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From winning the prestigious Redress Design Award to launching his own collection with The R Collective x Levi’s — Jesse Lee is seeing success after success. The young designer talks to Staiy about the inspiration behind ‘Denim Reimagined’, explains the concept of working backwards and shares with us why upcycling, to him, means preserving his family heritage.

Words By Marina Hoyer 

October, 30th 2020

“The magic of recycled fashion is that it makes us see the clothes we already own in a different way”, says Jesse Lee, the award-winning young designer from Hong Kong who recently partnered with The R Collective and Levi’s for a collection made entirely of upcycled denim.

Focusing on its three key practices of rescuing, reusing and reimagining, The R Collective views itself as a fashion brand with a social impact, evolved from the successful NGO, Redress, under the direction of its CEO and founder, Christina Dean. “The amount of textiles produced every year could cover an area nearly twice the size of the UK, and up to 20% of this is wasted before ever reaching the consumer”, explains Dean. For this reason, The R Collective commits itself fully to upcycled fashion. Unlike other brands, the Hong-Kong-based label does not rely on second-hand garments. Instead, they source their fabrics from pre-consumer materials and deadstock, preferably by luxury brands with trustworthy sustainability regulations. The pool of creative designers that repurpose these high-quality textiles were plucked from the Redress Design Award, one of the most prestigious competitions in the sustainable fashion industry. By collaborating with the award’s laureates, The R Collective gives emerging designers a platform to showcase their visionary collections and in return, benefits from the young talents’ fresh and innovative ideas.

“My greatest teacher of sustainable fashion is my grandmother”

Jesse Lee was the runner up at the Redress Design Award in 2018, as well as winning Hong Kong Best Prize the same year. In collaboration with The R Collective, he designed Denim Reimagined, a collection made entirely out of upcycled Levi’s denim. For Lee, upcycling and sustainable fashion are family heritage. As his biggest inspiration, he names his grandmother: “My grandmother never saw reusing fabrics as anything outstandingly creative or unexpected”, says the emerging designer, “it is just common sense to her.” In times when department stores were scarce, especially in rural areas, acquiring new clothes was far from an enjoyable shopping spree at the mall. Lee’s grandmother had to travel long distances to purchase raw materials and fabrics from various warehouses, only to then return home and start sewing the garments herself. All this took time, effort and financial investment, so when she could, she exploited the full potential of items she already possessed. Thinking back to his childhood, Lee recalls his attention being particularly drawn towards a certain double-sided duvet cover. When he asked his grandmother about the unusual design, she replied nonchalantly that the family had simply needed a new cover. As she did not have enough of the same fabric, she sewed any available spare pieces she had together and that was it. Little Lee was so impressed by her natural creativity that he set his heart on having as many conversations with his grandmother as possible to learn all her skills and wisdom. He intuitively knew that this practical approach, born out of necessity, was a concept worth preserving. 

Perpetuating his family heritage of upcycling

When he lived in the UK for his studies and was faced with similar situations, he recalled his grandmother’s practices. “In Cambridge, the only shop that provided fabric was a rather old-fashioned one where elderly ladies wanting to sew pillows went. Alternatively, we could drive to London to buy textiles, but that was costly and time-consuming. None of these two choices seemed like a good solution to me. Instead, I went to one of the many charity shops that are everywhere in England, and bought inexpensive, second-hand clothes to repurpose them. That’s how I unconsciously started my upcycling journey,” he explains. Afterwards, when studying at Kingston University, he was once again confronted with looking for sustainable alternatives because he did not identify with some of the values that conventional fashion brands uphold. “The Bachelor of Arts programme that I did was wonderful. It gave me so many different opportunities for projects within the industry, but most of them were with fast fashion brands and I found that what I wanted to do was different. So after graduating, I went back to Hong Kong and started working for an independent label. During that time, sustainable fashion had not yet reached the masses, but I still felt like we had a positive culture and a solid foundation in the studio I was working in. Somehow though, for me, that was not enough. I started questioning the whole process of creating a new collection. When you design something new, you waste so much material, so much fabric,” contemplates Lee. These thoughts almost made him give up fashion. In search of a balance between sustainability and continuing his creative career, he started working for a costume company. Lee sees this time as extremely valuable because it taught him the craft of designing from a different perspective. While he loved costume design and worked for clients like Disney, he could never fully forget fashion.

