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The WD Interview – Helen Lee, Fashion Designer

April 27th, 2010 · 5 Comments · Design & Fashion, The WD Interview

Helen Lee (Li Hongyan in Chinese) is one of China’s foremost designers in the country’s emerging fashion scene.

She trained at Shanghai’s Donghua University and LaSalle College in Montreal. Formerly known as the East-China Textile Institute of Science and Technology, Donghua University is famous for training many fashion designers.

Having launched a successful denim brand in Japan, Lee set up her own brand insh (which stands for “in Shanghai”) in 2004. Her designs feature t-shirts, dresses, coats and trousers.

Helen is the recipient of the Jeanswest Fashion Award and  “Les Etoiles De La Mode.”

Her shop is located in the trendy Taikang Lu district, a collection of cafes, shops (check out Produc-T and Shanghai Code Vintage Glasses) and workshops that was saved from demolition in 2006.

Do you see yourself as a Chinese designer or a Shanghai designer?

I see myself as a Chinese designer who is trying to create a local Shanghai fashion brand and concept. Through this brand I am trying to create a new vision of Chinese fashion which communicates our culture in a contemporary way.

How would you describe the difference between European and Chinese Design? Is there such a thing as “Chinese Design” or should people in the West think about it much in the same way as we distinguish between French/Italian/Scandinavian fashion?

I think we have the same differences as those in Europe.

Because of different cultures, different environments, and most of all the different markets, each country’s design has their own inspiration and focuses on their own design elements. As a result, different personality traits and creative ideas will obviously appear in the different areas.

Do you think that Chinese fashion will ever be as desirable to European or Chinese women as Chanel etc. is to people now?

People have just started paying attention to Chinese fashion, and that is is true for Chinese design as well.

Chinese fashion design is a new notion for Chinese people and the Chinese market and they are beginning to accept it.

My dream is to study the European design, but create my own style and a meaningful brand. This should embody a strong Chinese brand with a good concept and fashion, but also keep true to Chinese culture; the whole approach is a revolution.

We would like to reach the level of big names such as Chanel and make it successful. It is also important to have a long history since in the long run we will appreciate it and be proud of it! These things are important to me, and I believe it’s going to happen. But it takes time and we have long way to go.

What needs to happen for Chinese brands to establish themselves and become desirable in China?

I think the process is pretty much the same as anywhere else. I believe the Chinese market needs to educate consumers more about creativity, especially through marketing.

People tend to judge a brand by its popularity or financial background, which means that companies who have strong financial support can make consumers believe they are a good brand.

Most of the time Chinese consumers are looking to PR and advertising as their main influence, not the creativity of brands and designs.

What’s your view on European and US fashion?

European fashion is more about the design details; it is more fancy than US fashion, maybe more luxurious, too.

European fashion is much more open-minded to creativity. There are many more way to present designs.

US fashion is quite functional and low-profile, it is more concerned about being comfortable and easy, but it is also much more commercial.

What kind of materials do you prefer working with and why?

We are always working with natural materials, such as cotton, silk, linen or natural fibre blended materials. This fits our target consumer needs and I feel comfortable working with these materials.

The basis for our creations is always creativity and functionality.

And your inspiration?

I’m trying to create a local Shanghai brand that could present the new concept of Chinese fashion.

As a result I get my inspiration from people who were born in or are living in Shanghai, whether they are locals or not.

I am interested in their lifestyle, their attitude and their view of Shanghai and China. I use Shanghai’s past, present and future – as I imagine it – and then pick up the core element of each period.

It’s not so much only using Chinese motifs or Chinese elements. It’s more like re-designing the lifestyle and elements and putting them into a contemporary context.  The result is a modern look that people can wear daily, something that’s easy to mix and match, but is still fashionable.

I read that you designed some denimwear in Japan – could you elaborate on that?

After I graduated from fashion school, I worked for a Japanese fashion company. I’m very interested denimwear, especially the wash effect.

I mixed the denim with some Chinese elements such as modern embroidery, patches and modern Chinese pattern lining on the inside waistband.

Where do you get your funding from – what’s the typical business model for someone like yourself?

I started very small using my own savings. People find it hard to believe that I only had 60,000RMB ($8,800 or €6,500 or £5,700) to start the company.

I found that creativity, personality and business strategy are the important keys to get more funding. In the beginning all I had was the passion and the dream to start a business.  But on top of that I had to use my financial background to come up with a business plan. Not many designers do that.

After 7 years, I’ve managed to build a good brand image.

What would you advise young Chinese designers who want to start a business here? What’s the one thing you wish you would have known when you started out?

Starting a business or just being a designer are two different concepts.

Usually designers are very sensitive, so if they don’t have a good business sense, they may need to find a good partner to help them with the business part. If designers have strong financial backing, they can hire someone who can help out with the marketing.

For those who don’t have big funding and support like myself, the most important thing is to have the impetus and passion to start, create a good collection, and keep going even if it’s a tough way to go. Believe in yourself and work well.

When I started out I always knew what was needed to start a business, such as a good team and enough funding, but I didn’t have either.

I only had my professional skills, lots of passion and confidence – I used what I had and worked hard. But to be honest I wish I would have known somebody who had the same dream and professionalism so we could have work as a team.

Insh store: No. 11 A, Lane 210 Taikang Road, Shanghai.

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