An Alaskan Designer That Wants You To Love The Great Outdoors

Tae Kim explains how his childhood in Alaska informed his current business. He details his career from the design director of The North Face for over six years to his creation of a movement he calls casual camping.



The taxi crept up the hill and suddenly it felt like an extra in The Streets of San Francisco, waiting for Karl Malden and Michael Douglas to burn rubber as they tore in front of us. But they didn’t, we rolled along at a sedate pace enjoying the bright evening. When the sun sets in San Francisco, it has a timeless quality to it. Everyone and everything felt like it was napping, the cab came to a stop on Mariposa Street, home at the time to Alite Designs.

Alite Designs make outdoor wear that or as they say on their about us page, ‘we’re a small group of rabble-rousers that wants you to outside more! Since or home base in San Francisco we know first hand that city living is a lame excuse for being cooped up. Magical outdoor fun is all around us, no matter the location. And we make a bunch of cool stuff that helps you get out there!’

The office is located in Potrero Hill neighbourhood. Behind the shutters lay the brains, spine and entrails of the operation. The description of entrails depicts the sale of stock that they were having,

‘Sorry about the mess, we are in the process of moving down the street so we are selling some things off,’ said Tae Kim, founder of the company.

He took a seat at the long picnic bench placed inside the warehouse, the shutters were pushed up letting the warm sunshine spill through. A fluffy white toy dog started barking, Kim lifted her up to the tabletop where she relaxed and took her seat, ‘she’s really skittish.’

A Leader

Kim looks like a rugged warrior; physically it is clear to see that he is fit and strong. His eyes lock with you when he speaks, instead of it being intimidating it’s comforting, you definitely feel safe in his presence. He listens intently and never interrupts, the sentences are considered and he hits you unawares from time to time with his wicked sense of humour that is delivered in a deadpan fashion.

He was born in Seoul but raised in Anchorage. When he enrolled in school in Alaska he got the nickname Twuan he smiles, ‘when the teacher at my school first called his out my full name, the other students thought she was saying Twuan like Antwuan.’ It was his mother that ignited his creative inclinations. He relays the time that he wanted her to buy him a jacket but she could not afford it, ‘so she taught me how to sew one.’

That natural talent for craftsmanship sent him to study art in Michigan, ‘when I first saw some hookers in Detroit, I thought how pretty they were dressed,’ noting my confusion he adds, ‘in Alaska you don’t see many women especially in light dress, I had nothing to compare them too, I had no idea that there were hookers!’

It Started At Stanford

His first job out of college was with Ford. He said you could spend years working on one aspect of the car, ‘one of my colleagues just did brake pedals, nothing else.’ He found working there a great base training but there was no risk with design, everything evolved slowly. He applied for Master of Fine Arts (MFA), Industrial and Product Design in Stanford University and got in, after that his career took a clear direction towards the outdoors. He knows it was his upbringing that lured him towards it, ‘I was surrounded by the outdoors and there were always opportunities for adventure whether that be through camping or snowboarding etc.’

He became the design director of The North Face for over six years but like most adventurers the time came for him to take control of his destiny. Now he runs a multi-million dollar company and he gets to do design his way, ‘we are all about well-designed products that are extremely functional and ridiculously fun and easy to use. Our award-winning Monarch chair weighs a mere pound. It collapses into the size of super burrito for easy travel, and can sit on almost any terrain (level or not).’

It’s the humour in his descriptions of products and design names that make the company so appealing to urban folk that want to connect to nature, he continues, ‘then there is our Sexy Hotness sleeping bags which let you walk around, use the outdoor lavatory, and zip up with other fellow Sexy Hotness sleeping bag. Hell, you can zip as many bags together as you like… we don’t judge. Then there is our outdoor cooking utensil, the Clover Cook set, includes both a stirring spoon and spatula that combine to form tongs! Everything we design is about getting people excited about going outside!’

What has been a huge success for the company is the Ranger Station concept; basically you can rent gear from Alite Design making it an accessible and affordable option for many people. Kim also leads expeditions for people that have no experience camping, ‘it is so important to get folks outside, I like to show them how easy it is and then they become hooked for life.’

Near Death Experience

He stretches out his legs and runs his tanned fingers through his beard and smiles, ‘I had a near death experience.’ His statement hangs there for a moment before he continues, ‘I went swimming in Aquatic Park Historic District in San Francisco. I swam out a little too far, got swept out by current, panicked and thought I was going to die. The waters were rough that day,’ he says as he adjusts his t-shirt. ‘Thankfully some guy swam by and I asked for some help, he helped me control my breathing and helped me swim back to shore.’ When pressed as to why he brought that he incident up he laughs and again settles his eyes into a fixed focus, ‘as cliché as it sounds in that horrible moment a calm came over me, I really thought I was going to die and I realised that I love what I do.’

He wasn’t clear at what point the next thought entered his mind but we can assume it was as he was guided back to shore, ‘I knew that Alite was on the right track and that I had the right idea with casual camping but then I also realized that I needed to concentrate and take it more seriously.’ Which he has done. He fiercely leads by immersing himself into what great design needs to convey in order to infect people with the awe and gratitude that he has for the great outdoors.

Read out more about Alite Designs here…

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