“Back then, there were no distribution channels, you did not know where to sell the clothes. You didn’t know who would make such small quantities and, if you wanted special fabric, you did not know who would sell such small quantities. You had to figure out everything yourself – you had to experiment.”
Celebrities like actress Ge Yuexi have been seen at Alicia Lee shows in Beijing. Photo: Handout
And experiment she did, in a way that proved to be effective, until she established the Alicia Lee brand that’s now carried in some 30 stores throughout China. Most are in so-called first-tier cities such as Beijing and
, but there is increasing demand from customers in second-tier and even third-tier cities.
The typical Alicia Lee loyalist is a professional woman who wants stylish and versatile clothes – nothing too flamboyant – the kind that can be worn to a high-powered office conference and, later in the day, to a drinks party.
Lee says: “My stuff is for the lifestyle of the urban career woman who needs to go work and needs to look professional. But I don’t want to do things that are dull, that are too restrictive.
“The outfits need to make women look and feel comfortable if they are sitting in the office for the whole day. After work, she might go for dinner with friends or go shopping, and the outfits need to work for those circumstances, too.
Alicia Lee’s spring/summer 2020 show in Beijing. Photo: Handout
“I think the typical customer is an executive, including creative people from advertising, architecture and designers. I really try and listen to what the market wants, I listen to what the stores tell me and I talk to sales girls.”
Art and design have always been passions of Lee. As a child growing up in Taian, Shandong province, she spent her school holidays hanging around with artists such as Tao Han – who is still a good friend and is also based in Beijing, watching and learning. Edgy contemporary artist Zheng Gao was also an influence.
Her pragmatic parents insisted that Lee pursue a more solid career path, with acquiring academic qualifications a priority. To that end, Lee studied English literature in Beijing, later switching to become a translator at a design school.
Alicia Lee’s clothes have been designed with the urban career woman in mind. Photo: Handout
Being surrounded by would-be designers and knowledgeable lecturers reaffirmed Lee’s belief that fashion was her true calling. She signed up for a degree in fashion design from Northumbria University in the UK that was being offered in the Chinese capital and, soon after graduation, launched the Alicia Lee label.
All the work – planning, design, marketing and promotion – is conducted at a cramped but cosy studio in the heart of Beijing, on the fringes of the Sanlitun area. The district is known for its fashion stores, ranging from
Alicia Lee is in direct competition with mid-priced designer labels that target customers prepared to spend between US$250 and US$500 for a dress. In recent years, Chinese companies such as Peacebird and Uooyaaa have also sharpened their designs and image, making the market somewhat crowded.
“The competition has started to become very intense, not just from the designers – if it is just from them it is OK – but in the past couple of years commercial Chinese companies have joined the competition,” says Lee.
“These huge brands started to do a similar style to us, marketed in a similar way and they do things much cheaper and have a much more professional supply chain. They have money. Two years ago, clients chose between you and another designer, but now they choose between you and a commercial brand.”
For all that, though, Lee has maintained her following and has an asset that chain stores cannot easily create: personality. The latest Alicia Lee collection is buzzing with vibrant colours, in a sit-up-and-take-notice range of clothing that is something of an antidote to chain-store blandness and uniformity.
Beijing-based designer Alicia Lee originally studied English literature at university. Photo: Handout
The inspiration was the vibrant tropical colours of the Caribbean, infused with the European styles introduced when the islands were colonised by the British, French and Dutch.
“It is a mixture of a classic European cut and the local tropical spirit, the free spirit,” says Lee. “I picture the lady of a big house waking up in a morning and going to the balcony in a morning dressing gown, stepping on the tiles, and looking at her garden with plants and flowers.
“I have a lot of casual-looking things, lingerie and sleeping-gown style, which are flowing and elegant. I have used a lot of silk and print, inspired by tiles, flowers and birds. And also the pink beaches of the Caribbean.”
Designer Alicia Lee (left) and actress Yan Danchen. Photo: Handout
It reflects a love of warmth and sunshine – commodities in short supply for much of the year in Beijing, where the midwinter temperature rarely rises much above zero.
When there is a gap in the fashion schedule, Lee and her French-Canadian husband Jose Lord, a programme director with the Beijing Fashion Institute, hotfoot it to warmer climes – most recently to a remote Greek island.
It allows for a total recharging of batteries before entering the competitive fashion fray once more. Lee says: “My life was set up to do this, I never had any doubts. I know what I am good at and not good at, and I am a determined person once I decide it is something I want to do and am talented at.”