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Sunmi: “I Am Most Confident and Beautiful When I Wear Music on Stage”

The pop diva on fashion’s role in the grand design of K-pop

Debashree Dutta May 29, 2022

“I have created iconic looks that would come to people’s minds when listening to Sunmi’s music." Photo: Courtesy of ABYSS COMPANY

This story appears in Rolling Stone India’s K-Music Special Issue, on sale now. Buy your copy here.

K-pop is kaleidoscopic. It’s worth knowing and appreciating that it is more than just music. There’s a boatload of other factors: one-of-a-kind concepts, high-quality performances, incredible production standards, and unparalleled fashion that make the genre a conspicuous and distinct contributor to pop culture. Speaking of which, the sense of fashion that the industry has been unveiling is what piques my interest the most, and in this regard, the first name that springs to mind is Sunmi – a superstar diva who is K-pop’s very own fashion tour de force. Two months ago, when our team started brainstorming on this special K-music issue, we unanimously agreed on Sunmi as our ‘Fashion Digital Cover Star.’ There was no doubt that she was most suited.

Sunmi is Rolling Stone India’s ‘Fashion’ cover star for the K-Music Special Issue. Photo: Courtesy of ABYSS COMPANY

The singer-songwriter and record producer is a fan favorite all over the world. Her work includes K-pop, disco-pop, and synth-pop in the form of conceptually distinct music videos where fashion, style, and appearance play a key role in representing her musical style, dubbed ‘Sunmi-pop’ – songs that feature infectiously catchy tunes with meaningful lyrics marked by metaphors. It’s been my absolute honor to get to know more about the artist and her artistry, aesthetic creativity, and dynamism through this insightful, in-depth and introspective interview with Rolling Stone India.

The former Wonder Girls member’s spectacular rise and transformation into one of K-pop’s most prominent female soloists have involved a perfect blend of incredible vocals, visuals, and vogue. “Wonder Girls has always represented a retro mood in terms of fashion and music,” Sunmi says. Those retro-elements were whisked into Sunmi-pop, which reflected the style of the ’60s in “Nobody,” the ’70s in “Tell Me”, and the ’80s in “So Hot.” Being at the forefront of the industry’s rise and observing its international expansion, I believe Sunmi realized the importance of developing her signature style to keep up. “I have created iconic looks that would come to people’s minds when listening to Sunmi’s music in a trendy and sensuous fashion,” the artist explains.

“I am not inspired by grandeur. I get ideas from everyday life or sudden imagination.”

As evidenced by a parade of superhits like “24 Hours,” “Full Moon,” “Gashina,” “Heroine” and “Siren” to name a few, Sunmi-pop is vibrant and heterogeneous. When I first saw the music video for “Gashina,” I was zapped. The title of the song per se was so different and the MV rocked an oriental-style backdrop with powerful lyrics. The portrayal of an aggrieved soul through dancehall-style synth-pop was a unique feature, as it made the song look funky and audibly cheerful while obscuring its underlying cynicism. The bottom line? Sunmi’s meticulous creative process is reflected in the visual style, camera movements, and aesthetics.

She says, “There are keywords that come to mind first when I’m making music. I put the keywords together and make a story or picture in my head. In addition to that, I create and share visual material that can explain my ideas to the planning department, which in due course implements my ideas.” But ideation and concept-building come with their own set of challenges. “If you want to look more dramatic in the choreography or video, high-level movements and scenes are inevitable. The injuries that occur while preparing for them are the biggest challenges.”

Sunmi began her solo singing career after Wonder Girls disbanded in 2017. She followed up “Gashina” with “Heroine,” a prequel, and her sophomore EP Warning, which featured the main single “Siren.” All of these were part of her signature genre, known as the ‘Sunmi genre.’  In her words, “It’s music that reminds people of Sunmi’s character when they first hear it.”  Which, in my opinion, is what makes her songs so beautiful. Even if you haven’t seen her music video, just listening to the audio track will reveal the unique style that’s inherent in them. In light of this the artist elaborates, “To be honest, a lot of the influence was sourced from my career while I was a member of Wonder Girls. But from the personal front, too, I am attracted to music from the Seventies and the Eighties.”

