of OHT NYC

Notes on K-pop interview: Jinsol Woo of OHT NYC

After talking in-depth about his brand for this interview, Jinsol Woo wanted to know which OHT NYC piece was my favorite. I was curious what he thought I'd like, so asked him to choose. Then he did something nobody ever has asked me: do I wear crosses? When I asked why asked, he responded simply that many of his customers don't. Considering we had spent about an hour talking about being the current trending jewelry for many pop stars, where crosses are typically removed from religious context and turned into a common fashion motif, it caught me off guard. But I'm Jewish, and consciously do not wear crosses due to to a variety of religious and historical reasons. Yet nobody's asked me before point blank.

I doubt Woo meant it in any complicated way; it was simply a matter of preference. But it was a question that said a lot about his direct, thoughtful approach to crafting wearable art: this is a man who pays immense detail to what people want, and he's not going to let anyone walk away unhappy.

"I feel like I was getting inspired by these so-called subcultures. Things that are not being treated as right thing to do. But I just don't think that there are definitions of what needs to belong." -Jinsol Woo

Our conversation took place amid barbells and butterflies nestling together amid leather chokers and mood lighting. The showroom of OHT NYC is a reflection of the brand's aesthetic: borne from inspiration out of aesthetics associated with BDSM and goth cultures, and blended with cute and Y2K embellishes, the brand has become popular in recent years and is frequently donned by musicians, especially K-pop stars and Gen Z faves like Doja Cat and Olivia Rodrigo.

This is the second of a series for Notes on K-pop focusing on creatives who work within and around the K-pop sphere. The first featured producer Dem Jointz. If you have any creatives you'd like to see featured, please leave a comment.

How are you doing?

Good. Yeah, we have a festival tomorrow.

Head in the Clouds, right? I saw you made some items with them, and for Dabin.

Yeah, I mean, yeah, we've worked with them many times already.

Thanks so much for making time ahead of a busy event and weekend. It seems like you have a lot going on, so I won't take up too much time.

To start, I want to go back to the beginning. Every interview I've read about you seems to start with FIT [A/N: Fashion Institute of Technology]. It says you came from Korea and started at FIT. What were you doing before FIT?

So I went to college for one year in Korea. I was an engineering major, so yeah, that's when I started and then I hated it. I was like... Cannot do it. So I quit. Then I went to the army, and then I came to the US.

Why FIT?

It was the realistic choice. I wanted to design, and I wanted to learn fashion, but Parsons and other schools had tuition that was too much. I just worked in Korea to make money to come here. I came here all by myself with no support, so that's why FIT made sense. It was a state university [A/N: FIT is part of the State University of New York], and the tuition was doable.

What inspired you to go to FIT? You were doing engineering first, so what shifted your interest to design?

I always heard a lot about fashion. Then when I was an engineering major, I was like... This is not how I want to live. I want to be somebody. And since I wasn't good at what I was doing... I didn't want to end up being a person that does what I'm not good at. So I was searching for something that was more like a logical decision. I like fashion and I was somewhat better at English than others. I was like, okay, what's going to be the logical choice at this time? Go to New York. Study fashion. FIT has good tuition. Good school. Yeah.

What got you interested in design beforehand?

I think I always was more of a creative person. And my dad, he's also a merchandiser. He created and made a lot of different ice creams back in the days. They're still being sold in H Mart. So he always injected in my mind that you have to be creative, you have to create something new. Then I think that just got triggered in my mind. I mean, I was young, I didn't really have deep thoughts on why I wanted to move, but I just wanted to create.

So why engineering originally? He was so creative

Ah.. My mom wanted me to, it makes money.

Ah... yes...

What designers got you inspired when you were younger?

I think in the beginning days I really liked McQueen. I'm a big fan. I think my design aesthetic has always had a little touch of gothic and S&M, and whatnot. He was heavily inspired by those too. I feel like I was getting inspired by these so-called subcultures. Things that are not being treated as right thing to do. But I just don't think that there are definitions of what needs to belong.

