Kin Ying Lee has worked at J.Crew's sister brand Madewell since the brand relaunched in 2006. As head of design, Lee helped transform the 74-year-old label's clothes from utilitarian workwear to the wildly popular vintage preppy luxe aesthetic they embody today. As part of its expansion plan, the brand recently opened its second outpost in New York. With the simple goal of providing a girl with the perfect pair of jeans — versatile enough for both night and day — Lee and her team appreciate the importance of individualism and designing for different body types. The denim-obsessed Hong Kong native shared her thoughts with us on street style, shopping in New York, and why her children have shunned her beloved collection of vintage jeans.
How did you break into the fashion industry?
Even at the early stage of 4 or 5 I have a lot of stories from my family telling me that I used to just lie there and sketch girls with clothes. I started fashion design at Kingston in London. England’s great — the schools are very creative there, and I think the fashion schools there are really great. I was very lucky to be able to get into Kingston, which is a really strong school and basically enabled me to hone into my design sense.
What inspires you as a designer working for a brand like Madewell?
I think all of us, collectively, live and breathe in New York, so it's one of those things you can't get away from. I always talk about street style. I'm always inspired by how people actually wear clothes and how they put things together, and how they pair something that’s really expensive with a pair of beaten up jeans. I love kind of getting that inspiration from real people — I always find its so much more inspiring than seeing one person head-to-toe in a certain brand.
What trends do you like right now?
I know denim isn’t one trend, it’s always there but I'm obsessed with denim. (Of course, it's very Madewell.) There's a lot of chambray and fabrications out there, so chambray shirts, as well as denim in unexpected styles and silhouettes is really interesting for me. I think denim skirts can feel quite fun and flirty but doesn’t feel like denim, but you're still using the indigo yarns. Also different tunic shirts or dresses in the denim fabrication.
How would you describe your own style?
That’s such an easy answer for me, because it's jeans, for sure. I'm grounded by denim — I always pick a pair of jeans and [then think] what do I wear with it? There definitely are days where I'm wearing something else, but ultimately, jeans are definitely a huge piece of my sense of style. I'd say I'm quite laid back — I would hope — and definitely influenced by a lot of menswear, hopefully with a little bit of quirk when I bring in an unexpected print or unexpected color.
What should every woman have in her closet?
I think that every girl should have a pair of jeans that she can go back in her wardrobe and pick up and know they fit so well, suit her body type, and are great in terms of her own personal style and her own world. I think that’s something that’s very important for us when we’re designing denim too within Madewell. We strive to make sure we cater to a different body type, or even to a person who isn’t just one note.
Where do you like to shop in New York?
We’re so spoiled in New York, because there are so many amazing neighborhoods and shops here, but for me I have two kids, so it’s really tough for me to drag the kids out to shop. I usually stay in my neighborhood, Williamsburg. I love Bird; that’s one of my favorite boutique stores just because they have a great selection, and we’ve been selling there, too, sort of like a mini-collection. And then, Ten Feet Singles. It’s a vintage store that’s run by a group of Japanese people, and they have the most amazing vintage selection there. It’s huge — I love going there, I love shopping vintage clothes. And then I’m a sucker for interiors, and furniture, and all those things, and Williamsburg again has Ludite, which is like a reclaimed-vintage place that sells old industrial furniture and knickknacks.
Do your children ever inspire what you do at Madewell?
Always. I realized, having kids, that comfort is such a huge part of happiness. I’ve saved a lot of vintage denim for them, like I’ve come across a lot of vintage shops, and I’ve bought these amazing cool jeans, thinking that my kids will be trendy little kids with amazing vintage jeans — they do not want anything to do with it. All they want is comfort — leggings, tunic tops. So what I’ve learned is that you cannot force any kind of style on anyone unless they’re comfortable with it. It’s about, again, going back to individualism. Comfort is a huge piece of fashion that we need to address. Madewell is the place where I try to make sure that you can kind of work and live in your clothes, and it doesn’t feel so proper, like you have to be a certain way to wear them.