Korean-American designer Mi Jong Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea and traveled the world extensively growing up, thanks to her father’s diplomatic career. Lee’s experiences in Spain, Mexico and Costa Rica have a profound influence on her work as a clothing designer, shaping the colors, textures and cuts you’ll find in her exquisite pieces. This fall, Lee brings an exclusive women’s ready-to-wear line from her studio in New York City to Raleigh’s C.T. Weekends. We chatted with Lee about how her worldly childhood has influenced her designs.
How did your travels and multicultural upbringing influenced you most?
I am Korean, who is a Latina, who loves ‘El Greco.’ I speak Korean with my mother, English with my father and, occasionally, Spanish with my brother. I’m so grateful for this gift as it taught me how diverse beauty is in the world and how rich the human spirit is that mines and expresses this beauty in art, culinary culture and individual personalities. A broader embrace of the world enriches the foundations of our characters and our understanding of humanity.
Of the many places you’ve been, where do you like best? Why?
That would be like choosing a favorite child. I love Mexico, where my childhood was formed. The richness of Mexican culture, the color and artistry, it’s a place that I continually return to. But my favorite memory is from Costa Rica, where I went on a senior trip and immersed myself in the rainforest jungle for two weeks. The colors of the flora and fauna there will never leave me.
Are there examples of these experiences reflected in your collections? Which designers do you admire?
I love the colors of Frida Kahlo (Spring 2018); the Ying and Yang of space and the lineal dance of Toko Shinoda brush strokes (Fall 2017); the flow of Arabic calligraphy of Zaha Hadid architecture (Fall 2016). I have always loved [designer] Geoffrey Beene, as the timeless master he is. Also, Dris Van Notten for his eclectic interpretation of texture and colors.
Your fabrics are beautiful, we love the Calla Lily and lace for Spring 2018 designs. Do you find fabrics, then design, or design and then find your fabrics?
Each season, I design an original print inspired by the theme of the collection. When I decided on Frida Kahlo and Mexico as the inspiration, Calla Lilly seemed to portray her fragility, but also her defiance and spirit of empowerment. I had sketched these Calla Lilies about ten years ago and it just fit perfectly. Once I decided that, I picked from fabrics I had chosen in Paris. I worked with various mills to develop the embroidered lace, with the colors of Frida and Mexico. The designs flowed from that process.
Your designs are powerful yet feminine. Can you tell us about the type of woman you think about when designing?
My vision of the collection is ‘real women, real clothes.’ I design for the woman who embraces her femininity without compromising her intelligence and empowerment. Thirty-five years ago, when I started, strong, intelligent and ambitious women had to dress and act like mini men. That has changed so much, and this new generation of women can embody all of what they are, without compromising their femininity. I lived this progression with these women, and I celebrate it!
What’s your favorite piece in the Fall 2017 collection?
All the hand-painted, gold brush stroke pieces! There is a black, high-waisted pant that has hand-painted gold brush strokes on one side of the leg. It is tied with a thin obie-like belt. The midnight blue alpaca coat has the gold brush stroke too, as well as a collage of red stitches and organza.
The interview was edited for clarity.