Why do subcultures appeal to you?

I just see beauty in every person. Not that I dislike main culture, I like every culture equally, but I feel like those have beautiful values behind them. I just want to give more, I don't know... Good quality design, make quality products to kind of bring it out to show the beauty of it.

One of your first jobs was at Calvin Klein, which isn't necessarily known for its way of reimagining design.

It's not like everything has to be artistic decisions. I was at FIT, and then I just got a job there. I just got internship through FIT and then I was lucky enough to get a job there, be like an assistant designer.

So from school to Calvin Klein and also Helmut Lang..How did you get here?

Long story short. I went to fashion school and then worked at Calvin Klein and Helmut Lang. I didn't like it. I couldn't do nine to five. I always wanted to create something challenging. So yeah, I came here to show my vision.

When you first went to FIT, did you expect to end up in jewelry?

Oh, no. Up to this day, I think my first passion is apparel. But jewelry was also another logical decisions. Out of all the artistic businesses, it was easier to get stock, easier to maintain the business and all that, and then it had better demand in the beginning days. So I focused on jewelry.

I feel like [with] design, you don't need years of training: when you have good eyes, you just get it and then there are creative ways to just make something. You don't have to necessarily follow the norms where you have to make the chain, [then] you have to 3D cast everything. You don't need that. You can easily source the chain, assemble it together.

Do you remember the first piece of jewelry you made?

First piece was the barbell choker. It's not here right now. It was so easy. You just got to source this barbell, put the chain around. That's pretty much it.

I actually meant personally, when you first started learning about jewelry making.

Oh, I've never learned.

Really? You just started one day, picked it up and was like, "This is it"?

Yeah, I work with a team. It's not that I create something A to Z, but I always have a vision and then with the proper team I was able to execute it.

I was going to ask about what's the first piece of jewelry that inspired you, but now that we've talked a bit I'm not sure if any jewelry particularly inspired you.

Yeah, I don't get inspired by other things. That's why I don't really see other designs. That's why I don't even watch the Met Gala. I'm in my own world.

So it's not like a piece of jewelry made you feel special when you were younger or inspired you or anything?

Like I said, I get more inspired by the culture, not like existing fashion pieces.

What's inspiring you lately?

Lately, I dunno. It changes every day, literally every day. Whatever I feel like creating that day is my vision. I mean, if you were to talk more like a brand sense... We've been catering a lot to Y2K. But I think right now, this year is more like I'm into company growth. The company is experiencing certain dynamics where we've worked with 88rising a lot and they are into Y2K, so we naturally kind of catered more into Y2K. Then while doing that, I got interested so I'm exploring more of that culture. So I feel like before then I was more trying a little too hard. But now I'm having fun just creating what's trending in different unique way.

What about that calls to you nowadays?

I don't really have boundaries where I need to do certain things. I just [like] creating something new. As long as I can create something.

Would you always want to keep with this aesthetic? [Note: I was waving to the jewelry around me, so generally referring to OHT's style.]

Not necessarily. I think what I'm giving, what I'm creating is basically what I always went to create.

When was the first time you encountered this sort of art, these subcultures?

After I came to New York, just walking down the street, just visiting different stores, like sex stores and goth stores and all that. That's when I thought, okay, these aesthetics,why is it not mainstream yet? It was a long time ago, when I was in school. I was like, yeah, I feel like I can give good design, amazing design behind this and then I can definitely have some good quality stuff.

I read that you had a launch party for OHT NYC at the Museum of Sex. It's not like everybody does that. How was that experience?

It was great. The party was good. There were lines lined up.

But our brand has been... I think that was more... that was wild days. I just started. Then, my whole website looked like a cam girl website. I think I needed to find a balance. I was very devoted to art where I was too [much] leaning towards doing something different. But I don't think that's necessarily the answer. But yeah, we began more catering to the mainstream for the brand be successful. It has to be like a company. It has be like a business. Can't just be an art project where obviously this generates profit, revenue. They cannot be neglected. It's as important as really the art.

