As editorial staff at The Hundreds, we don’t just publish or cosign anything—we’re picky. Every week, the plethora of press releases we receive from brands big and small often feel a dime a dozen. The more aesthetically-driven capsules and collections are usually impersonal and tend to lack meaning or a storyline—there’s no meat. Or, maybe the brand crafted a good narrative behind the garments, with history, but the design and the collection as a whole don’t quite come together cohesively. But once in a while, there’s a rare glimmer of something different.
Bobby Hundreds, co-founder of The Hundreds, recently spoke at Pitzer College about race and how Asian-American identity affects him and his work. A part of the talk that stood out to us the most was when an attendee asked if he had a chance—as someone starting a brand in a small town—to make it. Bobby said yes, and to remember it’s where you come from that makes you unique. Honing in on your personal identity and history is something that enriches your work and gives it weight and meaning—something new that you can share with the world.
A few days ago we received an email from Johnny F. Kim with photos and words about his new capsule “Uneducated Kids,” a collaborative project with Montreal’s own premiere streetwear/sneaker boutique Off the Hook. As an art director, photographer, and filmmaker who sometimes writes for thehundreds.com, we actually had no idea what Johnny was capable of in the clothing department, outside of his work with his own brand Petite-Patrie (FYI, we do not give our writers special treatment, and in the past when we’ve received press releases for their personal projects, we have respectfully declined most). But when we saw the lookbook and the story behind “Uneducated Kids,” we were floored. Johnny is Cambodian, and years ago during the Cambodian Genocide in 1975-1979, his father was forced into a labor camp under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. The story behind the name “Uneducated Kids,” comes from how his father had to pretend he was uneducated in order to survive—in order to not be killed. The double meaning for the capsule lies in the idea that without education, you can still do great things.
We decided to catch up with Johnny F. Kim via email to get some more backstory behind the collection that inspired us so, “Uneducated Kids.”
A main component lacking from modern streetwear brands right now seems to be that aspect of personal identity. It seems to be way more trend-driven and impersonal. Why do you think that is?
JOHNNY F. KIM: People are driven by greed and ego and how they are perceived to the world through Instagram and Snapchat. Haha. No, I think it’s now more a business than anything in this day and age. Any fast fashion company has a “streetwear” category now, and things that are mass produced gets lost in the waves of trends. I started in this industry when brands like Freshjive or Fuct or Stussy—even The Hundreds or any old skate brand—they were doing things differently. They pushed culture before anything. From the ads or the way they marketed themselves, culture always came first. And things were done in limited runs because they were still small. But like any company or brand, you have to pay bills if you want to keep it going, so you kinda need to create pieces that are on-trend because that’s what the consumer wants.
On the other hand, what I am doing, I don’t care if they want it or not, I only care if I want to wear it. I happen to create T-shirts that are a bit more personal because that’s my canvas for me to express myself on. I want to share things more than anything, but I am a sucker for a good story and concept. And it all remains side projects/hobby for what I do. Like my other brand Petite-Patrie, the main direction was to design when we feel like it. It’s like a drug to me, for recreational purposes, can’t always have it all the time—if you have it all the time, well, you’re an addict, and that’s modern streetwear.
“I started in this industry when brands… pushed culture before anything.”
Can you tell us a little about yourself? What do you do?
I am a Content Creator/Art Director based out of Montreal, Canada. I am Cambodian. I have been a creative for a bit more than five years now. I just like to create things and be creative no matter what the medium it is, either video, photo, writing, etc. Having the ability and skills to be on hand in those different fields has been very helpful to get my vision and message out. I am a part-time dad. I direct videos under the alias SHOT BY JFK, I used to be a nightclub DJ, I have my own brand called Petite-Patrie and I am part of a collective of film makers called Les Enfants Terribles. I have been working in the lifestyle/fashion industry for over a decade now.
I am not a cool guy, I am a guy that makes cool things.
What is the story behind the name “Uneducated Kids”?
When I was approached by OTH for this project, I initially wanted to simply brand it OTH x JFK, which made sense since those are my initials. But as I started to brainstorm and figure out the direction I wanted to go in, I started putting different names on paper. I had about 3 possible names that I wanted to call this project. But since I am a bit OCD when it comes to creative work, I wanted it to be perfect in all angles. Like for example, I wanted the main full name of the project to have an impact on the same level as the acronym or the abbreviations. So Uneducated Kids is also U.K, so if I brand something I can have it under U.K or Uneducated Kids. Just had a good flow. But, that was pure coincidence, I think. And the name is pretty strong on it’s own.
So why [the name] Uneducated Kids? During the Khmer Rouge regime, for those who are not aware, [the ruling party] decided to bring the country to year zero and rebuild it under a agrarian society; basically just live off the land and have nothing industrial. They also wanted a cleansing of the race as well as any social institutions. They really wanted to start at zero with no culture or religion. So that is part of the story behind the name, but the other part was the fact that the survivors of the terrible regime had to lie to stay alive. Like my dad told me, he pretended to be a a dumb peasant and had to fake it. He would not speak any word of English or French and just pretended he knew nothing. They would systematically interrogate you and try to get something out and if that was the case you either get tortured or killed. It’s a pretty dark story.
