London Calling, J J.S Lee

About 10 years ago, designers Benjamin Cho, Doo-Ri Chung, Richard Chai were a big hit in New York. These designers, mostly Korean-American, have either stepped down from their own brands or have disappeared from the press in the recent years. Whilst the Korean power seemed to have diminished in New York, 2 rising stars are exciting the fashion crowds in London. Korean designers Eudon and J J.S. Lee, are the two names to look out for. Last Spring, Eudon’s 2014 SS collection covered the front page of Style.Com while J J.S. Lee was recently announced as the awardee of London Fashion Week’s prestigious Fashion Forward Award. 

The 2 designers are both showing the collection as part of the official London Fashion Week schedule, where star designers Tom Ford to emerging talents Christopher Kane, Mary Katrantzou, J.W. Anderson and Simone Rocha also present their newest collections. <Vogue> Korea visited the 2 designers’ studios in London to meet them.

J J.S. Lee

This is the second visit to Jackie’s studio. Last summer, Sarah Mower, the esteemed journalist who is the Contributing Editor for American <Vogue> and the Ambassador to Emerging Talents for the British Fashion Council, suggested Jackie’s studio as the venue for the portrait shot and the interview to take place. Jackie is a 4 times recipient of the New Generation Award. The scheme is a collaborative platform between the BFC and Top Shop and Sarah is the chair of the judging committee. The two have known each other since Jackie’s Central Saint Martins days – it has become a tradition for Sarah to visit during Professor Louise Wilson’s final evaluation for the MA graduates. Not everyone makes it to the MA show, but Jackie did and she won the prestigious Harrods Award.

Today’s interview is all about Jackie. Sarah Mower’s not here and the mood board on the white wall of her studio, which was the backdrop for Sarah and Jackie’s portrait taken for the ‘Angel Investors’ Interview feature last October isn’t there anymore either. The wall has been replaced with the new season’s theme, the 2014 AW collection to be presented at London Fashion Week in February – news of the announcement of Jackie not only being the recipient of Fashion Forward but also to open London Fashion Week as the first show had just broke out as this magazine was about to be published. 

The mood board is where Jackie’s work starts. “I was confident in cutting patterns but developing a design concept was a new process for me. Luckily I had no bad habits and Professor Louise taught me how to begin.” Jackie was a trained pattern cutter in Korea, where designers mostly turn to the department stores for research and inspiration. In London, Jackie spent hours in a café, watching the street, being inspired by people passing by. She would then head to the school’s library where resource was endless. The library is home to original issues of <Vogue> from the first issue published in 1916 to the most recent issues. “The archive is amazing. To touch, smell and read from these dated magazines is what makes me love London even more.”  

For the MA course at Central Saint Martins, students have to create 3 projects.  “Professor Louise is pretty tough. During the final evaluation, Louise went through the 3 portfolios I’ve put together. She picked one illustration out, shouted at another tutor asking why this wasn’t developed nor used for portfolios 1 or 3? The illustration was a combination of a cut out portrait face and a body drawing. It was very simple and minimal. Here it is.” Jackie showed me the back of her studio door where the illustration hung. Ah, yes it was the post card image of J J.S. Lee, Top Shop displayed for visitors to take away seasons ago at the London Fashion Week New Gen booth within the Sommerset House Exhibition space. Every season Top Shop has been putting out souvenirs for people to take away. One season it was the badge with each designer’s logo cleverly placed in a gumball machine, another, a notebook and pencil combo, and back then it was the post card. 

“Commercialism became too much for me when I was working in the industry back in Seoul. That’s when I got attached to minimalism. I love the androgynous and chic look.” One illustration, hidden in the midst of 3 books, was indeed the essence of Jackie’s design spirit. And of course, Professor Louise recognized that. On the bottom of the illustration stood out a small hand written text, ‘minimalism?’ with a question mark.