"Struggling artist" is not in your future?

No. I mean, don't get me wrong. I think, again, everyone has a different values.

I think it's pretty interesting that nowadays you're known for being an artist worn by pop stars, specifically K-pop stars, but started out doing stuff at the Museum of Sex, as a cam girl website, which are pretty antithetical to many aspects and stereotypes of K-pop. How do you think about that?

I wasn't really envisioning my brand being worn by K-pop stars, obviously, but I think that's why it was beautiful. I created these pieces more like the representation of my art and then I feel like having K-pop stars wearing it, it's more like validation that, "oh, okay, it's okay for those on the rise, where it's good quality that can be worn by everybody basically."

I grew up watching K-pop, so it was definitely special a feeling for me to see K-pop stars wearing my stuff.

What was your aha moment like? "Oh, I made it." K-pop or otherwise.

When NewJeans wore it, It was a good time. I was in Korea at the time. I think I was traveling and I saw a notification. It was a "NewJeans outfit page tagged you on the post." I was like, okay, this is happening.

OHT | 옷 on Instagram: “New Jeans is the blue print EARRINGS FROM @ohtnyc #newjeans #outfitinspiration #styleinspiration #jewelrydesigner #jewelryaddict #kpopfashion”
3,363 likes, 12 comments - ohtnyc on April 11, 2023: “New Jeans is the blue print EARRINGS FROM @ohtnyc #newjeans #outfitinspiration #styleinspiration #jewelrydesigner #jewelryaddict...”.

Fans must tell you all the time in those pages.

Yeah, sometimes stylists or artists let me know. Sometimes I just find out like that too.

Have you ever made stuff for anyone particularly, or is it just they're buying your stuff and using it?

They would buy, they would pull, they would rent. I made one for Jay Park, I've made for pieces for Doja Cat.

I mean, when Doja Cat was wearing us...that was big time. If I were to talk about K-pop, when aespa started wearing it, that was good too.

OHT | 옷 on Instagram: ”@imnotningning in Angel Dagger Earring🪽✨ #aespa #ohtnyc”
830 likes, 3 comments - ohtnyc on May 19, 2024: ”@imnotningning in Angel Dagger Earring🪽✨ #aespa #ohtnyc”.

When Doja Cat started wearing your stuff, did you know what was going to happen? Had you talked to her stylist or was it a surprise?

It was a surprise. I talked to her stylist a long time ago. I don't really know what exactly happened, but the stylists had it for a while. I think maybe Doja picked it up maybe. Maybe she saw it or something, and then she started wearing it every day and then she followed us and everything. I think what actually happened is that her stylist was just holding those things wherever and then she was like, "That is dope. Lemme wear that. That's cool."

Doja Cat Accused Forever 21 of “Stealing from Small Businesses”
The brand tells Teen Vogue they “sincerely regret” the situation.

What was your moment where you thought, "I can actually do this for the rest of my life"?

I think, I mean the also very realistic answer is when I started my TikTok, that's when the business became my business. But I was lucky enough, because my first video blew up. When the pandemic hit, all the resources that I got became nothing. I had offline stores with different vendors and whatnot, but those all went nothing. But I was like, okay, there are many business that can do better in this situation. I don't want to just be sad about what's happening. I wanted to take it as an opportunity. I started to think about what could I do to make it even better, and that's when I started media.

So people started buying your stuff, particularly during the pandemic when everyone was at home, huh?

When my social media blew up, my reach became expansive more than what it was. By the time where I had K-pop exposure, I had everything ready to go, so that's when it started.

When did you open up this showroom?

This one, we've been in the space for two years. Before this I had another office, so a total of three years. We had this little space for people.

You said you started out wanting to go into more fashion and this kind of naturally came your way. The brand is called OHT [clothes in Korean]. Are you ever going to try to do more clothes?

Yeah. I mean that's still down the line, but I don't know. I don't, you might realize that I don't like defining anything, even though my brand, it can be read as O-H-T. It doesn't matter.

