“I have a weird job.”
Ask Yena Kim what she does for a living and that’s how she’ll begin as she reaches for her cell phone. “It’s futile to explain what I do,” she tells me over a video chat from her Brooklyn home on a summer morning. “The more I say, the more ridiculous it sounds. I just pull up my Instagram and say, ‘This is my dog. This is what I do.’ There’s always an immediate shock.”
The aforementioned IG account is for Menswear Dog, which showcases her 11-year-old Bodhi. More than 400,000 followers tune in to the Shiba Inu’s page to see him rock mens’ clothing. Whether he’ll be serving face in a vintage chunky turtleneck fit for a brutal winter, throw on a chic in Saint Laurent biker jacket, or donning a Brooks Brothers blazer fit for a power lunch on Wall Street is anybody’s guess.
Yena’s long-winding path to becoming one of the leaders in the dog influencer space is a unique one, beginning with her childhood. Born in Korea, her family moved to India when she was 7, where she attended boarding school in New Delhi. At home, she owned quite a collection of Earth’s little creatures–birds, turtles, and rabbits. Kim would even bring dogs in from off the street. After a stretch of sadness due to one passing, her father began giving them away without notice once they reached their latter years to avoid young Yena experiencing the hurt again.
Due to India’s regulations, she was only allowed to spend 45 minutes on the Internet daily. She’d use the bulk of it to handle school assignments, then scramble to satisfy her jones for U.S. pop culture–ripping music off Napster and sleuthing out some clips of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
It was no surprise to her friends when she headed to the States for college, choosing to attend New York’s Rochester Institute of Technology to major in Graphic Design at first. But a year and change later Kim opted out, transferring to The Fashion Institute of Technology in the heart of Manhattan. While at FIT she interned at acclaimed fashion houses like Oscar de la Renta, Calvin Klein, and Ralph Lauren, where she landed a full-time role as a Women’s Black Label Beading & Embellishments designer upon graduation in 2011.
A job fresh out of college at arguably the best American fashion brand ever is a dream come true to many. Back then Yena and Bohdi, a 2-year-old pup at the time, would hang out only when her hectic schedule permitted. Throughout our chat, Yena refers to Bodhi as “the love of my life,” cheerily recalling how they met when asked.
During a FIT schoolday afternoon, Yena visited an Upper East Side pet shop, as she did every so often. She was “possessed” when the tiny Shiba Inu first glanced her way. “His look said, ‘You’re going to take me home.’ I couldn’t leave.” Despite the fact she was totally unprepared to have a dog, Yena left with Bodhi. “I bought everything I needed that day,” she says.
New York City may be known for its crowded streets, and eventful, sleepless nights. Surprisingly, it can be quite lonely, too. Especially when your family is across the globe. Bodhi helped Yena feel at home away from home. When she’d get back in from a long day at work, there was a bouncing bundle of fur ready to welcome her. But the benefits of their pairing only began there.
One rainy day she looked over at Bodhi, who was relaxing by her window. “I had menswear laying around,” Kim remembers, “and he was just being his handsome self.” She reached for her phone to snap a few pictures. It was then that Yena had a thought that would flip her life upside down: “What if I put a jacket on him? What would he do?”
She figured Bodhi would scurry away. He didn’t. Instead, “he started giving me all of these angles. I got so excited. I pulled the treats out and it was like a party.” Naturally, she posted her photos to the only forum that mattered back then: Facebook. And the results were, to be frank, humbling. Not because the snaps of Bodhi didn’t get any likes. They got a ton. Actually, the numbers her dog garnered vastly outweighed the amount of attention Yena would get when she posted pics that featured her.
“The power of dogs,” Yena says through laughter now, “Whoa! I was like, ‘I’ve never gotten that number of likes on anything before. Nobody cares about my personal life.’ But this dog? People were like, ‘Oh, my God!. He’s so handsome! This is so cool!” Those early images of Bodhi in a cardigan and necktie springboarded Yena into action.
Her then-husband immediately set up a Tumblr page and Instagram account. It wasn’t long before GQ featured Bodhi. At the top of 2013, the magazine said he’s got “more style than some of our two-legged friends.” Almost instantly, Yena had two full-time jobs–Fashion designer Monday through Friday from 9-5 and manager to an Internet-famous dog with the remaining time. She and Bodhi suddenly were raking in interview requests and invites to private showings from fashion companies. Big brands began reaching out to her with “free” clothes, hoping that she’d put them on Bodhi. Back then the influencer market was virtually non-existent.