Her signature, the embossed hidden collar, was created during the 2nd year at CSM. “I am attracted to the androgynous look, but it doesn’t mean girls should act or be like boys. Details and fabrics in my collection are very feminine.” The hidden collar was created as the finishing touch to the look. Inspiration came from the Russian Constructivism in the 1920s. Jackie had this idea of creating an embossed surface after seeing materials like sand and wood being constructed on the canvas. Jackie didn’t want any embellishment on the clothes but only a simple detail that was part of the clothes. Many experiments followed and the final outcome was the neoprene insert in jersey compressed by a heat presser to create an embossed texture. ‘Copies’ were made by other students but Professor Louise credited Jackie’s to be the original and no one dared to defy. Not everyone can stand on the CSM MA Show held during London Fashion Week, but Jackie made it – with Professor’s approval, which is rare, the professor is known for her disapproval for many despite being given the ‘okay’ sign to show – and was awarded the Harrods Award (CSM MA Show is awarded two awards, one is the Harrods Award, the other is the L’Oreal Award. Harrods Award includes the opportunity to have your own window display at the Knightsbridge store as well as sell the collection). 

“After the MA show, so much had to be done to sell the collection. I had to register a company, get a fax machine, do the pricing and labels, and deliver the collection. Harrods and Professor Louise guided me through each step.” Designers can’t survive without this support. Jackie says she was lucky. Her talents were recognized by the BFC straight away. Her collection received the New Generation Award and the collection got picked up by Dover Street Market London that season. The 2010 AW Graduate collection was sold at Harrods, and the 2011 SS Debut collection at LFW was sold exclusive at Dover Street Market. It was every designer’s dream start. 

While Jackie created 3 collections, London was going through big changes. BFC launched ‘London Show Rooms’ taking LFW’s most created emerging talents to Paris to do sales. Many buyers were skipping London, preferring to finalize their buying in Paris. Sarah Mower supported the initiative and became the host for the showroom, reaching out to her network to promote the designers. It worked. Buyers came and bought the collections and with the BFC and Sarah Mower joining force, guiding the designers through every step, the collection began to sell. Designers were now selling to prominent global stores. Jackie has been part of the London Show Room since its first season. 

Dover Street Market, the exclusive stockist for Jackie’s collection, quickly became the power player in the West end, rising to competition with Browns and Selfridges and opened 2 more stores in Japan and in the US. Jackie’s collection was being stocked in all three stores. Sarah Mower often quotes Jackie’s collection being picked up by Rei Kawakubo, the designer of Comme des Garcons and the owner of Dover Street Market, as the success case of London Show Rooms. Sarah Mower and Professor Louise Wilson have shown support for the designer on numerous occasions. “I think the timing was good. But I’d rather take one step at a time than become a big ‘hit’ for one season. I’m saying to myself not to reverse and to only look forward.” Jackie is talking about 10 years ahead. 

Jackie has successfully established her name in the industry over the past 4 years. Jackie’s schoolmate Simone Rocha and London Show Room mate J.W. Anderson, have both risen to fame as well. Simone became the Emerging Womenswear Designer of the Year at the 2013 British Fashion Awards and Jonathan the 2012 awardee of the same title became the New Establishment Designer in 2013 – as well as LVMH buying a small stake in the label. The three designers graduated in the same year – the two ladies from CSM and Jonathan from London College of Fashion – and debuted around the same time at London Fashion Week. “I’ve heard many comparison between Simone and myself. But we’re good friends and have great respect for each other. I enjoy exchanging good and bad comments with Simone.” Jackie grins. There is disadvantage, Jackie admits, but only restrictions to the choice of fabric, to stay away from lace for example. This would apply to Simone as well, who doesn’t do much jersey – one of Jackie’s popular choice of fabric.

This season Jackie’s launching a diffusion range targeting the younger customers. But producing another collection means additional support. Jackie hit the limit by receiving the New Gen scheme for the 4th time and sponsorship has come to an end. Funding may have seized but support by Sarah Mower, the New Gen chair, remains supportive. Sarah has connected Jackie with the industry’s key professionals and this mentorship is priceless and crucial to designers at Jackie’s stage. Business support is essential for Jackie to take the next leap. 

But for now 2014 AW collection needs to be finalized and there are two collections this season, the main line to be shown on the catwalk and a small diffusion range – what Jackie refers to as the ‘teeshirt range’. Back to the mood board and Jackie explains that there will be a hint of a ‘Tire track’ and some easy wear looks worn by workers but all in a minimal and chic way. On the wall are the different pieces to Jackie’s puzzle of inspiration and what the final image will become is yet a mystery. One sure thing is there will be added joy to see the extra ‘diffusion range’ executed in the same beautiful way Jackie has been delivering the catwalk collection every season.

Editor/ Shin Kwang Ho
Written by Inhae Yeo (Contributing Editor)
This article has been featured on <Vogue> Korea's February 2014 issue.