The singer’s creative genius is what adds to her renditions, without a doubt. Under the gabardine of iridescent set designs and fashionable looks, she transmits essential messages and sad sentiments with incredible ease. “Siren,” for example, comes with a deep message. Sunmi’s warning to a lover whose vision of her doesn’t correspond to reality is described as “the beautiful me of your fantasies doesn’t exist.” The song hits you hard when you comprehend the lyrics, and the relatability hits harder. Sunmi’s fondness for emotions, nostalgia, and the sonic brilliance of music from the past finds exquisite expression in her music time and time again. She thinks she is still learning about the distinct sensibility of those days. “The music of that generation isn’t perfect, but for me, that’s exactly why it’s perfect.”

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As I ponder through her answers while writing this piece, it becomes clearer that Sunmi is so much more than a pop or fashion icon. Her work has a deep-seated meaning. She’s a muse who expresses herself through her art form, music, and fashion sense, and her shining screen appearance is an extension of her personality and messages – thoughts on serious issues, toxic relationships, women’s empowerment, and more. When she launched her single “Noir,” Sunmi mentioned that she hoped to influence other musicians through the song. “I want to become a good example that you can think of when you’re not sure which direction to go in.”

A winner of multiple accolades, “Noir” – which also featured in our list of the ‘10 Best K-pop Music Videos of 2019’ – is a satirical take on our addiction to social media and the need for being liked and followed, symbolized by the tiny heart-shaped candies she consumes in the video. We observed near the end of the video that she is alone. All she has left are the comments on her social media posts, illustrating the overwhelming isolation and hopelessness of ‘reality’ that drives individuals to social media.

Sunmi’s style often elicits mixed reactions. Some believe her looks are flamboyant, some call them sensual and powerful, while to some, her fashion sense is difficult to decipher. But call her what you will, she has one of the greatest fashion templates in the K-pop universe. She’s someone who can put together combinations that no one else would think of, and still look great. “I am not inspired by grandeur. I get ideas from everyday life or sudden imagination.” When asked how she manages to reinvent her style with each new music video, she answers, “I don’t think the source of inspiration needs to be something grand.” This is also evident in how she opines about choreographing her daily look, which mostly comprises comfort clothing. “Wearing ‘cool’ outfits continuously becomes uncomfortable after a certain point. Maybe that’s why I usually wear comfortable clothes whenever I feel like it. After all, when I go to a film set, I have to wear pretty and uncomfortable clothes again.”

Describing her 2019 comeback single “Lalalay” as one of her most stylized projects, Sunmi elucidates, “If you look at the concept photo for “Lalalay,” I had a very large butterfly decoration on my head and colorful eyeshadows on my eyes.” She also reveals that she had collaborated with Kevin Germanier’s brand, GERMANIER – him being a designer and friend she loves – to make costumes just for this song. “It was a very experimental and original work for me,” she adds.

It is style over fashion for Sunmi, who often combines contrasting elements with unique embellishments, uncommon designs, or motifs that are distinctively feminine. She theorizes, “Personality, mood, attitude, beliefs, etc, are the elements that make a certain style stand out. So even if it’s the same fashion, it looks really different depending on a person’s individuality and mood.” The diva likes to flaunt current trends and, as a musician, prefers to set trends with her artistry and fashion. This is where I want to bring up “Pporappippam” (“Purple-hued Night”), one of her most underrated yet brilliant compositions, with a presentation, color scheme, styling, and production design that blew my mind. 

