I met Kin Woo a year ago at a friend’s going away party in London. We only spoke briefly, but I remembered him well because of his double profession: he’s a doctor who also happens to write the popular fashion column, Insiders, for AnOther Magazine and starting next month will be a writer-at-large at Dazed, a magazine dedicated to “fashion and youth culture” in London.
He’d just gotten off a night shift at the hospital when he met me at a café in the heart of Hackney. His ability to balance being a full-time doctor and a prolific fashion journalist makes the rest of us look lazy – after you read this interview, you won’t be able to find any good excuses for missing deadlines or putting off pursuing your dream job until “later.”
When you were in high school, what kind of career did you hope to have?
I thought that I would be a lawyer because my dad was a lawyer and I assumed I would do that. I grew up in Malaysia and then moved to Perth, Australia when I was 14. In high school, I got very high marks and in Australia the most prestigious thing to go into is medicine, so everyone just told me to go into medicine.
As a consequence, I hated medicine at the beginning because it felt like I was always home studying and all my friends were out having fun, but I feel really lucky now. I have a job and I’ve always had a job, and some of my friends who had an easier time at the University of Western Australia haven’t always had jobs.
How did you get into writing while studying medicine?
At university, I wrote for the university paper. I would interview bands and write about music. But I have always loved fashion – back in Malaysia, my brother and I used to watch all the fashion shows and re-watch them and then draw designs for our own pieces. We liked things like Christine Lacroix or Versace. We’d watch Elsa Klensch’s fashion shows and Fashion TV on a loop.
We’d design our own clothes – but I never felt the urge to sew. I knew I wasn’t good at it.
Did you ever think about dropping out of medical school and pursuing a career in fashion?
No, not really. I was always interested in art. A lot of people in medicine are usually upper middle class and have the same interests as each other: golf or cars. I’m just not interested in those things. I had friends who were really high achievers in medical school and they were involved in local Australian politics and running marathons – but I knew I didn’t want to do those things.
Somebody once said to me, “As a doctor, you can do anything. You can try your hand at anything.” It may not be necessarily true, but I took it to heart.
What happened after you graduated?
I worked for a year as a doctor in Perth and then I decided, “I’m just going to take a year out and work at a magazine.” For your first year out of medical school, you have to stay in Australia, but I left as soon as I could.
How did you end up in London?
I always thought I had to live in London. We used to spend all our summers here, and I have an aunt and uncle who live here. I just had really amazing memories of spending my entire summers in London – going out to museums and visiting the countryside. I had a really idealized view of London and when you have these experiences at a really young age, it sticks with you. I always thought I’d move here as soon as I could.
When I came over from Australia, I was among the last batch of doctors who didn’t have to re-sit exams to practice here. I think it’s a lot harder now.
How did you get your start in magazines?
I had two flatmates in London and both of them were studying journalism. It looked really fun. One was a fashion stylist assistant at Elle and the other was a deputy editor at ID magazine.
That gave me the idea. You move to a new city like London to have new experiences. I didn’t just want to work –I wanted to experience something I could only do in London.
I saved up enough money to take a year off and pursue working in magazines. Everyone was really discouraging about taking a year off – my bosses, my mom – the fear is that you leave medicine and then you can’t get back into the system. But, see, that kind of argument makes me want to do these things more. I was 24 when I decided to pursue working at a magazine.
Where did you apply?
I wrote to Dazed magazine and I think they were just amused by it. My letter said, “I’m a doctor but I’m gonna take time out. Can I be an intern at your magazine?” I’m sure that’s not a very common occurrence.
The internship was unpaid. Mainly it was amusing, and I was amused by it. I did everything all the other interns do. But I didn’t make anyone cups of tea or coffee. I can’t imagine being any good at that.
I would do research or transcribe interviews or offer them my ideas, but I was very time efficient. I did jobs very quickly.
Did you get to write when you were interning?
I wrote a little book review when I was there, but that’s it. Then I ran out of money and had to go back and work as a doctor. I was at the magazine for less than six months before I went back to medicine. For a year, I kept pitching story ideas and the editor never really bit. He was always really encouraging but it literally took a year of pitching of ideas and in that time, I got an idea of what makes a good story.
Were you ever offended when your pitches get turned down at the beginning?
No, not offended. I just thought –it’s a matter of two things: a) Do you have good ideas and b) Do you have good access? And I didn’t have good access and also, when you pitch for a magazine, you have to try to think about what might be interesting in a few months time, which can be hard – especially when you’re working as a doctor, not as a journalist.
