Head over heels
While the transition from sculpting to the world of shoes was tough, designer Angeline Lee has proved she can break the mould, writes Kylie Knott
"Hong Kong women have gone beyond the obsession with labels and know a good design when they see it," says shoe designer Angeline Lee. "And if the price is good, they will buy three of them."
Lee has just launched her eponymous collection for spring-summer 2013 at Hong Kong boutique Aalis, in Causeway Bay. She is part of a new wave of female designers making huge strides in the industry - among them are Briton Sophia Webster and Danish-born Camilla Skovgaard, who, like Lee, both trained at the Royal College of Art.
Having returned from her workshops in Guangzhou, Lee looks relaxed in the sun-drenched Cafe Grey at The Upper House in Admiralty. Her lipstick shines bright red and on her feet are a pair of her patent black leather Kiki flats with studded bows.
Lee was classically trained as a sculptor, and her latest collection was inspired by the works of Romanian-born Constantin Brancusi.
Her collection pops with feminine, eye-catching designs, from the golden swirls of the hand-carved, wooden, wedged Daze to the simple shapes embellished with spiral details seen in Harp and Dew.
"Sculpting influences a lot of my work. I love doing crazy stuff and I wish I could do more but you have to balance crazy with what women want to wear," she says. "For me, the big challenge is creating an avant-garde collection that is also functional, comfortable and has some sense of commerciality."
Born in Singapore, her family moved to Britain when she was a year old. "We were the only Chinese family in a small country village, and living above the local pub. It was a closed environment, loads of family time and time spent in the countryside. It was not a very cosmopolitan place and we just had each other, but looking back it was very character-building and played a huge role in who I am today."
Creativity runs in the family: her father is a furniture designer ("I get my thirst for business from him") and her mother is a fashion designer. However, they had encouraged her to pursue a career in academia.
"I was creative at a young age and that was difficult for my parents because the Chinese culture is all about academia. Mum wanted me to have the education that she didn't have," says Lee. "I was that person at school who was always making stuff and building things or doing sport - nothing to do with books. I started sculpting when I was 12 and had a great teacher who encouraged me with her 'screw academics, do art' advice."
Arts drew her to the Slade School of Fine Art in London. "My sculptures got bigger and bigger and I was doing solo shows in Tokyo and London and travelling a lot. But I didn't want to do this for the rest of my life. I wanted to pair my creativity with something more functional. I think everyone gets to a point where they 'find' themselves."
Lee was 26 when she reached that point, while she was tucking into some comfort food with a friend.
"I was at Lucky 7 [burger restaurant] in Ladbroke Grove with my friend who was doing car design at London's Royal College of Art. He asked me: 'If someone said, here's your wild card, what would you do?' I said, 'Shoemaking'," she says, laughing. "It was a typical English winter's day - my friend was having a tough time at work, and I was having a hard time generally in life."
It was then that she decided to apply to the Royal College of Art. "I knew there were only two places available for footwear designers and my friend was like, 'Why can't one be for you?' I'd never stitched a sole or dyed leather in my life.
"I gave my portfolio to RCA, but it didn't have any shoes in it, just loads of sculptures. … I was convinced I wouldn't be accepted. But I'm also a great believer in the 'see what happens' philosophy. If the stars are aligned, then things will be OK," she says.
It seems the heavenly bodies were lined up in Lee's favour. A letter came one week later saying she had made it to the next stage. While Lee says it was "magical" ("I read it 10 times to make sure it was me") it also sent her into a panic, as the college requested that she bring along a shoe she made to the next interview.
"The only way I thought I could do it was to make a sculpture of a shoe. I took some red tissue paper and chicken wire and made a boot. I thought it was hideous."
The shoe sculpture worked and she was offered a place at the school.
The course proved intense for Lee. While the design process came easily, she found herself floundering with the more practical side. "I had the ideas but using the materials, knowing how to balance the last and finesse the stitching - I really struggled," she says.
She went searching for help and found it at the highest level: the bespoke Mayfair workshop of Jimmy Choo. "He let me into his workshop in Belgravia. I would watch and see how things worked, see how they worked with leather."
Another mentor was Dominic Casey (her "shoefather"), who gave her advice at a bespoke shop in Piccadilly.
A shoemaker who worked at John Lobb, whom Lee chose not to name, also gave her invaluable advice. "He was a great influence and had worked with all the old Hollywood stars like Fred Astaire. He taught me how to dye shoes the way [Italian shoemaker] Berluti does it," she says.
Help also came from Manolo Blahnik, who was a mentor at RCA. "He is completely mad and lives in a different world - a real genius."
While at RCA she caught the attention of the media with a design that was, literally, out of this world. "I made a shoe out of titanium using Nasa technology. It was made of the same material used on the panelling of space shuttles. The company that commissioned it paid £10,000 [HK$119,000]."
Another lucky break came when she placed third in a competition organised by London fashion boutique Browns (in which her contemporary, Webster, won). "We had the shoes made up and I had them on a chair at the National Gallery cafe and a couple of women walked by and asked me where they could buy them. They said I should do a collection of my own. And then it started. That was 2008 and I thought, let's see what I can do."
Lee's first collection struggled so she made a brand change, switching from Chew Ling Lee to her English name, Angeline. Things picked up and her collections started capturing media attention, and that of celebrities such as Irish-American actress Olivia Wilde and US singer-songwriter Alicia Keys.
Now Lee is busy working on her expansion plan, with Tokyo and other Asian markets on her radar.
Why did she choose Hong Kong as her first foray into the region? "The climate and the fashion-forward mentality of Hong Kong women made it the perfect fit for my collection. I have big plans to expand in Asia but I'm going to take it one step at a time."
Clockwise from left: gold Daze platforms; Anais nude pumps; strappy Dew heels from Lee's SS13 collection.