“No one was monetizing their Instagram posts,” Yena says. “This is before legit agencies were doing that. I didn’t even know my dog’s rate.” From the outside, it looked like she was flourishing in two worlds with her Ralph Lauren gig and a dog that was being written about by marquee publications. But she learned quickly: “Getting featured doesn’t mean you can pay your rent.”
Even with no sure path of how to turn her passion project into absolute financial gain, Yena leaned even more into the Menswear Dog business. So much so that the day job was starting to cramp her style. Just months removed from that first GQ story, Yena burned through all of her vacation and sick days at work, meaning that if she was going to keep the pace she and Bodhi were moving at the time (boasting new stories in TIME and on CNN), she’d have to make a big decision.
“Do I really want to stay at this really amazing full-time job where I could probably have a stable future,” she asked herself. “Or do I want to have the adventure of a lifetime with my dog where I don’t know what’ll happen but I’m excited about it?” She wondered how she’d pay her rent without a steady paycheck. She feared how her folks would react if she quit her hard-earned position. “Imagine explaining to my Asian parents,” she says, “that, ‘I’m going to quit my job to work with my dog.’”
With less than one month’s salary saved, Yena resigned from Ralph Lauren. Without that big job at the well-known company, she immediately felt a lessened sense of self-worth. “It was weird,” Yena recalls. “When you work for a company like that, you wrap much of your identity up in that title and role. So the question that comes when you don’t have that job anymore is, ‘Who are you?’ If I’m not the person who works at Ralph Lauren sketching, who am I?” It didn’t help that with the new-found time she had to invest in Menswear Dog, she’d come across negative comments on her posts. “I don’t know what the big deal is,” one head-scratching hater tagged. “It’s just an iPhone photo of a dog.”
Yena says the snide comments, the urgent need for rent money, and the identity crisis lit “a fire under my ass.” She kept believing. Supportive parents helped, too. “If you have confidence,” they said, “go do it.” Yena learned proper photography skills thanks to a collection of YouTube tutorials and proper school courses. She adores the memories of those days. “I was working hard and I was focused because I didn’t have a choice. Yena also shored up on the business front, learning how to maneuver in the murky world of digital celebrity.
With her accrued knowledge combined with her knack for styling and successfully surfing from the bygone era blog-era of #Menswear when simply rocking a blazer or an ascot separated the common man from the natty one into this post streetwear, almost anything goes moment fellas are thriving in now, business is booming.
Various brands reach out to her and Bodhi to use their products as he coolly sports a look that fits the spirit of the work. “I tap on the ottoman,” she says of her prep process for a photo shoot, “and he knows it’s his time to shine.” Some water, few doggy treats, and some chill electronica tracks are all he needs to be good to go.
Though it seems like he’s a highly obedient dog, Yena reveals that such is not always the case. “He’s not well-behaved at all,” she says. “He’s incredibly charming. But you can’t control him.” Some of his lowlights include peeing on the expensive carpet of a Stetson showroom, chewing up thousands of dollars worth of shoes, and leaving “very spiteful revenge poops” when he doesn’t get enough attention.
Their love endures, “accidents” be damned. Yena’s courage to drive toward her dream of a wild career turn has not only allowed her to spend quality time with her bestie but also grow tremendously as a creative and explore “new curiosities.” She’s a full-fledged Digital Consultant now, helping others wheel through their online endeavors easier than she did.
She may be taking on new roles, but don’t expect her to ever get off track. From time to time, Yena gets calls asking her to appear on zany new pet TV shows with potentially problematic dog moms and dads. She always declines. The only new addition to the business is that her other dog Luc is sneaking into her and Bodhi’s content. The 2-year-old Jindo Yena adopted from Korean K9 Rescue because “he’s so cute” is been showing interest in Bohdi’s shoots. Time will tell if he becomes a pro model like his bud.
“I always focus on the quality,” Yena says, “content that feels good, is about dogs and stylish fashion.” That equation has proven successful so far. Why stop now?
“Fashion can be difficult for some people,” Kim says of why she thinks Menswear Dog continues to thrive. “You kind of compare yourself with whoever is modeling what you’re seeing. There’s none of that when you’re looking at [a dog, Bodhi], who’s so different. You look at the clothes more carefully.”
When Yena first started out with Bodhi business, she was timid about sharing it with friends. “There was a point,” Kim says, “where I’d think about how my friends are doctors and I put clothes on a dog. I was embarrassed.” Those feelings don’t exist anymore. Today she knows what she and Bodhi bring to the table and provide to his fans: Happiness. One flip through the New York Times–another renowned publication the pair has been featured in–reveals that life is hard for many. We could all use a reason to smile. Enter Menswear Dog.
“Now I can talk about it joyfully,” she says. “And own it.”
Story penned by Brad Weté
Video by Serrandon