How did you eventually break into writing consistently?
I owe a lot of it to the fact that Dazed launched a website and it was one of the first magazines that had a website to generate new content. Because of that, there was a lot of freedom – so they accepted more stories, but I still wasn’t really getting paid. But I would encourage other people to write for websites – it helps you hone a writing style.
And I didn’t feel any pressure because I was a doctor. You could fail or succeed in your writing and either way, it was fine.
At the time, Susanna Lau of Style Bubble became the editor of the Dazed website, and I think it was really through her that I started doing a lot more fashion stuff.
It’s a weird, funny story how I got my big break. I had just got a job promotion in medicine and had signed up for a five-year training program, but the job wasn’t going to start for a month. In September, she had just started as an editor and I just went to her and said, “What do you think about me going over to New York and covering the fashion shows for you?” It was random – they’d never done anything like that before.
I went on my own dime, but I had enough money saved up for the flights. But I had to apply for fashion show tickets and people were like, “Who is this person coming in? We’ve never heard of him. Why is he asking for tickets to shows?” They knew the magazine but they’d never heard of me.
But my editor was really encouraging and pestered the PR people to give me tickets. There’s a sense of hierarchy in fashion, and I didn’t really have that leverage. I was like, “Just give me a standing ticket – it doesn’t matter.” Of course, I would like to be sitting down at the show but I don’t have to be in the front. For the first few seasons, I mostly paid for everything but then they started giving me a lump sum and paid for flights.
I wasn’t a struggling writer, so I could fly over there and stay in a hotel. Because I had a salary, I had that freedom. I was getting really good feedback from my editor.
I think it was a very different and unusual way to get into fashion writing – quite ballsy. All I ever did before that was write music stuff, but I just decided, “Well, I’m just going to cover fashion shows.” There was a lot more freedom back then, though. It’d be more difficult to do that somewhere now. It’s a shame, but true.
Was it nerve-wracking to go behind the scenes at big fashion shows and meet famous designers?
You feel like cattle. You go to a show, and the show ends and you have to rush backstage and queue up for a really long time to talk to the designer. You start the interview and you’ll keep being interrupted during it. The show might be at eight, but you might not interview a designer until 11pm at night. Then you go back and file copy and send it in the next day. It’s a lot less glamorous than people think.
You have to be precise and you have to make contacts at the same time.
We did a lot of interesting stories together with the designers. With Susanna, the former editor, I felt free to experiment and try new things, like interviewing Chloe Sevigny.
Do you still cover fashion shows?
I covered fashion shows in New York or Paris Menswear for about three years – from 2009-2011 –but I don’t go to the shows anymore. My experience was a weird convergence of opportunities. It makes sense now that they get a local writer because it costs less money. And I’m still a doctor full-time.
Do you tell your fellow doctors about your fashion writing?
I have to be quite selective with who I tell. Other people might think you aren’t being sincere as a doctor. I just gauge the situation. People in medicine are often conservative, so I can see why people might be old-fashioned and not get it. I’ve done both for eight years now and it’s fine. I don’t need to mention it.
What is your role at Dazed magazine now?
I’ve just become a columnist in the newly relaunched Dazed. They’ve cut down to six issues a year, so I’ll be contributing a column every issue, in addition to other things.
I also write a digital column called “Insiders” for AnOther Magazine. It’s an interview column and I love doing it because I have a lot of freedom and you get to curate the mix of people that go into it. I’ve been writing it for five years now — and we’re up to 75 interviews.
How do you balance your time with writing and medicine?
I try to be very particular about what commissions I take on, which translates into coming off as snobby, but my editors understand. I’m very explicit – they know that I’m a doctor. But other magazines come to me and offer me work, and I say no and they think, “What is wrong with this guy?”
I have to be really good at time management. And quite strict. A lot of people can’t manage their time, but if I can do it, anyone can. I’m at the hospital from 8.30am – 5pm. Most of my interviews are scheduled at the end of day. I’ll ask to meet someone at 5.30 in central London, but with someone really important, I try to take a day off, which I can do if I have notice.
I’m very good with deadlines. I can do a quick interview — I think it comes from being a doctor because I can cut through the chase, almost like talking to a patient. I don’t have time to waffle on or do small talk. It’s very focused.
Then I write the piece that night, because I think, “I can’t spend any more time on this. I’ve got my own medicine to get back to – it has to be done now.”