I am also tapping into the more high fashion world too because we're doing collabs with fashion companies.

Oh, I saw the Nike and Nerdy ones already.

Yeah, I mean, I always want to be more fashion house. Hopefully those can open up more for us to have more flexibility.

I'm sorry in advance because this might be a rude question; I'm not in the design world so honestly have no idea. But you said you would want to work more with fashion houses yet you keep mostly to stainless steel. You never use silver or gold, which in my mind seem more high fashion. Why this material?

That has to be because of our audience. Most of our audience know me or the brand through social media or the K-pop world. They're not old. They're young. They're not spending that money. Gen Z, they don't have $3-400 per item. I got to make sure that my audience gets the goods that they want. And I do like stainless steel color too. Silvers are a little too white in my opinion, and I don't feel like it conveys my feelings fully.

That makes a lot of sense, so thanks so much for answering. I was pretty curious since I noticed you almost always are sticking with steel.

Yeah, I mean that's also nothing's definite. If I do more high fashion stuff, if there's demand for high quality, higher, more expensive stuff, then I'll do it.

It's funny because usually I don't imagine designers being so practical.

Yeah, I'm super practical. I didn't start off that way, but I am also a businessman. I'm not just a designer. If I were to be just a designer for a brand, then I could have kept my artistry a little more, but I don't know. I don't think there has to be that definition of what the artist is, what the business, whatever it is, but I think it's just so cool.

I think you're very lucky that you're also practical. Not everyone can do this build to their own brand. What does your mom think now?

She likes it. She likes to see people start wearing mystuff.

She's not sad that you didn't go to finish engineering school?

No, not at all.

If you were to sit down and design something tomorrow, do you have something in mind?

Yeah, I think, like I said, I mean the same umbrella of Y2K. I want to explore more into my own style. Studying into retrofuturism or more gothic and whatnot. Yeah.

I just realized that I don't know how old you are. Did you grow up in Y2K like me? Or is this all brand new to you?

Oh yeah. Wait, what is Y2K though?

Like the 90s and early 200s.

Yeah, I grew up then.

Oh, so you remember it. How does it feel to see it all back again?

I don't think I was super into fashion when I was young. But you know how there was "10 minutes"?

The Lee Hyori song?

Yeah. I've seen that growing up, but at the time I wasn't super into women's clothes or jewelry, so I'm revisiting what it is to see how this is going to go.

It's funny because it is such a different experience. I am seeing things trending and I was like, "Oh, I could never wear that when I was younger." It just wouldn't suit me then and now I'm like, "Oh, I wear it now." It's a very different experience. What changed? What piqued your interest in fashion? You said you weren't interested when you were young.

Yeah, I mean, I dunno, from a certain point, I don't know. I just started liking being unique more and all that. I think when I was younger I dressed in a very absurd way.


I don't know. I think I was, in a way, I think I was suppressed a little bit in Korean society where everyone needed to be same and all that. I think I was a little frustrated, but I don't know. I don't really have an exact reason why I did those things. I was younger. But when I felt the urge to express more, I think that's when I started caring more about fashion.

Did you start trying to design things before you decided to come to the US?

Not necessarily. I was just more getting ready for school.

What was the best moment of your career so far?

I don't really, I have those special moments, but I think everything. I feel like a lot of things that are happening into the brand or my life are - I'm super grateful, but I've been also manifesting for those things too, so I kind of knew when those were going to happen, so I'm just enjoying. That's happening every day.

So you're into manifesting.

I feel like I learned that through life, you know what I mean? It's not something that I read about. I feel like, while struggling through life I just learned how to believe in myself and then manifest. I just felt the necessity of it and those things just happened.

Why did you name the brand OHT?

I just wanted to keep it simple. I was thinking about it with my friends at their apartment and then we were like, oh, it's going to be clothing, so let's just name it as "clothes".

It's very straightforward. I like that your attitude is essentially like, "Oh, jewelry is cheaper and easier to store and create, so let me do that." "The trend right now is why 2K? Let me chase that." "I'm making clothes, let's name it OHT." You're very direct. Do you think that impacts your work and your art?

