With the explosion in global popularity of Korean fashion Sundae School sets themselves apart in an extremely unique way. They provide a new and refreshing take on streetwear and smoking gear by blending together ideas and symbols, that perhaps on the surface seem to contradict each other, but work together to create an intriguing societal commentary. The brand’s creators, Dae and Cindy, accomplish this through the use of an interplay among the themes of education, religion, and marijuana in their designs that reflect their cultural heritage and traditions in their birthplace, South Korea, as well as their experiences with marijuana culture in the United States.
What makes the brand’s use of marijuana imagery so unique is the fact that in their home country of South Korea, marijuana is not only illegal, but very much taboo. Being born into a country with perhaps an even heavier stigma against marijuana than in the United States the two were steeped in a culture of miseducation on marijuana. It wasn’t until the pair entered high school that they tried marijuana for the first time, calling it “one of the most liberating things.“
We recently sat down with the sibling duo behind Sundae School to talk about the Asian American experience - both in general and as it relates to marijuana - their motivations behind creating the brand, the current state of the marijuana industry/culture in the US and Korea, the Korean fashion explosion, and their recent pop-up art exhibit in Seoul.
On their background, the perception of marijuana in Korea, and their Inspirations for Creating Sundae School:
HI: “Could you guys give us a little bit more on your background? As brother and sister, how did you guys grow up and come to create Sundae School? What does it mean to you?
SS: “We grew up in Seoul, Korea, where weed is super taboo. The direct translation in Korean is ‘the devil’s lettuce.’ But for us, we studied out here in the states. Because of that, we came into smoking weed during high school, during college, at a bit of a young age. But, it was honestly one of the most liberating things just because when you don't know what the “enemy” is, you're scared, you think about it as the devil. You know, but being exposed to marijuana and smoking throughout the good times and the bad, really helped us expand our minds, and we’ve always talked about starting a brand together and when we finally did [it] we just really wanted to encompass the “high” of smoking.”
SS: “So, there was a big scandal recently with a celebrity smoking weed in Korea. The thought is that he needs to go to jail. I think that’s because of the ingrained culture of the weed being the devil, the weed bringing bad vibes.”
SS: “It’s very similar to the Muslim ban that you see here, or the border talk here. When you are ignorant and when you are unaware, that is where the misunderstanding begins, and for us you know one of the biggest objectives of Sundae School is to really showcase that smoking weed is… You know, there is so much stigma towards smokers… they are degenerates… like the California surfers who do nothing but smoke weed… but for us, it is a medium that helps us unleash our creative potential. So we just wanted to showcase this other side through our clothes.”
On their First Seoul Pop-up and their Chapter 1 line:
On June 11, Dae and Cindy hosted their first Sundae School pop-up in Seoul, which included an exhibit entitled “Garden of Mari(juan)a” (pronounced Maria). The experiential art installation was meant to give attendees the experience of a marijuana high. Overall, the “Garden of Mari(juan)a” was well received, and the Sundae School team felt they were able to expose people to a new side of marijuana helping dispel the miseducation and vilification it receives in Korea.
SS: “Amidst all this scandal [surrounding marijuana in Korea], we had an art exhibit “Garden of Mari(juan)a.” We were kind of trying to recreate the catharsis of the high with religious figurines. We had 303 Maria sculptures lit green under black light. It was a pretty trippy exhibit. You know… our parents came… they were not happy with it (chuckles). It was a great turnout. What’s crazy is that a bunch of celebrities came, which we were least expecting. So I think there is some type of openness… and that’s where everything starts.
HI: "To that point, you said the turnout was great, so what was the reception like? You mentioned that the older generation wasn't too receptive, could you also break it down to how people our age received it and the type of feedback you guys have gotten?"
