Shanghai-based fashion designer Helen Lee forges contemporary path
Lee is ready for the big time, with her colourful styles winning fans at home and abroad, and she's not afraid to seek inspiration from Chinese heritage
Entering through a sun-dappled courtyard, we climb the stairs in a three-storey colonial-style wooden house on Fumin Lu, a quiet, tree-lined street in Shanghai. On the top floor, colourful, contemporary outfits hang on racks in a carefully curated space mixing vintage Chinese furniture with black and white photography and colourful woven stools.
Dressed in a striped blue and white Breton shirt (a design from her most recent collaboration with French brand Saint James), with her black hair pulled back neatly, Shanghainese designer Helen Lee is showing us the hip headquarters, showroom and atelier of her eponymous designer label as well as her street wear brand Insh.
As the most cosmopolitan of Chinese cities, Shanghai's style scene has changed much in recent years. There are more creative start-ups, while gleaming malls stuffed with luxury brands have become commonplace. Instead of just logos and bling, it's the lower key designs of Céline, Ports 1961 or Valentino that are building a following.
"When I started my Insh label in 2003, 99 per cent of customers were international," Lee says. "Maybe it's because my style, designs and presentation were very international. It was something new for locals, even though we used some Chinese elements … [especially] Chinese concept and attitude. But locals didn't have the confidence to try it back then."
Today, much has changed. In the past four years, fashion mix and match has become popular among the young and trendy in Shanghai, who are very much exposed to American and European styles. The internet and smartphones have radically changed fashion consumption, allowing anyone from around the world to discover new looks.
As one of the few Chinese brands stocked in Hong Kong retailer Lane Crawford, Helen Lee is proof that native brands can make a long-term impact. Aside from her two labels, Lee has also been creative director of international ski and surf wear brand Perfect Moment since 2014. She landed the gig through an introduction made by Sarah Rutson, former fashion director of Lane Crawford, to the brand's Hong Kong-based owner, Jane Gottschalk.
"It was important for us that we had a designer with a real understanding of what our brand is," says Gottschalk. "Helen is a passionate lover of skiing and snowboarding and understands what's needed in the process of design."
In Shanghai, new labels are popping up fast - it's now fashionable among young fu er dai (the rich second generation) to start fashion labels - but they usually have little design education or experience and are supported by their family money and a circle of socialite friends.
Lee is keen to distinguish herself from the fray. "I studied finance. I was supposed to be an accountant," Lee says, laughing. "I'm very organised. Many designers here will think it's fun to have a label and shop, but they'll forget to design their own logo, or do proper logistics. They'll want to go international, but not know how to export or adjust for those costs."
Only after studying fashion at the Raffles Design Institute at Shanghai's Donghua University did Lee start Insh in 2003, focusing on simple items such as T-shirts and sweatshirts emblazoned with funny, kitsch and ironic graphics.
Today, however, it's Lee's five-year-old eponymous line that is creating all the buzz. Her clothes target the affordable niche; dresses start at HK$3,500 and coats at HK$4,500. Her stores on Fumin Lu and Nanjing West Road have helped bring in more fans. Lee's colourful, contemporary style is even starting to gain international recognition.
"It's not easy to be a designer here," she says. "In China it's a bit harder because fashion knowledge is not really advanced yet. When we have our own style, people always question it at the beginning. They can't get it."
Chinese designers sometimes have awkward relationships with their own history. While couturiers such as Guo Pei might relish taking inspiration from ancient dynastic clothing and traditional motifs, many young designers want to move as far away from that as possible. Striking a balance between referencing a rich history and staying "cool, urban and global" can be a challenge.
When Lee started the label five years ago, she also avoided having too many Chinese elements, but now she is more confident about referencing her heritage, especially to promote ethnic minority cultures.
"We have this history and these elements; it's not necessary to present it in just one way - the vision can be very global," she says.
Her autumn-winter 2015 season was inspired by the rich and diverse heritage of China's ethnic minorities after making a trip to a remote Yi village in Yunnan so "deep inside the mountains" that it's only reachable via a six-hour drive from Dali.
For the collection, the village's motifs have been simplified into geometric patterns on dresses, jackets and skirts, and Lee creates prints inspired by tribal paintings drawn on their bodies during ceremonial dances.
"Every minority group has a flower or symbol, so I modified their spirit flower into my clothing," she says. "They chose this flower because it can live and blossom everywhere, even in harsh environments. This represents their people; there's a lot of meaning in their folklore."
Today, Lee has a varied clientele - a rarity for Chinese designers. Her Perfect Moment clients are mostly Western adventure sports enthusiasts who buy from Net-a-Porter or MatchesFashion.com while her private, by appointment, clients are older, wealthy Shanghainese who want something special for an event. Juggling these different demands - four seasons a year for Helen Lee, two for Insh, and two more for Perfect Moment - leaves her with little time to spare.
Her studio is small - there are a few graphic designers, administrative help and production co-ordinators - and Lee does almost all the designs herself. Many of the Chinese designers who go international have sponsors, and that's a goal Lee is working towards.
Smart companies should be lining up to collaborate with her, as there is a scarcity of fashion talent that is both creatively strong and commercially minded, and with a base in China.
As Gottschalk says: "We felt that it was important having a designer who wasat the forefront of this understanding, who knowswhat moves a global customer, and is ahead of the curve design-wise."