The artist’s “first true love song” is all about a summer adventure that features an ever-so-happy Sunmi having a gala time with friends and a loved one. Her looks, styled by Germanier, were fun yet classy and she sparkled against the purple-hued backdrop. Her ability to adapt to fashion with time is perhaps why she rocks any outfit. Plus, she’s been in the business for a long time. So, it doesn’t come as a surprise when she says, “I have been a singer for 15 years, so, there is no style or outfit that I haven’t tried or worn. Hence, I doubt there’s any item left to wear.”

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Sunmi’s looks often incorporate bold and active prints. For example, we saw a Catwoman-like concept in “Tail” (the diversity of nail art and styles that she presented deserves special mention). I ask her about the source of her ideas for the prints and outfits and she replies, “I tend to look for items and buy them myself. I feel so good when I find a really unique item. Also, my stylist and nail artist make items that match the look I want.” It’s another reason why Germanier is her favorite designer: “It’s fascinating to see the looks he creates; the pieces he made using upcycling beads accentuated his originality and artistry. It’s a look I’ve never seen before. He is truly the best designer.”

Vivienne Westwood, the famous English fashion designer, and businesswoman, once stated, “If you love something, wear it all the time… Find things that suit you. That’s how you look extraordinary. ” Sunmi seems to share that sentiment. “I am most confident, beautiful, and happy when I wear music on stage.” That aside, she always carries perfumes and lipsticks. At times, her sartorial choices are misinterpreted, leading to criticism, but she doesn’t really care.

The Instagram account of the social media-savvy fashion icon boasts eight million followers. Her personality is reflected in her bio section, which reads: ‘Free but classy/Good girl gone mad.’ Her feed is a stunning collection of OOTD (outfit of the day) photos, mirror selfies, shots of designer nails, bags, and colored hair, among other things. So, when I ask her to give us the top fashion or beauty tips that are her holy grail, Sunmi shares, “If you don’t know what kind of person you are yet, challenge yourself with as many styles as possible first. When you feel more confident about the fit, you can be sure that it’s your style. Your personality defines your style.”

With the advent of the Hallyu wave, of which K-pop is a major component, I’ve always been curious about K-pop’s pull on global fashion trends and why international audiences are so influenced by this industry. In response, the idol states that Korea is a very adaptable country. It absorbs trends fast and with little opposition. “That demonstrates how important trends are to Koreans,” she adds. This adaptable mindset appears to be the reason why K-pop is dominating fashion trends. Sunmi believes there isn’t much of a difference between global and K-pop fashion, and “as more content is being consumed and enjoyed across countries nowadays, K-fashion content is garnering more attention.”

The artist takes pride in the fact that K-pop and Korean fashion are now ingrained in popular culture and that K-pop stars have become global ambassadors as a result of their success. For her, being an ambassador and a pioneer for Asians in global pop culture “is a dream in itself, to be able to lead the culture.” The fact that K-pop has a huge influence around the world always makes her feel amazed and proud. At the same time, as a leading fashion icon, she empathizes with the rigid beauty standards that prevail in Korea, India, and many other Asian countries. “I hope people don’t care much about how other people live and are free to defy these norms. So, let’s concentrate on ourselves, not on others. I can be myself only if I love myself first.”

“It is a dream in itself, to be able to lead the culture.” Photo: Courtesy of ABYSS COMPANY

But as an idol who’s expected to be this picture-perfect version of herself almost all the time, does she ever feel pressured to be a certain way? Do things like public scrutiny disturb her? Sunmi answers that she loves her fans and, therefore, being a public figure doesn’t quite bother her, nor do public innuendos. In fact, she prefers being under pressure. “I believe that when you’re relaxed, you make mistakes. So, it’s good to be under scrutiny and the right amount of pressure.”

In a perfect conclusion to the interview, Sunmi conveys a very special message for our readers and all her Indian fans: “I have never been to India and I can’t wait to meet my Indian fans. The India that I know is a country that loves music. I will be extremely happy if my music resonates in India.”