Smoke and Mirrors: Korean Smokewear Brand Sundae School Challenges StereotypesNoël DuanSeptember 12, 2017
Sundae School was conceived as “smokewear,” a term coined by the siblings to mean “apparel for smokers and especially stoners.” There are handy little spliff holders on the hats, for example. But for their second collection, out October 1st and currently on pre-sale, Cindy and Dae are adding another item to the agenda: showcasing the possibilities of Asian counterculture that they themselves know so well.
Welcome to Sundae School
The debut collection, Chapter 1: Genesis, was released on 4/20 of 2017. It consists of embroidered patches, T-shirts, denim jackets, caps, a tin box (for your stash), hoodies, and long-sleeve shirts emblazoned with pithy references to Korean American culture and witty puns like “Smoking Chills” and “Honor Rollers.” The business partners and siblings, who spent the summer living in apartments within walking distance of one another, smoke spliffs together while working on the brand every night.
They’re not only pushing against stereotypes of the straitlaced Asian nerd, but also smashing preconceptions of the stoner as an ambitionless, directionless slacker. Cindy aims to be a venture capitalist after college graduation; Dae was a former McKinsey consultant whose current day job is Head of Growth at VFILES. Their conservative Christian parents disapprove of them consuming cannabis, but it’s way too late to stop them now. Their brand derives its name, partially, from their Christian upbringing attending Sunday school. Dae does the design and Cindy manages the business development.
The upcoming collection is called When Tigers Used to Smoke, a famous Korean phrase that is equivalent to Once Upon a Time. “We are representing tigers as yellow people all around the world,” Dae explains, noting that Asian people have been aware of the properties of cannabis for millennia. In ancient Chinese medicinal tomes dating back to 2700 BCE, cannabis was listed as a drug. The new collection involves an interpretation of hanboks, traditional Korean garments, updated with fabrics like pinstripe denim and velour to become smoking jackets and pants.
“People assume that Asians don’t know about weed,” Cindy says, but cannabis was commonly grown in South Korea before United States military intervention in the 20th century. “It is not this American thing,” Dae adds. “I’ve smoked weed in Morocco. I’ve smoked weed in Spain. I’ve smoked weed basically everywhere I go.” He even runs an Instagram account documenting his international spliffs.
Cannabis and Cultural Identity
Both Cindy and Dae first tried cannabis at preppy red-bricked schools on the East Coast. After a late night of studying, Dae had found several of his schoolmates smoking in the shower, the hot water turned on so that the smoke would travel with the steam. He had never heard of marijuana before. He got “pretty high” that night, from what he recalls as “shitty weed—that white boy Connecticut weed.”
When Cindy tried cannabis for the first time, she remembers not getting high at all. Later, she and her brother took a trip to Pena Palace in Portugal, a 19th-century castle surrounded by almost 500 acres of exotic parkland, where Cindy shared an especially potent edible on the train ride over. She recalls climbing up the mountain to the palace and seeing giant mice instead of cars coming towards her. “It was like Alice in Wonderland,” she says. The yellow-and-pink castle’s eclectic design—it looks like six castles smashed together—amplified the Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole. Overwhelmed, Cindy refused to smoke again for the rest of the trip.
But getting high together actually brought the siblings closer. “Asian culture is repressed about feelings and emotions,” Cindy explains. “But when Dae and I smoke weed, we open up to each other.” Sundae School was conceived as an idea in 2016 while the siblings were back in Seoul—without herb to smoke but with plenty of time and ambition on their hands.
Though industrial hemp is grown for textiles in South Korea, cannabis was banned under the Cannabis Control Act of 1976. That, coupled with a conservative culture, makes South Korea one of the hardest places to procure cannabis—it’s stigmatized in the mainstream even amongst young people and is commonly known as “Devil’s Lettuce.” None of this has stopped them from partnering with Korean underground stars and brands to promote Sundae School, though. “People are getting more curious,” Dae says. “They’re like, what is this Devil’s Lettuce that the government is banning but all of these rappers are talking about?”
The Potential for Smokewear to Effect Change
During the summer of 2017, Sundae School partnered with South Korean artist Jiyen Lee for a pop-up installation called Garden of Marijuana, consisting of 303 green-colored, black-lit sculptures of the Virgin Mary to simulate the sensation of getting high—a holy experience for even the most steadfast atheist, and a way to get around the fact that cannabis is strictly outlawed in South Korea. (Their next party, in New York, will have spliffs.) The installation-slash-shop-slash-party was held at Cakeshop, one of Seoul’s hottest clubs, and attracted some of Korea’s top underground celebrities. Sundae School didn’t have to pay a single won—Cindy and Dae managed to convince those involved that this would be a mutually beneficial experience for everyone.
There are more milestones ahead for Sundae School—for one, they’re reaching out to Rihanna, the queen of smokewear (Cindy has tried mailing clothing to three different addresses and isn’t giving up yet). Continuing to pay homage to cannabis and subvert their Christian upbringing, they’re working on an upcoming campaign with Sisters of the Valley, a California-based farm whose proprietors call themselves “nuns.” Along with the second collection, the siblings are also working on a content platform called Mellow Yellow to showcase the complexities and nuances of Asian counterculture. Currently, the platform is just an Instagram and domain, but Dae and Cindy hope to expand it to a full production company—including original films in Hollywood someday.
“We are Korean Americans. We came from Korea when we were 10, and growing up in American culture, there’s a cultural pride in creativity, in voicing your opinion in democracy,” Dae explains. “Korea, it’s not the same, right? Everyone’s taking the same tests. Everyone has to wear the same clothes to school. It’s a very conformist society.”
There is an invisibility in Asian culture, Dae adds. Asian American immigrants can be hesitant about speaking out in public and being political when the model minority myth says to align with mainstream white culture and reap socioeconomic success. But brands like Sundae School have a chance to change the conversation.
“There are a lot of closeted Asian smokers out there,” Dae says. “We want to create a community of these honor rollers.” True to their mission, they invite me for a smoke the next time we meet.