It was then that a friend pointed out the Redress Design Award to him. “When I saw it, it fully fit my philosophy. They’re doing sustainable fashion, circular fashion. These principles, together with all the practical skills I had gained at the costume company, inspired me to break free, forget all the rules and try new things on my own. So I upcycled, for example, umbrellas or socks from my family to create outfits that you would never guess were made from these items.” Lee’s new approach brought him success. He came second place, which encouraged him to continue his journey in what he loved: fashion — but now in a way that aligned with his values. The collaboration with The R Collective and Levi’s is something that Lee describes with one simple word: “Magic.” Everything he ever wanted and believed in came together when he designed Denim Reimagined, and made him who he is now. Although the young designer has not lost his youthful, vivacious energy or his endearingly stubborn refusal to do anything he does not fully believe in, he has turned into a responsible and decisive adult with creative ideas and a visionary mind. “My goal is to bring back these sustainable practices that we might have lost due to fast fashion brands and the global mass production system,” says Lee. While his mission intersects with society’s growing awareness, it also has a personal meaning for him: “For me, sustainable fashion is not just a skill or a way of doing things, it weaves the spirit of my family’s practices into my creations.”

“A gentle way of reminding us to protect our oceans”

For Denim Reimagined, Lee was inspired by the forms of the ocean: “When we visited the Levi’s warehouse, I was stunned by the sheer number of jeans we could choose from. For a huge label like Levi’s, it’s probably not that crazy, but as an independent designer, I was overwhelmed by all the denim everywhere. I felt like I was in a magnificent sea of blue, and that was how it struck me. From then on, each time I thought of denim, I always thought of the ocean, its forms, its movements, its different shades.” The designer started researching in his hometown and came across the Hong Kong Underwater Photography Competition. Having always thought of Hong Kong’s shores as rather polluted, Lee was surprised by the impressive photography and could only imagine the lengths the artists must go to in order to capture such breathtaking shots. “Hong Kong is rather small in area, but those photographers went to unassuming places and found beautiful creatures that are normally hidden from sight. These photos present an abstract and gentle way of reminding us to protect our oceans more. And my design has the same concept, not only through the aesthetics, but through the techniques that I use.”

Who crafted our clothes? How The R Collective gives textile workers a name and a face

All creations in Denim Reimagined are fabricated from a carefully curated selection of Levi’s aged inventory and irregular or leftover samples. These are unstitched and then re-sewn by an ecologically conscious denim manufacturer. While the use of deadstock and pre-consumer fabrics already contributes greatly to reducing waste in the fashion industry, Lee’s approach to sustainability goes one step further. For his collection with The R Collective, he designed not only the clothes themselves but wrote the wash and care label instructions for each garment. And these labels are far from standard. “Instead of only indicating the fiber composition, we also list the original garments from Levi’s used to make each item. When buying an upcycled denim shirt, customers can read that it is made from two pairs of 501 jeans, for instance,” Lee elaborates. This ensures maximum transparency — a philosophy that is at the core of The R Collective‘s values. The brand is voluntarily exceeding the minimum transparency requirement regarding all aspects of the clothes origin. “We created a unique QR code for each label. When customers scan it, they find information on more than just where their garment was produced. They can literally see the workers’ faces,” states Lee with excitement. And indeed, a visit to the brand’s online shop indicates much more than just the country of origin. Instead of the usual “Made in China”, The R Collective traces the details of each step, taking customers on the journey of exploring the entire production process of their clothes. A dedicated section on their website titled “the people” describes how each item came to life and features even the names of the pattern cutters and seamstresses involved. 

