How This Entrepreneur Turned a health Scare into one of Canada’s Fastest Growing Vegan Accessories Brand

In 2016, Hannah Kim found herself in a terrifying situation with her health. She was diagnosed with a rare condition called Desmoid fibromatosis tumor, an abnormal growth that arises from connective tissue that provides strength and flexibility to structures such as bones, ligaments, and muscles. Although considered non-cancerous, they can aggressively invade the surrounding tissue and can be very difficult to remove surgically.

"When I started the chemotherapy it was a gruelling first few months. We just moved so I could be closer to treatments and I ended up locking myself in my condo after every weekly dose. I would watch mindless TV and I could feel myself mentally and physically deteriorating." Hannah tells me. "My amazing doctor at Princess Margaret Dr. Abha Gupta tried her best to encourage me after my monthly check-ins that I should try my best to live a “normal life”. But what did that really mean. I didn’t get it because I felt I couldn’t. Thank goodness I had an amazing supportive husband, family and group of friends. But it still wasn’t enough."

Then her mother, Hun Young Lee, took a trip to Seoul, South Korea after closing her very successful café The Grind. After months of soul searching in Seoul, Hun decided to import her cousin's vegan handbags to Canada. That's when the idea for ai Toronto Seoul started to brew.

"She came back home to Toronto, fuelled with passion and shared her vision with my sisters and I." said Hannah. "At the time, We were all in different stages in our lives that we felt starting a new business didn’t make sense! But my mom truly believed this would be something we could do together and more importantly get my mind off of the treatments."

Hannah Kim, Joanna Lee, and Rebekah Ma with their mother Hun Young Lee
Hannah Kim, Joanna Lee, and Rebekah Ma with their mother Hun Young Lee

So began the process of starting their new business. In the beginning, they imported the bags from Korea and participated in trade shows like the Gift and Home Market. Almost instantly, they received incredible feedback from consumers and many stores across Canada picked up their pieces. After only one season, they decided to create their own line. In December of 2018, ai Toronto Seoul was officially born.

"I remember immediately after we launched ai last year, my friend Irene Kim from La Closette, invited us to be in a curated, pop-up event for Canadian companies." said Hannah. "The date was set for a Thursday and I receive treatments on Wednesdays. Thursdays is usually my worst day. But given this opportunity I knew I had to be there! I slept the whole day post treatment, put on my game face and participated at the pop up."

And the rest as they say is history. ai Toronto Seoul is now one of Canada's fastest rising vegan accessories brand. While their main distribution is online, you can find Hannah and her sisters along with their mom selling out at some of the city's major pop-up events including INLAND and Toronto Fashion Week. The brand is also a favourite among celebrities, media personalities and influencers.

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I sat down with Hannah Kim and her sister Joanna Lee at their Toronto headquarters to chat about the inspiration behind their line, why vegan leather, and their process of creation.

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What inspired you to create your line?

Fashion has always been a great influence in our lives. Our fondest memories are reading the latest Vogue and Chatelaine magazines every month that my mom received. And every weekend, my grandmother, mother, sisters and I sat around the television for our weekly episode of Fashion Television with Jeanne Beker. My sisters and I were in the education field. But a few years ago, we were at a point in our lives where we felt we were ready to do something together. My mom’s cousin, our Aunt has been in the handbag production industry in Seoul for over 20 years. She introduced us to artisans in Seoul, truly skilled crafters in their field. We were blown away by their skills and how meticulously they worked on each and every bag.

So with our mother we began to sell our vegan handbags to small businesses around Canada. We then landed a relationship with one of Toronto’s designers and began a private label for her. We gained so much experience from this relationship and decided to plan for our own line.

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I understand that ai Toronto Seoul is made in South Korea. Can you tell us why South Korea?

We are a Toronto-based company, but our bags are made in Seoul, South Korea. Our Korean heritage plays a role of course, but one of the main reasons we decided to have our production in Seoul was because the artisans we met possess skills that have been passed down through generations and have continued to master the techniques and methods today.

the artisans we met possess skills that have been passed down through generations and have continued to master the techniques and methods today

As a small family-owned business, we love supporting local artisans that tie back to our cultural roots.

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What is involved in the process of creating these bags? Where do you get your inspiration for your designs?

We collaborate with artisans in Seoul. We work with one handbag designer and two hair accessory designers. Although we cannot take full credit for the designs, we work very closely with the designers and artisans to carefully curate every step and detail that goes into our products.

We begin by working with the designers and their sketches. Our mother, who is a visual artist, will work closely with the designers at this stage. Then, my sisters and I will work with choosing the materials, colours, prints and hardware. My other sister Rebekah, lives in Seoul and she leads the production.

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Talk to us about the vegan leather. Why did you choose to go this route and do you think people should make the switch to animal-friendly fashion?

We are observing the industry’s shift towards not solely using animal-based products (including luxury brands). PU and PVC vegan leather is made from plastic. To create vegan leather, a plastic coating is applied to a base made out of polyester. Then to give it a soft finish, it is rolled multiple times. To mimic animal prints such as mock croc or faux snake an imprint is made before it is cut into bags.

We believe by making more conscience consumer choices, together we can make a difference.

We believe by making more conscience consumer choices, together we can make a difference. Our philosophy is built on the concept of sustainability and so we only produce pieces once it sells out and we see a demand.

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There's been such an incredible support for ai Toronto Seoul. I am personally a huge fan of your bags. Where do guys see this heading in five years?

First off, thank you so much! In five years, we envision ourselves to be a sustainable, luxury vegan brand. As we continue to grow, we will stand by our model to strive for sustainability. From production to packaging, we are always seeking ways to be more environmentally conscious. We also want to give back. We aren’t sure what that looks like right now but we want to support other women.

When can we expect your new collection?

We are so excited to be launching our first faux fur collection in the next few weeks! Stay tuned!

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