Karen Kim has led two lives as a working mom. When her first baby Wylie was born almost four years ago, she was in the thick of her career as a product director at luxe fashion e-tailer La Garçonne in New York City. Now with her second baby, 10-month old Casper, she’s an entrepreneur working from home in Toronto alongside her husband Morgan, who’s also at the helm of his own biz. Karen is the founder or Binu Binu, a natural skincare company inspired by the rituals of the Korean bath house, which she launched two years ago (during which she made the decision to move back to her hometown in Canada). Her soaps are sculptural, beautiful in their simplicity and available in unique formulations such as Hibiscus Clay and Celadon Tea Ceremony. Along with her handmade soaps the line also includes cleansing balms and scrubs, all of which has earned her a serious cult following.
Already featured in T Magazine, Kinfolk, and Vogue, Karen is building her business in stride and learning that working motherhood, in whatever shape or form, is a beautiful mess.
“My experience with Casper has been so different. He’s only nine-months old, and for the entire time Morgan and I have both worked from home. It’s hard to squeeze in our to-do list during his naps because we’re never sure if he’s going to sleep for 20-minutes or two-hours. We’re constantly negotiating who’s going to hold him and since I have to use my hands so much for work, any hands-free time is really valuable.
In comparison, Wylie was such a great sleeper. We were living in a small New York City apartment at the time, so it was easier to keep an eye on her (with no stairs and less square footage she couldn’t go far). Wylie was born in the winter and I had no family around to support me as a new parent. What a tough time that was. I went back to work after three months — considered a generous amount of time in the States where maternity leave is unfortunately not available to everyone. However, going back to work was a a bit of a relief because it was something I already knew how to do, whereas with motherhood—I had no idea what I was doing!
I felt at a loss so many times in those early months with latching problems, two bouts with mastitis and the inevitable sleep deprivation. We lived in a six floor walk up and it snowed so much that winter; I definitely was going a little stir crazy. When it came to going back to work, it was hard leaving Wylie but my feet definitely felt lighter in a way, especially since we decided Morgan would stay home and care for her, which in hindsight was the best decision for our family. He was born to be a dad and I felt so much relief that one of us knew what to do.
Back at work I travelled a lot. Every few months I would be away for up to two weeks at a time. The seasonal fashion industry schedule felt non-stop. That was tough being away, especially because I was still breastfeeding. I would have appointments at designer show rooms in Paris and be worried that I forgot my breast pads and milk would leak through my shirt. I would have to find places to pump — usually in a bathroom or in the backseat of the cab — and then surreptitiously try to dump the milk somewhere (usually some place sketchy). It’s really lonely spending nights by yourself in a hotel room in a strange city with your double-breast pump while you’re trying to FaceTime your baby in a different time zone. No one tells you about these things before you become a mom.
Having said that, motherhood definitely sped up the decision to take charge of my own schedule and try to find that elusive sense of balance. Having kids forced me to realize that I can’t always throw myself into work at one hundred per cent. They inspired me to branch off on my own and have more a say of what I do and when I do it. Changing my point of view also inspired me to move my family to Toronto. I came home for my brother’s wedding in August, fell back in love with the city, and we moved by October. We packed up our stuff in a truck to be closer to family and begin a life that just felt easier to breathe in.
After I had Casper I still worked because as a small business owner, when you stop, the work stops, and full mat leave was not really an option. I was still doing all my production, press and sales at almost the same clip that I was going at before giving birth. While caring for a newborn baby, I quickly felt burnt out and got really sick. I realized that the pressure that I felt was completely self-imposed, so I listened to my body and gave myself time to rest and just spend time with him. Being in charge of my own schedule means I can be with my baby and not keep up an impossible or unhealthy pace.