Johnny F. Kim’s own father modeled the “Shed so many tears” ad for the collection.
Can you tell us about the process of shooting the capsule lookbook? What was the concept? (for instance, using your dad and yourself to model)?
For the lookbook, I wanted to have a conceptual ad for each photos. I did not want to simply have a pretty boy stand there and have no soul to the project. This project to me has soul and it has cultural history in it. I wanted it to be different and to have an impact, but also have it kinda fitting to now. I am a fan of old OG streetwear brands like Freshjive, Fuct, Stussy, etc… back in the day, the ads were cool and they all had some sort of message—either it was cultural or artsy. I just feel that nowadays lookbooks are so boring and it’s the same freaking formula. So for each photo it works well with the subjects modeling it.
I used my dad for the “Shed So Many Tears” tee, which is a [nod to] Tupac’s song, but [also references] the horrible things that happened in my country [Cambodia]. I wanted to showcase my dad’s tattoos, which are not for aesthetic purposes. He has Yantra tattoos or Yak Sant covering his entire body from head to toe. Each tattoo was done by a monk with a Buddhist incantation. So each tattoo all has a certain purpose. He has a bird on his left arm to protect him from the skies when he had to do skydiving missions, he has one for not stepping on land mines or to not get bitten by a snake. So I wanted to accent more on the tattoos than the T-shirt, ’cause those are his battle scars per se.
As for the one with me, I am getting waterboarded for real. That one was for the piece called “Bad Sleeping Habits”—it was a reference to the labor camps where you did not get much sleep and you always had to sleep with one eye open. The waterboarding was also a torture the Khmer Rouge used at the S-21 or Tuol Sleng [a prison camp]. That was where they sent people like intellects, government officials, doctors, etc. They would imprison them torture them and kill them. It’s a bit ironic that the location is an old high school. And the way I played with the look of each photos was to make it seem like they were part of old books or bindings for the education part of it. Even the one with [Nate] Husser makes it seem like it’s in a high school bathroom. Just works around that. The red filter is for the blood.
A behind the scenes shot from the making of the lookbook.
The final ad.
“At the time it happened, the world didn’t care about what was going on in Cambodia.”
What made you make the decision to put your personal history (and your fathers) into this collection?
I think that a lot of brands have overused the military [theme], especially the Vietnam War. And many of them only do it ’cause it’s cool or on trend or that they need a design with a tiger and a military patch.The brands that I like do it more in a tactical and functional aspect, like Maharishi. But, I decided to explore something a bit darker that nobody really talks about or cares [about]—even at the time it happened, the world didn’t care about what was going on in Cambodia. I also want to know more about my country before the war. There was so much culture. It’s just a way for me to learn about it too.
Can you tell us about your connection with OTH and how this collaboration came to be?
Angelo, one of the owners, approached me and asked me if I was interested in putting something together for them. He gave me carte blanche on it. Also OTH is like family since I used to work there in the past. So it was something bound to happen. I understood their aesthetic and what they liked, so it was not hard to create something that made sense for them and myself.
Can you tell us a bit about the narrative aspect behind designing the collection and each shirt?
So the “Shed So Many Tears,” the graphic on it is a from a Cambodian graphic novel. The writing on it means “The Perfect Girl,” it’s like a love story/tragedy. Like any heartaches, you cry and shed so many tears, just like the people in my country. Plus the Tupac song “Shed So Many Tears” talks about death and his struggles in life. It was a perfect match with the graphic.
The Apocalypse Youth piece, in the front it’s written “The Future is in the hands of youth,” which again, in the regime, certain orders like execution were given to the hands of young kids. So the kids had to take some hard decisions, but they were mainly brainwashed by them and they took those orders cause they didn’t know any better. In the back, it resumes it all with the “APOCALYPSE” across the back.
“Bad Sleeping Habits” was based on me at a point [when] I had bad sleeping habits—sometimes I still do. But it’s more for the people that were stuck in the labor camps, who had to work long days and sleep short nights.
“If you choose the cowboy route and stick to it, you can still achieve greatness.”
You mentioned in the press release that “uneducated kids” has a satirical double meaning for uneducated people doing great things. Can you elaborate on this?
Yeah, so from what I have learned about branding is that you can have something have a double meaning, so that you can cater to a wider audience. The main [message is] play dumb or get killed, which is a bit dark. But the other meaning was a bit more positive. Like many people, not everyone has [had access to] a proper education or they dropped out. Whatever the reason, with enough willpower and hard work, you can achieve anything—even [people] that don’t have an education. Like yes, being educated through the system has its perks in society, but if you choose the cowboy route and stick to it, you can still achieve greatness. You don’t need a piece of paper to do great things, you need passion and heart to achieve it all.