The “Made in China” tag is recognizable to nearly every North American. The label is usually sewn into fast-fashion items that consumers have been gobbling up over the past 10 years, often denoting poor quality and harsh working conditions.
Helen Lee is one of China’s vanguard designers changing our connotations with the country’s role in fashion. Based out of Shanghai, Lee designs high-end, smart, and considered clothing that is proudly made in China. Clean designs rooted in functionality draw comparisons to Phoebe Philo’s Céline and classic Jil Sander, paired with unexpected details a la hip American it-girl designers Rachel Comey and Maryam Nassir Zadeh.
The brand is a favourite in the contemporary Chinese woman’s wardrobe, and one of the few Chinese designers to be carried in Hong Kong’s Lane Crawford. Lee has garnered a good deal of attention in the North American market, as well, most recently showing her Fall/Winter 2016 collection at LA Fashion Week, prompting buys from famed boutique H. Lorenzo. Recently re-located to Vancouver, where her husband is from, Lee has set her eyes on her new home continent.
“I was supposed to be an accountant,” Lee laughs, taking a sip from her glass on the sun-soaked patio at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Realizing the profession she went to university for wasn’t for her, Lee followed her calling back to school, this time to the Raffles Design Institute at Shanghai’s Donghua University. From there, Lee travelled to Japan to work in the fashion business before moving back to Shanghai to start her first label, Insh.
Lee describes Insh as the first clothing line based on the Shanghai lifestyle—combining city-slick wearability with bold prints. “I was using a lot of lifestyle elements, kind of an east mixed with western kind of style,” she explains. “The T-shirts, the weight and everything, are simple, easy to wear, but all of the elements—especially the graphics—are very fun and expressive.” The resulting label is youthful and vibrant, a reflection of the swiftly changing city.
Eventually, Lee’s clients began moving into the office. “All of my customers from Insh were growing up,” she says. “They had different working environments: some are becoming managers, and they want something more sophisticated.” After custom tailoring office-destined attire for many of her clients, Lee eyed a market that once again hadn’t yet been targeted in Shanghai, and launched her premium label Helen Lee in 2011. “The line focuses on the working people: office women who want something unique and not too serious,” Lee says. Elements of Insh’s cheeky attitude are still present—abstract rabbit motifs dot refined fur coats and silk separates, and casual bomber jackets are paired with blouses matching in pattern. Helen Lee is contemporary day wear, made for the woman who cringes at the thought of dressing “business professional”.
And while the garments may boast the “Made in China” tag, Lee works closely with Chinese manufacturers ensure her work is done to the highest quality. All of Helen Lee’s patterns and prints are designed by Lee, and it takes great attention and time to assure everything is done to her standards. “We have been working with the factories for many years, but I have to say it’s very difficult,” she admits. “I had to spend a lot of time and invest a lot for the first few years; you have to make sure they understand the quality and everything.” Lee’s devotion to craftsmanship and design makes more than a quality garment—it makes a quality industry.
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