Do you ever struggle to find the time for both?
The hardest part is coordinating with big names. For my first big feature, I interviewed Feist and Cillian Murphy together. With two big successful people, it took six months to coordinate an agreed date – and I had to rely on a producer on the film to sort it out. But it was amazing. It was 2009 and the magazine editor said, “I’m going to give you an 8-page and you can speak with them for an hour.”
I was petrified! All my other interviews had been 20 minutes, and I thought, “How can I speak for an hour?” But they were both so relaxed. We just went to a pub in London with no publicists or anything like that. We had drinks and just started talking. Nowadays, there are always PR people surrounding you when you do big interviews.
That was my first big feature and after that, the editor knew I could write the short pieces and I could be given bigger features.
How did you hone your writing style without any formal training?
I’ve always a read a lot a lot of magazines. Dazed and ID were things I read when I was growing up and that was one of those reasons I wanted to move to London. It was amazing to actually go and get a job working at Dazed.
I always just had a good memory and I would always keep really good articles. I would read a good article and save it and reread it. I’d think, “I like that structure and I like how it started – maybe I can use that.” I still think like that. I have quite a good memory so if I’m researching a piece on a designer, I can remember a piece from five or six years ago.
I learned by reading a lot and writing a lot. I’m interested in how people do that because I never studied journalism. I think you can either can write or can’t write.
I just Googled you and saw that you produced the music video for “1901” by Phoenix! How did that happen?
It was just a one-off. Basically I approached the band’s management and they proposed filming them at the rehearsals before a gig. I found the directors, Ben and Dylan, gave them £150 pounds and we shot the video in an hour while they were rehearsing. The band were very gracious and were great to work with and the directors were very inventive coming up with the light display on so little money.
The record label loved the video and paid the directors for the rights to the video which we simultaneously premiered on Dazed Digital and MTV. The video’s been seen over 5 million times and was nominated for a bunch of awards. Not bad for £150! I have produced a bunch of other things but none as successfully as the Phoenix video. I’ve also given it up – too stressful!
What is the next step in your writing career?
I don’t have any bigger aims. As far as writing goes, I’ve done more than I ever thought I would. All I ever wanted was to see my name in print. And now to get my own column – it’s far more than I ever thought I would achieve. I never would have thought that would happen.
How did other writers treat you when they find out your a doctor?
I felt like a real interloper at first, but I’ve done it long enough that I’ve proved myself, so I don’t care what people think. People know me as the doctor who writes about fashion.
I’m still interested and passionate about it. I don’t see any reason to quit. There will come a time when I’m not interested – before I was writing music and then switched to fashion – and I’ll move onto something else.
Do you consider yourself a doctor or a writer?
A doctor, because 98 percent of the time I am. It would be false to say that I’m a writer, although I do write.
What’s your advice to struggling writers?
My advice is you have to read a lot and write a lot. A lot of fashion writers are interested in the superficial aspect of it, but the fashion writers I like are interested in a lot of different things. You need to be interested in more than just the glamour of it or shallow parties.
To be a good fashion writer, you have to obsessive and a little bit nerdy – that helps. A slight obsessiveness is good for succeeding in a lot of things. Write for websites or a blog or anything that hones your style.
I try to sell myself as a legitimate writer so when I interview someone big, I can’t go, “Let’s take a picture together!” which is a shame. I just feel really lucky. I don’t take any of it for granted. I always think it will end. Every single piece I hand in, I think, it’s the last piece because that’s when they’ll figure out I can’t write.
But for me, what’s the worst that can happen? I’ll just go back to being a doctor and that’s perfectly fine. A lot of people can’t get a sense a perspective on an issue and they think something is the worst thing to happen in the universe – but being a doctor, you know when something is very trivial in the grand scheme of things.
What’s your advice to someone trying to break into fashion writing, specifically?
If I were an editor, I’d like to see someone be sincere and committed. Not just like, “Oh, can I just do it so I can go to a fashion party?”
And to be prepared. I remember once having to conduct an interview outside of a concert – I was in the reception area interviewing Etienne Russo, a fashion show producer, who spoke to me in between producing the Chanel Metiers D’Arts show.
Once I was at dinner that I had to leave abruptly in order to interview Johnny Jewel of the Chromatics because the band were just about to go on tour in Canada. I was left standing on a porch in the cold holding the phone to the dictaphone.
If I know an interview might happen, I carry a tape recorder with me everywhere just in case. Sometimes I feel like MacGyver.