[Interview] Ji-eon Kim, CEO of Atko Planning
From September 17 to 19, Premiere Vision, the world's largest fashion goods fair, was held in Paris. South Korean textile, leather, and accessories companies began participating in this fair since 2007. However, they did not receive much attention compared to Japanese and European companies. This is because they has been overshadowed by high-quality natural materials from Europe and Japan. However, a venture company that participated for the first time this year won the grand prize at PV for the first time as Korean company.
Atko Planning, which regenerates leather waste and exports regenerated leather to global fashion brands, received the Grand Jury Price among 2008 companies from 51 countries. GJP was given to most sustainable product that matches with the environmental issue. Ji-eon Kim(47), CEO of Atko Planning, founded this company in late 2012 after working 16 years as a handbag designer at fashion brands like Geumgang, Esquire, Indief and E-Land. Working as a designer for a long time, she realized the need for eco-friendly materials.
"I studied clothing and joined Kumkang as a handbag designer in 1996. As I've worked as an intern in wedding shop, I got interested in fashion accessories such as hats, gloves, and bags rather than clothes. I moved to fashion brand Esquire with my career and launched a brand, Sonobi, which is famous for its front-printed bag. At that time, it was considered original since front-printing design was not that popular yet. I have also worked at E-land in 2011 to explore various range of products."
"It was long before preparing my own business in 2012 to contrive regenerated leather. I watched a video of killing cows in 2008 when a mad cow disease broke out. Dug a pit and threw the cows away, and they were all screaming at each other. Then, at some point, they become quiet." Kim felt self-doubt for herself for being a designer for the first time. While in shock, she thought, "If it is impossible not to use the hide, wouldn’t it be the only way for repaying the debt to the cows to reuse it?"
For Kim, who used to be a designer, starting a business was not an easy task. At first, she planned 'Regenerative Leather Bag brand,' which makes bags out of recycled leather. However, she turned to ‘manufacturing recycled leather’ when she received investment.
However, she had to deal with the big barriers of developing leather-recycling technology and waste-using permits. Since 2014, Atko Planning has been developing technology to regenerate leather. At that time, the common technique of manufacturing recycled leather was ‘wet method.’ The problem was that a considerable amount of water is used because wet methods make leather in warm water. In general, about 8 tons of water was used to make leather, and it took a lot of energy to activate the factory. She thought it would be no use if she wastes water and energy to make recycled leather. Therefore, she decided to develop the "dry-processed method" to regenerate leather without using water. She went to research institutes and factories to develop the dry-processed method and asked for advice, but at first they replied skeptically. Further, she started out as a one-man startup, so she didn't have a proper place to develop technology. She experimented in leather factories that ended their work with asking excuse. After three years of dedication, she succeeded in developing dry-processed method in 2016 and even got patent.
Although the development of dry process was successful, the use of waste leather, which is an industrial waste, required permission. She also needed a factory permit to manufacture it. Fortunately, Paju permitted to establish a factory to produce recycled leather.
This is how Atko planning turn leather waste into regenerated leather: first, domestic leather factories imports cowhide from South America or other countries to make leather, and then delivers cutting waste to Atko planning. Atko Planning fiberizes leather waste into yarns of various thickness and then turns it back into regenerated leather which is close to natural leather. This method is characterized by water-free process during regeneration. It also does not apply any chemical process that changes the nature of the leather. Therefore, bags or sneakers made of the regenerated leather of Atko Planning can be recycled again after used out. That is, the regenerated leather of Atko planning circulate in itself continuously.
As the company began making recycled leather, global brands proposed a deal. Compared to Korea, Europe cares about the environment more, which is why they have great interest in regenerated leather. Moreover, as environmental regulations on bag and sneakers have intensified in Europe, many eco-friendly and renewable materials have emerged as alternatives that can protect the environment.
The first customer was the Italian luxury brand 'Armani'. Armani made a proposal to use Atco Planning's recycled leather for his handbag. Fashion brands such as Adidas, Asics, Timberland, New Balance, North Face, Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein have also been offered. “By the time we started to produce massive amount of recycled leather, eco-friendly materials were already a very important topic for global companies. It's timely right. Global companies continue to research and review partner companies, and Atko planning, which has the dry-processed method that does not use water while manufacturing recycled leather, has been highly evaluated. ”
Above all, Atko Planning could receive attention by winning the Grand Jury Prize for PV in September. Even if it was the first time to attend to PV, Atko planning made it to get the best prize.The judges of PV unanimously selected Atko planning as the most iconic material of the time in terms of the sustainability required by the global market and the technology to commercialize it as a product. "When I arrived in France, I saw a phone full of messages that we've been nominated for the PV. After the fair began, I was looking at products from companies around the world, and I hoped to take only second place." Before the announcement of grand prize, Atko planning was not called. "I'm frustrated, and all of a sudden, there's a cheer coming from the local media and companies. Atko planning won the grand prize. It was more valuable because it was the first prize given to domestic company."
Kim said it was definitely not easy to change herself from designer to CEO. But she could keep her way because she thought she in the right way. "Green and sustainability is the hottest issue in the global fashion industry right now. More and more people will feel the need to use recycled leather rather than killing animals and getting new leather. If Atko Plening can change people's perception of the resource cycle and become a representative company of eco-friendly trends, there's nothing more to be desired."
[Resource: Naver Post JOB&, Hansol Park, 2019.11.25, https://m.post.naver.com/viewer/postView.nhn?volumeNo=26941353&memberNo=44833462&vType=VERTICAL]