Yeah, definitely. I try to see everything in a very direct manner. I don't really don't like planning things. I'm just living in the moment, but trying to get the most out of it, try the best. If I do Y2K, I'll do it differently. I'll do the best out of all the Y2K designs.

Does it feel weird going from being kind of counterculture to something very mainstream? Obviously still you're doing it your own way, but it's still very different. How does that make you feel versus when you started that?

I don't feel anything. If that's my audience , then I'll deliver bin my own way. That's all.

What are you manifesting nowadays?

I always had this end end goal as a designer, to become a head designer at a big design house, so that's still down the line. I know that they need Korean designers because with all the rise of K-pop and all those Korean talents, I feel like the fashion world still needs that one figure. One Korean designer, that can really be carrying things over. I'm not saying that I can be that [person] no matter what. But I feel like if I show my art in certain way, I think that could be me.

So do you have a favorite brand?

I like Balenciaga. They're very trendy, and I like how they read things differently. It's kind of my design aesthetic where they read the cultures in their own unique way.

What do you think is the most unique thing you've ever worked on?

I dunno, what have I done? I don't know. Just designing, for example, the necklace to your right. Those are for key chains and I made a dragon kind of shape using what's existing. So those kind of things are, I would say, using my unique eyes on things. Our brand definitely, it's like a very trendy jewelry brand, but I feel like what's good about the brand is that we have a strong design background, we deliver good design. It's not that we just do whatever everyone else is doing.

Why do you think your brand is good for musicians?

I think it's more like statement pieces where they just stand out, elevate outfits.

I feel like every generation has a big few jewelers who make stuff for celebrities on stage and especially singers. So do you feel like you're, this generation's guy potentially?

We'll see. I'll do what I can.

What's something that you haven't done yet that you want to do aside from head designer?

I don't know. Not many.

You don't have a bucket list of things that you're ticking off?

Not at the moment. I think the big head designer thing is my next, literally my next step.

I have to ask, do you have a favorite musician or is it just whatever you're listening to?

Literally whatever I listen to. You will know by now, I don't really go by people or a brand. That's not my usual tendency. I just go by more a product or by sound rather than the artist.

What feeling are you chasing right now?

I dunno, because I feel I'm chasing stability, especially because a lot of things are happening. I think I tend to find that it's on the opposite side of what's happening. So I want my stability, I want comfort.

A lot of things are happening for the brand or you just mean generally in the world?

Brand and generally, and then I want to find an inner peace. Personally, I'm realizing at least at the moment in my life, I feel like I can find happiness when I do the things that I don't want to do. Working out, waking early, meditation. I feel like I'm realizing that you need to do those things to be happy. Iff you are compliant for comfort, if you just lie down, you don't feel happy. You know what I mean? You might be comfortable but you're not happy.

I feel like you'd be happy when you challenge yourself in the battle. For example, if you work out, you feel good. If you wake up early, go out on early morning, you feel good, you're happy. If you manager emotions well and then if you stay focused, you feel good. If you read, you feel good. But for example, if you play a game, lay down, just watch TV, you don't feel happy. Those are the practices that I'm trying to do. It's easier said than done.

That's very aspirational. Especially since you said that originally you left what you were doing at the fashion houses because you didn't want to work nine to five.

Yeah, I mean that's different story though. I feel like I'm talking more about discipline. It's different than when I need to comply only because I the company versus where I'm trying to challenge myself in the win. I mean if my goal was to stay at a company and to be senior designer, then those are the practices that I need to do, but there was something else.

What's next for you?

This year is going to be more, I want to stabilize the business. That's why I think my answers are so practical, because I want to make sure that the company's good as it is. I feel like we've done a lot of brand development. Now it's time for a successful business.

This has been edited slightly for readability, but I wanted to keep the flow of his tone so if there's any grammar errors, they're probably intentional. Please @ me if you think anything is really egregious.

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