Of course, I dream of how I want Binu Binu to evolve. I’m so excited about expanding it beyond a product line one day. The biggest challenge is how to grow from here. There are a lot of steps involved: Finding a new work space, scaling up production and growing a team to help me reach my goals. While Casper’s still so young though, I don’t want to push myself into doing things too fast. I feel blessed to be able to spend this time with him. Balancing work and motherhood this second time around while running my own business is challenging; the difference is that I feel like I have more experience to guide me into making decisions that help to create a little more room for every part of my life.”
Karen worked in product development for years, including retail brand Aritzia early in her career. “I’ve always loved creating products for other people and I finally felt ready to do it for myself. I took all my experience and created my own vision.” The result includes signature bars that are each hand-cut to form a monolithic cleansing block that adds a sculptural element to the bath.
“When I first launched, I didn’t go out to all the beauty stores first. I went to the fashion boutiques who are increasingly apothecary-style objects. I see soap as sculptural in addition to being a functional and delightful beauty product,” she says. “I’m a big fan of [artist] Donald Judd. I love the simplicity and the Spartan, angular nature of his work and took inspiration from his point of view.”
Binu Binu’s Haenyed Sea Woman Soap is inspired by the elderly female divers in Jeju, Korea, who dive tank-free for the catch of the day to support their families.
Karen personally oversees the production and packaging of her products made of 100% botanical ingredients and essential oils. “I took a workshop in New York where I learned that the basic principles of making soap is mixing oils and botanicals together. For me, it’s become all about the ideas and inspiration of the added ingredients that makes it so personal and creative.”
The books that inspire her work include Undesigning the Bath by architect Leonard Koren who challenges the modern notion of bathroom design and says it should be more elemental and primal.
Karen’s production of goodies and cold-pressed soaps has become easier since she hired extra hands. “It was difficult to give up control because there’s so much of me that went into this launch, but it’s been eye-opening to relinquish that and see how much more I can get done when I ask for help.”
Lifecycling is a magazine created by Japanese interior brand IDÉE and it punctuates Karen’s aesthetic for spare and defined minimalism that charms with its low-key sense of luxury.
Casper sleeps in Wylie’s former Ikea crib which was chosen consciously because of it’s lack of bells and whistles so common in modern design. “I wanted something quiet and minimal and lucky for me, it was affordable too.”
Lyrics from the Twin Peaks theme song celebrate her wedding day. “I walked down the aisle to these words. I totally know it’s cheesy but that’s also why I love it so much.”
“During my whole career in the fashion business, I always loved wearing a smock-like dress. When I became pregnant, it became a must-have for me.”
Skincare is more of a priority for this mom than makeup. Among her favourites: Kiehl’s Creme de Corps which she relied on heavily to moisturize her belly during her pregnancy, Canadian brand F. Miller skincare (the Toning Mist is shown here), Dede Hair Mist and Mario Badescu Enzyme Cleansing Gel.
More graphically-pleasing books from the littles’ collection.Her go-to bags are classic shapes from Céline and Comme des Garçons. “They’re from my old life. Now it’s all about my business and my kids. I should probably spoil myself more but for now I’m happy to make the most of what I already have.”
“I never really wore fragrance before I started wearing Gypsy Water by Byredo Parfums. It’s a unisex and earthy scent—I”m not really into traditional florals. And I loved the story of a scent that brings you closer to nature.” She’s also hooked on Lucas Papaw Ointment as a lip balm (an Aussie friend introduced her to it), Yves Saint Laurent Touche Eclat (who isn’t in love with this stuff?) and a hairpin from LA-based Creatures of Comfort who’s motto is to “choose ease over fuss.”It’s one of the few pins that I’ve found that doesn’t tug or rip my hair.”
This mom’s love of simplicity, texture and design isn’t lost on her kids’ wardrobes. They work a minimal and stylish beat too.
More exercises in shape and restraint: A wooden hair bobble from Saskia Diez that Karen wore on her wedding day and a go-to ring by jewellery designer Ming Yu Wang who is similarly inspired by architecture.