On the #WearAndCare campaign and making clothes more real

The approach is more than a canny marketing strategy with the goal of enticing people to purchase. Denim Reimagined is authentic to the core. Its dedication to sustainability extends so far beyond the point of sale that The R Collective created an entire campaign around the hashtag #WearAndCare. “Throughout their life-cycle, 37% of our jeans’ climate impact is caused by consumer care,” the brand discovered when analysing data from Levi’s Life Cycle Assessment. Both their website and the QR-codes in their garments’ labels led to in-depth wash and care instructions that not only prolong the clothes’ lifespan but reduce damage to the environment. For simple tips to #WearAndCare, Lee suggests washing jeans less often and at lower temperatures, as well as hanging them to dry instead of tumble drying them. “For me, the transparency and the ‘wash and care’ instructions hold greater significance,” he says. “Not only do these things contribute directly to sustainability, but they have an indirect effect. Instead of just clicking on a shopping app, buying any old t-shirt and throwing it away as soon as you stop wearing it, I believe that the information people can obtain from the QR-code could lead them to make more conscious buying choices. It makes the clothes more real.”

Jesse Lee, a humble hero

For the emerging designer, being real and authentic is important. When he started his foundation course of Art and Design in Cambridge, UK, he and his classmates could choose three different electives. Lee opted for fashion, illustration and craft, but always found fashion to be the most fascinating: “With fashion, I feel like I can create a space or a room that people can fit in, rather than merely drawing someone.” Instead of picturing a person from a subjective perspective and making them fit into a fixed frame, he gifts his audience a custom created design that they can make their own. Despite becoming successful at such a young age, Lee remains humble and kind. A star without airs and graces, but with a true passion for what he does and a candid love for the planet and the people. “What I love about being a fashion designer”, he says, “is that I can collaborate with so many fascinating talents. Whether it’s working on illustrations with someone or doing a photoshoot — whoever I end up cooperating with, we always create something authentic together.”

“Working backwards is a solution to bring us forward”

When Lee starts his creation process, he follows a unique approach. The starting point of every design, for him, is at the end, which he describes as “working backwards”. Lee elaborates: “Working backwards is my way of understanding the reason behind problems. I look at a leftover garment or piece of fabric and I examine why it hasn’t been used or sewn even. In my opinion, working backwards means finding a solution to bring us forward.” What the Hong Kong designer especially values about upcycling and reusing is that it offers him new perspectives. He believes that integrating this approach to everyday life could make consumers look at items they already have with fresh eyes and appreciate them more. “If I want to upcycle a pair of jeans, I turn it upside down and inside out, I check the seams, I move it around carefully, I see all the details that I hadn’t noticed before. I love to explore the things that already exist. They might be hidden or unexpected, but they can feasibly be turned into something wonderful”, he says. Lee fiercely believes that upcycled fashion holds a certain magic to it that conventional fashion lacks: “I think it’s like something that sparkles around your body. Not like a boom or a firework, but like a subtle feeling that you get when you look at the tiny, beautiful details of your clothes. You’ll feel a little sparkle that instils happiness in your everyday life.”

A success story full of sparkle

For Lee, this concept seems to have worked. When he talks about his job as a sustainable fashion designer, he does indeed sparkle. His eyes sparkle, his voice sparkles and his smile sparkles. He seems so genuine, so full of joy and love for what he does that it does not come as a surprise that his story is a story of success. Although he is currently completing his Master’s degree in Menswear at Westminster College in London, he has many exciting projects in the pipeline. Two of them are again centred around denim and will be launching at the end of this year and the beginning of next year, respectively. At the same time, he is researching and developing his Master’s graduate collection which will most likely be shown at London Fashion Week 2021. We, at Staiy, are sure this will be the first of many Fashion Weeks for Jesse Lee and expect to see great things from Hong Kong and its future in sustainable fashion.