Back to basics with Mickey

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 February, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 February, 1994, 12:00am

HOW many people remember that the Iron Lady's son, Mark Thatcher, was roped in for the launch of Giordano? Mickey Lee does. He also remembers that originally, the range was pricey and that it was only after some radical re-thinking, that Giordano took offand became the huge success it is today.


Like a hawk, Lee watched the profits mount and five years ago he was ready to swoop. Alas, his employers had other priorities.


''I told the Puma people: now is the time to do a second line, but they delayed and delayed, and in the end nothing came of my proposal. It's a pity they didn't act on it, because that's when they could have grabbed a share of the market, but they only wanted to do sportswear.


''True, they'd built up a strong image, but the trouble with sportswear is that it doesn't expand easily.'' As Giordano proved, the reverse is true with casualwear, especially when you pay attention to quality control and keep prices competitive.


Now, at 42, Mickey Lee has finally hopped on the bandwagon - and what a jolly ride he gave the well-wishers who flocked to that new consumers' paradise, Times Square, Causeway Bay, for the launch of Living Basic.


''Wow!'' breathed the celebrity-strewn crowd as eight formidably aerobicised bodies, hand-picked by fashion choreographer Richard da Silva, sent the temperature soaring on Level Six at the first Living Basic shop.


''Oomph,'' they gasped as the herd of photographers surged forward in a blaze of flashlights for the final down-to-basics tableau. If the underwear and a few items like the cotton-knit camisoles were decidedly gender-selective, the rest was not.


''It's mostly unisex,'' said Lee. ''Ask yourself: Why change your entire wardrobe just because someone says, 'This is the new season look'? That's the way women respond, but men have a different mentality. If they need a new shirt, they'll find somethingthey like and buy three in one go.


''My concept reflects that approach and the clothes are just the start. There will be towels, blankets, coffee cups, simple furniture - a whole range of basics for today's lifestyle.'' Nothing new, the Muji people would say. Agreed, but the packaging certainly packs a punch. It's evident in everything from those snug women's briefs to the movable clothes wracks - but then Mickey Lee hasn't won his laurels for nothing. They include a 1975 Interior Design Award from Britain's Royal Society of Art and the 1988 Hong Kong Governor's Excellence Award for Fashion Design. And they add up to the kind of versatility few possess.


Born in Hong Kong into a printing family, Lee majored in graphic and product design at the Hong Kong Polytechnic and joined the Trade Development Council after a brief, unsatisfying stint with an ad agency.


''That was around 1973 and they took me on as an assistant co-ordinator for the Ready-to-Wear Festival (precursor of Hong Kong Fashion Week). I had no background in fashion, but it was a nine-month project and I learned a lot.


''From there, I went to Leeds Polytechnic to do interior design, then enrolled at St Martin's School in London. The course I enjoyed most was fashion illustration. When I came home in 1976, I still wasn't sure what I wanted to specialise in, but the TDC invited me back to do another RTW. That's how I ended up in the garment field.'' He moved into the private sector, working first for Dors Jeans, then Texwood where he set up a studio, handling all the company's promotions and design projects. Then came the big one: fashion consultant and head of design for Hwa Kay Thai Development, regional licensee for Puma.


''I spent 10 years there and a had a wonderful time,'' says the designer whose promotions for Puma put the sportwear label firmly on the Southeast Asian map.


His bold campaigns, shot on location across the globe - ''Tibet, the Maldives, Australia, Egypt; every summer we went somewhere different'' - won him a directorship, but eventually frustration set in. Casualwear; that's where the future lay, Lee insisted, but to no avail.


Last October, supported by several backers, he finally quit Puma. ''That's I when started working on Living Basic and thought I had plenty of time.


''We planned to launch the label in April, but then Times Square came up and we had to rush things a little. We didn't want to lose the location and couldn't afford to pay rent on an empty shop.'' There will be two more shops in Hong Kong before the year is out ''and maybe corners in local Japanese department stores,'' then the plan is to take Living Basic to China, Singapore and other countries in the region, says Lee.


He has designed everything from clothes to decor and the stamp is firm: clean, contemporary and relaxed. Adding to the garment line's attractions are quality fabrics in solid colours, a discreet but effective logo and affordable prices. No way anyone is likely to quibble over $365 for a pure cotton knit sweater, $385 for superwashed denim jeans or $495 for a sturdy windcheater.


Sure to keep an eye on the action at Living Basic will be its neighbours at Times Square. ''A complete coincidence,'' says Mickey Lee. ''We had no idea Puma would be just two shops away.''