Zion. T In Our Exclusive Off-White Collection
What the K-pop star and the men behind Seoul’s music scene wear to work in the studio
What constitutes work these days? Imagine someone observing us all from a different planet, trying to figure it out. Yes, this curious person might think, there are a certain number of people whose nine-to-five is all routine: a grey suit, an office, a bit of intrigue by the water cooler, a lot of Google Docs.
But there’s also an increasing chunk of the population who are writing their own rules when it comes to work, making the most of the remote-working and flexi-timing possibilities that the technological advances of the past two decades have afforded us. Formerly, such a boundary-free life has been largely associated with the creative professions. Now, everyone’s at it.
What, then, does a truly “Modern Office” look like? Inspired by the capsule collection of the same name from brand-of-the-moment Off-White – which launches exclusively on MR PORTER this week – we journeyed to Seoul to explore it in terms of the hard-working K-pop industry, and, in particular the singer and producer Zion. T.
As one of the most established artists currently on the roster of The Black Label – a younger, edgier subsidiary of K-pop giant YG Entertainment, which was founded by producer Mr Teddy Park in 2015 – Zion. T works in loose collaboration with a rotating cast of fellow musicians, stylists and branding strategists, all of whom congregate over long nights at what you might call their “office” – a 10-studio complex where they write, bounce around ideas and generally have a good time.
To showcase the collection, created as a sort of fantasy working wardrobe by Off-White designer Mr Virgil Abloh (read our interview with him here), we asked Zion. T to name some of his most trusted colleagues, from The Black Label senior manager Mr Soonho Choi to actor-in-training Mr August Brody, and invite them to a pop-up “Modern Office” workspace created in collaboration with another pioneer in the realm of professional life: the co-working titan WeWork.
Zion. T, Singer and producer
In the flighty business of K-pop, in which acts can be launched, obsessed over and disbanded in the space of just a few months, Zion. T is an artist with considerable staying power. Known for his smooth, almost hushed vocal style and ability to combine commercial R&B and pop sounds with a freewheeling, jazz-inspired sensibility, he released his debut album in 2012, and has been hovering at the top of Korea’s Gaon chart ever since then. After signing with The Black Label in 2016, he has released two hugely popular mini-albums, 2017’s OO and 2018’s ZZZ, the lead single of which, smooth jam “Hello Tutorial” broke boundaries by featuring a guest vocal from Seulgi of Red Velvet – a girl group signed to YG Entertainment rival SM Entertainment. His next release will be a full-length album for the Japanese market, which, it seems, is currently what’s keeping him up at night.
What are your most important musical influences?
It’s very simple, actually. I make music because there’s a need for it. It’s like when you crave a certain kind of food depending on the weather, or choose a perfume depending on your mood.
Do you have any working habits or routines?
I’m in the studio every day, that’s my routine. OK, I don’t go every day, but I’m there most of the time. I take notes. I put tracks down. I don’t think I’m a person who’s always working hard, but people around me tell me I’m very hard-working.
What’s The Black Label like as an office?
We’re like a casino – there’s no sunlight, there’s no clock – it’s dark! You don’t know what the time is, everyone is there concentrating in their studios. But you’ll meet people in the hallways – you’ll go out for a drink of water, talk about what you’re doing, and get inspired by each other.
What’s your starting point for a song?
If there’s a crazy beat that makes me shake, makes me really feel it, then I’ll write with that as a starting point. But usually, I need to start with the lyrics. If it’s a normal, ordinary day when I’m not that inspired, it’s hard for me to write… it’s always about the writing.
How important is the visual side of things for you?
I want to make videos that show the different sides of my character. Because I feel like Zion. T is a character. In Korea, right now, the way I see it, I’m kind of seen as one thing: a skinny person in glasses. So, I’m thinking, how can I show a little bit more of what’s in my world, how I’m going to express a bit more of my world view. The character can be anybody… It could be a murderer, a girl, a young person. It’s about inhabiting different perspectives through my work. I think everyone has different personalities inside them, it’s through music that I can show and explore that.
You’ve been in the business for more than a decade. What advice would you give to your younger self?
Save your money. [Laughs.]
Mr Soonho Choi, Senior manager, The Black Label
Originally from New York, Mr Soonho Choi spent his youth making music with friends and taking it on tour around colleges and clubs, before relocating to Korea to work with world-girdling acts Big Bang and G-Dragon at YG Entertainment. Now, as a manager at The Black Label, he oversees strategy and all things international.
What’s a typical day for you?
It can be brand work, it can be concerts, it can be collaborations, it can be A&R-type work. It can just be general marketing and branding. Big picture-wise, my job is artist strategy. So, I’m half in the creative space and half in the office space, I think. I’m making sure that our contracts are tight and well-written, but I’m also making sure that the next single that’s coming out from one of our artists has the right video, the right timing of release and has the right promotions behind it. And also, it’s not my job, but I’m involved in the process of the actual creation, of the music itself, the sounds and the selection of the proper title songs. It’s really fun.
What’s the USP of The Black Label?
YG is very strong as a company, but it’s also a big company now, and they can only handle so much. So, at The Black Label, we want to have our own colour, our own vision. We want to take risks with the type of music, the type of artists, the way we market. Don’t get me wrong, we’re still going to do all the regular stuff, the mainstream stuff. But having a little independent imprint of YG… It gives us the flexibility to do that.
What are you currently working on?
Our label’s still pretty new, so we’re going to put out four new artists this year, as a minimum. Actually, right now, we have five in the pipeline, all probably in the first half of this year.
Is launching a new act particularly difficult? There are so many new K-pop artists being launched all the time…
Right, absolutely. It’s hard to keep up because it has become oversaturated. But we take our time to make sure it’s perfect before we move. So, we’re at that taking-our-time stage with a lot of those artists.