SS: "Yeah, so we had around 300 people come to the show. (Anytime you have something to do with weed in Korea it is very frightening), but I think at the end of the day it's because we are a very niche topic in Korea, weed is very niche. It’s funny because in the US we are niche because we are yellow, we are a yellow company, but in Korea we’re niche because we’re a smoke wear brand. Honestly, it was so amazing. A lot of people were fucking with it, people who have smoked before, people who have not smoked before… They kind of understood that weed isn't just about getting high and having fun, which I mean it is, but it’s more than that, it’s pretty cathartic, it’s very meditative, and I think that point really got across."
SS: “We didn’t have weed itself [at the event] in Korea, but we could bring the concept of it.”
SS: “The big thing [we heard from people] was ‘how are you doing this in Korea?’ and ‘you’re so bold.’ I live in New York, and it’s not like California, but every spot in downtown smells like weed right? It’s pretty chill here, but a lot of people who came [to the event in Korea] were like straight from Korea and have never left the country, and especially some of the celebrities who came were very shocked that we could do something like this out in Korea.”
SS: "[A lot of people] they judge and they make it look bad because they never tried [marijuana] and never had access to it. Even a lot of my friends would say weed is so bad, but once they would try it they would be like “woah.” Even me."
SS: "Even me. Growing up, the first time I ever smoked was in high school, but before that I was really scared, because the whole society, and your parents especially, are telling you that this is [bad]."
HI: "Same Here."
SS: "But you don’t know until you learn from it, and at the end of the day that’s our mission. We want to bring light to this culture."
SS: “And our first collection was (about God thinking alone) called Chapter 1: Genesis, which is how every Sunday School starts. And the key phrase is, let there be light, [but] this is the type of light that we really wanted to emphasize.”
HI: "Yeah, it’s really crazy how Sundae School juxtaposes education, religion, and cannabis all at the same time. Do you think you will ever be able to have an event in Korea and have weed there?"
SS: "Thank you so much. That’s the goal, we’re gonna work hard for that. We really want to educate people about this culture."
On “Yellow Counter-Culture”, the Asian-American Experience, and the Marijuana Industry:
According to recent polls in California, Asian Americans have been the least accepting of marijuana and least in favor of marijuana as compared with Black, Latino, and White Americans. In fact only 47% of Asian Americans in California were in favor of prop 64 before it passed last November. However, when it comes to Asian Americans within the millennial generation we have found the response to marijuana to be very different, and the general consensus to be that younger Asian Americans are more readily accepting of marijuana. We asked the creators of Sundae school if they thought this a result of a shift in thinking of the younger generation of Asian Americans, and about the Asian American experience in the United States and the marijuana industry. Here’s what they told us:
SS: “Another thing we really wanted to showcase [through Sundae School], you know being Asian - especially in the American media culture - the “yellow” student is viewed very singularly. You know the salary man, the doctor, the accountant. But, for us when we came out here to the States, and when we visited LA we saw so many different sides of “yellow culture.” Here in high school and through college our best friends were Asian-Americans, and that’s what we were doing, we were smoking weed with them. You know I honestly don't think weed is ‘counterculture’, but in Korea it is. So we wanted to showcase this side of “yellow counterculture” the Asian-American mentality, of how we smoke, our interpretation of it.”
HI: “I thought that was very interesting when you mentioned to us about yellow-counterculture. What you guys are doing, here in LA people would be like ‘oh this is dope’, ‘this is the culture,’ but it’s only counter-culture there right? It’s because it’s in Korea, it’s very interesting how the same thing could be viewed totally differently”
SS: “Yeah exactly”
HI: "California has the most Asians/ Asian-Americans in all of the US, and LA in particular, has a very heavy Korean population, and if I’m not mistaken, I think it’s the highest out of anywhere besides Korea. If you ask Bradley or I [from our experiences] with our Korean friends - you know we’re both in our 20’s - everyone is generally cool with weed or smokes themselves ya know? But what I thought was really interesting was that leading up to legalization [which just happened this past November] constantly in the polls Asian-Americans were the least accepting of marijuana, so I was curious to see what your thoughts were on that?"
