Just before my interview with Helen Lee last Tuesday, I was hit with a serious case of nerves. Sure, I was looking forward to talking with the Shanghainese designer about her work while sitting on a sunny Starbucks patio in Yaletown, but more than anything I was awestruck by the quality of the AW09 collection she presented at Vancouver Fashion Week. Interviewing someone so talented is an intimidating task.
The last of my nerves disappeared when Helen showed up alongside her husband Chris. In oversized shades and a black cotton tunic, she was all smiles as she greeted me and sat down to talk.
Helen's interest in fashion can be traced back to her childhood, when her mother--a talented knitter and seamstress--made unique clothes for her which earned many compliments. She initially studied finance to please her parents, but after a friend invited her to attend a student show at a Shanghai fashion school, she decided to pursue a career in fashion. She enrolled in the La Salle school in Shanghai for 3 years, then worked in Japan and further honed her craft for 2.5 years. In 2003, Helen moved back to Shanghai and founded her casual high-street label, INSH ("In Shanghai").
With INSH, Helen explained, she sought to create a "fashion culture for Shanghainese": "I thought it was interesting to have a really local brand." She characterizes Shanghai as a fast-paced, busy, work-oriented, multicultural metropolis. The youthful INSH label provides casual and smart separates that transition seamlessly from a work day to checking out the Shanghainese nightlife.
INSH was so well-received that Helen founded a second line in 2007: The Helen Lee label provides fluid, more formal pieces to a clientele who have become accustomed to INSH, and as they grow older, demand more sophisticated pieces.
Although Helen loves Chinese culture and incorporates traditional Chinese design into her clothing lines, she shies away from being pegged as a regurgitator of Asian motifs. "Most people think of Chinese fashion as traditional qipao," said Helen. "I like to re-invent traditional elements."
Indeed, she is just as inspired by modern China as the history, art, and operas of China's past. Her SS09 collection for INSH pays homage to the construction workers--many of them poor migrants from the countryside--who are building and transforming Shanghai's urban landscape. Helen used blues and grays to evoke the workers' uniforms, and dip-dyed clothes to create ombre gradients reminiscent of workers sweating through their shirts.
INSH's graphic tees feature foil-screened details meant to evoke the reflective safety strips on uniforms, and tongue-in-cheek phrases like "I would rather cry in a BMW than laugh in a Santana [a type of cab]"--an ironic jab at middle-class aspiration. For one tee, Helen's husband Chris (himself an artist) took photos of the Shanghai skyline on a daily basis and super-imposed the images to show "Shanghai in construction."
Currently INSH and Helen Lee are only available in Shanghai and Europe, but that may change if Helen moves to Vancouver and she and Chris pursue more North American opportunities. Regardless, it's clear that Helen loves her native city. I wrapped up the interview by asking Helen and Chris the best way for foreigners to experience Shanghai. The couple came up with a slew of suggestions--visit the artistic Soho-type district of TaiKangLu, go clubbing, eat xiao long bao. But according to Chris, to really experience modern Shanghai, the best thing to do would be to "just take a walk" and soak in the vibrancy of the streets.
Editorial Photo Credits:
Models: Kimiko Yoshida, Fei Ren, Kaitlin Sullivan, Mireille Urumuri
Makeup: Tomomi Sakagawa
Hair: Kimiko Yoshida, Sharon Sullivan
Clothes: Helen Lee label
Lighting: Stanley Lau
Photography: Yvonne Chew
Top photo: Helen Lee at VFW Opening Gala. Photo by Yvonne Chew.
This post is also cross-posted on Stylefinds.