Peejay, Producer and songwriter
Producer and musician Peejay got his musical start by creating mixes and tracks to breakdance to with his friends in high school, but now is more influenced by the rhythms of jazz and Latin music. As a solo artist, his last release was 2017’s Walkin’, Vol 2. He frequently writes and collaborates with Zion. T.
What’s your writing process with Zion. T like?
It’s usually very natural and chilled. I’d usually be in my studio, just playing the piano, just making some beats. Zion. T will just walk in, sit down, listen to the beats, start humming, start writing the lyrics, start talking about the concept of the song, and we’ll just have this natural flow.
What’s a normal working day for you?
I’ve got a six-month-old baby. So, during the day I look after the baby! And then around 8.00 or 9.00pm, I go into the studio, just chill out a bit, listen to some music. Then I start playing around, sometimes record, and finish about 3.00 or 4.00am. That’s my day at the moment and I’m liking it.
So, you guys are basically nocturnal…
We don’t have the right energy during the day. We’ve got so used to doing stuff at night. We’ve tried to change it around, but it doesn’t work. In this industry, during the day, if you go to the studio, there’s nobody around to collaborate with. That’s when people are awake, that’s when you can talk to people.
What’s the most challenging thing about your job?
Deadlines. And that thing where you have an idea in your head, but you can’t quite realise it. It’s frustrating, when that block happens.
Mr Joe Rhee, Producer
Another producer in The Black Label’s stable, Mr Joe Rhee is currently prepping his debut album as a solo artist, which will be released sometime in 2019. He collaborated with Zion. T on “Ideal”, the lead track of his 2018 mini-album ZZZ.
Are you writing at the moment? What’s your working day like?
It’s different every day. It could just be me and the piano, trying to come up with melodies. Or it could be me making a beat. Other times it would be like, we’ve got a bunch of producers at our label, so maybe it’s coming up with a melody for other people’s beats, getting in the booth and singing the whole night.
It sounds like there’s a project space, how does it work?
We’ve got nine or 10 studios at our label. They’re all on the same floor and we all have our own space to work on music. So, we just go back and forth, when we’re bored. Let’s say Zion. T’s doing something interesting… I drop by, and if I have an idea, I give him an idea. That’s how we work, pretty organically. On “Ideal”, I was just making a beat for fun, and then he dropped by and said he’d like to try something on it. And I think he finished the song that night, the melody, the lyrics – everything.
So, it can happen pretty fast?
Yeah! Sometimes it only takes a couple of hours. Sometimes it takes months. And usually when it happens that fast, it just feels good.
Is style important to your work?
Obviously, it’s very important. And people do emphasise the importance of it to me all the time, so I try and stay as fresh as possible. But I think that fashion is just like music. There are a lot of different trends and you’ve got to pick out what to follow and what not to follow. And you’ve got to figure out what suits you well…
Mr August Brody, Model and actor
Mr August Brody is the youngest member of the collective around Zion. T and The Black Label, where he is signed as a model. He is training to become an actor.
How did you meet Zion. T?
About four years ago, I was on a shoot at a studio and about the time the production was wrapping, Zion. T walked in. Everyone was pretending they didn’t see him – me too, initially – but eventually, I got up the courage to ask him for a photo. He was really nice about it, and then a few days later we met again. Zion. T was like, hey, you should be a part of my crew.
How do you slot in to the picture at The Black Label?
Modelling is my job. But I also have a lot of other interests. Back when I met Zion. T, I was wondering what I should be doing after modelling, because it’s so short-lived, and to be honest I was in a bit of a rut. He said, “You should join The Black Label as a model, and also… what are you interested in doing?” I said acting. So, he said, “OK, be a model, train to act and also just be part of the crew and see what happens.”
What’s a typical working day for you at the moment?
Right now, I’m doing a lot of exercise. Before, I was 55kg. I was too skinny, I had that Trainspotting look. So, I’ve gained about 7kg. But there’s a point that you hit a wall. I’m trying to figure out how to break that.
What’s different about being a model at The Black Label?
If I was with a normal modelling agency – think about it – life would be very boring. I wouldn’t know what was going on. There would be contracts, I wouldn’t know the percentage of the commissions, I would be sent off to shoots, asked to go on a diet, there would just be this routine. Since I’m a model at a music company, everything is new. The conversations that I have… it feels like I’m learning something. And the conversations are deep.
Mr Wook Kim, Stylist
What’s a typical week for you?
It’s hard to explain what I do in a week. It’s always changing, and it depends on who I’m working with. I don’t think I’m necessarily a very creative person, per se, but I’m very affected by the people around me. If an artist comes to me and plays a new piece of music, I get inspired by that, then we talk about the video and the styling, we just start having a conversation and things start happening. That’s the way I tend to work.
How would you describe what you do with Zion. T?
To be honest, I’ve known Zion. T for years, but we haven’t been working together for so long. So, we haven’t done a music video yet, but it’s fun, because Zion. T has a style, he knows what he wants, which outfits, and I’ve got my own style. Right now, we’re in the process of trying to mesh that together.
Is working with several artists at once a bit of a challenge?
I believe every job should be a challenge. If you’re not scared, if you’re not feeling the pressure, then it’s not fun. I feel the pressure, but it’s exciting, too – a larger opportunity that I haven’t experienced.
Where, in general, do you get your ideas from?
I’m a slightly weird person who can be inspired by weird things. I can think of something while I’m playing a video game, or watching a movie, or even seeing some old guy walking down the street that’s wearing a piece that’s really fresh. For menswear styling, I’m sometimes even inspired by womenswear. These things just happen.