SS: "There is a generational shift in Asian-American’s mentalities, even our parents immigrated, [and] even if they are citizens or not, you know America is a place of luxury, they don’t really identify with the American culture, and [with] younger Asian-Americans the big difference being we think we deserve this, and we think we’re Americans, and we think our voices need to be heard. And, especially as the new counter-culture moves in, yellow Americans are a huge part of that. But, at the end of the day the people who vote are mostly older people, which kind of showcases this generational divide."
HI: "That’s very true, so do you think the only way this changes is through time with the new generation replacing the old?"
SS: "No, that’s why I think what you guys are doing is great, because the more people talk about it, there’s a larger chance for other people to be more aware. For us, what we are trying to accomplish through our clothes, through the stories we tell, through the events we have, is to showcase this side. Especially in Korea."
HI: “I’m really interested in the Generational divide you spoke about, and how the younger generation is more likely to be into [marijuana culture]. Do you think that has more to do with the influx of people coming to [the US] and indulging in it here and bringing it back to Korea, or do you think it’s something that’s happening within Korea?”
SS: “The exchange of cultures, I think is dope. As more Koreans are studying out abroad and going back, the values are changing, the society is more open to some stuff. But there are also internal movements within Korea, not just because new Koreans are coming in, but because as the world is becoming more digital and getting more content from outside of Korea, the hip-hop revolution for instance is happening and peaking right now in Korea, that obviously has a big influence on weed and different street culture and fashion. So I think even within Koreans who never are exposed to other Koreans that have been out to the states and shared these stories, I think they can virtually access a lot of this information. I think it’s really both ways, the movement is going in, it’s coming out, I think what’s really important is people are curious. I think that’s something that’s just really great. I think a lot of Korean society needs weed.”
On the Korean fashion scene and its influences in the Fashion Industry:
In recent years, there has been a boom in the fashion scene in Korea. Seoul Fashion Week has grown in popularity over the last few seasons, not only being a source of inspiration domestically in Korea, but also, in many Western countries. What makes the Seoul fashion scene so unique is that it is breaking away from the societal norms of Korea. It is being pushed by a younger generation that wants to separate themselves from the social constructs put in place by previous generations. Whether it is creating completely original designs or repurposing traditional Korean garments and styles for a more contemporary look, Korean designers are on a hot streak right now and the world is taking notice. The Sundae School team breaks down some of the things they think are influencing the Korean fashion scene and how it is influencing the fashion industry as a whole.
HI: "With the big fashion explosion in Korea, its popularity globally, and companies like Chanel incorporating Korean designs, do you see this more of a cultural appropriation, or do you it as more of an appreciation and pushing it forward towards the mainstream?"
SS: “That’s a great question. There is a really fine line between cultural appropriation and celebration… I honestly think with Chanel that is one of celebration, one of the head textile designers, she is actually Korean, and if you look at the clothes itself, the tailoring aspect, the materials that they choose, it’s very well done. But, there are other brands that don’t execute so well, and that’s where the question lies. [But] at the end of the day it’s all personal. I personally, don’t really think it’s appropriating our culture, I think especially as a designer as a creative person, it’s very [fluid], but what’s more important is intent right? How does this person use this culture as medium, for what message? As long as the individual’s intent aligns with the cultural message, I think it’s a celebration. But from companies like Zara, it’s very misguided.”
What’s next for Sundae School? Although the creative duo recognize the legal barriers and social stigma surrounding marijuana in Korea, they hope to shift the perception on marijuana through fashion and education. Their mission seems to be two-fold, not only do they wish to educate those in their home country about the many positives of marijuana, but they also want their voices to be heard in US to dispel stereotypes about Asian-Americans and showcase what they call a “yellow-counter culture.” A niche in both the fashion industry and the marijuana industry, Sundae School’s brilliant use of their intricate designs laced with a unique interplay of religion, education, and subtle weed-related references puts them in a class all their own.