Seoul Fashion Week: The making of Lie Collection's fall/winter 2019 collection
Behind the seams
The movies would have you believe that the runway backstage is an emotional pressure cooker, but Korean designer Chung Chung Lee is cool as a cucumber when it comes to mounting shows for his label Lie Collection. He is, after all, the son of Lee Sang Bong — one of South Korea's foremost fashion creators — and has presented at fashion weeks everywhere, from Seoul to Paris and New York. While the designer stopped over in Singapore last month for a trunkshow, we took the opportunity to go behind the seams of his invitingly serene fall/winter 2019 collection.
What were your earliest memories of fashion?
Chung Chung Lee (CCL): My father is a designer, and I first attended one of his shows when I was around nine years old. I found it fascinating — it almost looked like theatre. Because my parents were so busy working, I'd spend a lot of time in their studio playing with mannequins and fabrics; I think that's where my love of fashion grew, and explains why I'm a very tactile designer.
Given that your parents exposed you to fashion at such a young age, was it expected that you follow in their footsteps?
CCL: Not quite, I didn't intend to pursue fashion. Having seen how much time my parents spent travelling and working, I wanted to enjoy a more balanced pace of life. At Central Saint Martins, I started on an art and design history course; but after several projects, I realised that fashion was really my area of interest, and swapped focus to a menswear degree. My earliest work was for the men's market, because I also wanted to make clothes for myself [Laughs].
Has that foundational menswear training influenced your womenswear in any way?
CCL: No, my design influences aren't gendered. I enjoy researching details on historical costume at museums, or studying films. Those kinds of processes apply equally well to menswear and womenswear.
Is history the starting point, then, for all your collections? Including this one?
CCL: Somewhat. It's a love letter to Seoul, where I was born, because the idea of 'home' has a powerful emotional pull for everybody. I mined photographs and memories from my childhood, looked at the contrasts between the city's traditional and modern architecture, and blended it all together.
That makes sense, I saw a lot of patchwork/collage throughout the collection.
CCL: Exactly. All these references are layered on top of each other, much like how Seoul as we know it today was built. The city is multifaceted, and isn't defined solely by one thing; with that in mind, I titled the collection Seoul Harmony.
Apart from surface embellishment and patterns, are there other ways to translate such abstract ideas into clothing?
CCL: The collection is angular, because Seoul's architecture is angular, too; visually, angles give the impression of movement even though buildings are static. Other major cities like Paris — which I've visited over fifty times — have a consistency about them, but Seoul changes every season, and doesn't stop. The lines in this collection reflect that dynamism.
Could I zero in on a handful of looks specifically? For example, what are the architectural references in this look (below)?
CCL: Oh, this is a pretty straightforward one. The colour and angled overlay placement of this suit was meant to evoke the roofs of old Korean palaces.
It looks so clean and effortless. Do you have a favourite category to design, like suits, or dresses? Or do you find them all equally enjoyable?
CCL: I enjoy outerwear the most, but for commercial reasons, I design more blouses and dresses than any other category. I find dresses challenging because I don't wear them myself, so I ask design team and clients — who I speak to when I do trunkshows abroad — for their opinions. Sometimes, I even ask my junior designers how much they'd be willing to pay for a piece [Laughs].
Does client feedback vary a lot from market to market?
CCL: Yes, because every market has different needs. In Singapore, for example, I need to take the warm weather into consideration. Even for fall collections, I make sure to include lightweight fabrics and separates, but not to the extent that I dilute the collection with an excess of seasonally-inappropriate looks.
How many SKUs do you have in one collection?
CCL: We normally have around a hundred for each collection. It sounds like a lot, but when you have your own retail outlet, you need to refresh your stock every fortnight or so.
Not all of these SKUs make it onto the runway. Is it difficult deciding what to show and what to save for the sales floor?
CCL: Yes, they're all our babies! When we showed in New York, we had to pare down to only twenty-six looks, which was hard. But working with a stylist, who we engaged specifically for the New York show, made it less painful.
Do you do pre-collections as well?
CCL: No. Last season I attempted pre-fall, and it was almost unmanageable because we were already so busy with collaborations and side projects.
Oh yes, I saw plenty of people carrying bags from your Samsonite collaboration at your afterparty — they looked great!
CCL: Thank you!
So the last look we discussed was pretty uncomplicated. This patchworked number (below), on the other hand... What exactly am I looking at, fabric-wise?
CCL: Yeah, that look's busy; we just kept mixing traditional wool and linen suiting fabrics with out-there textiles until we stumbled on a combination that felt right.
The fabrics work harmoniously, even though there are so many things going on. Do you start with textiles first, and adapt your designs to what's available/caught your eye on sourcing trips?
CCL: I mean, that's usually the way things are done, but I prefer to start with the design and to source fabrics after.
And with a tailored piece like this (below) — how many redesigns or fittings would it normally undergo before arriving at the final product?
CCL: We usually finalise the silhouette after two toiles, and spin each look off into three different colourways before editing down. This coat with a contrast bodice detail is a hybrid of two designs — a coat and a dress — from my last spring/summer collection; we often combine and redesign our most successful existing pieces, to give our clients continuity. But it usually takes a couple of seasons before they warm up to the reinterpreted versions.
I wanted to ask about that. Every season you introduce new ideas — alongside the familiar styles you're known for — that your clientele might not yet be receptive to. Do you take a risk and put them into production anyway, or do you wait until someone orders it specifically?
CCL: It depends. Sometimes we rely on our gut instinct about a design's commercial viability, and others, we rely on feedback from our showrooms and buyers.
Have you ever been asked to expand into menswear?
CCL: Yes, and I really want to do it, but know it's going to be a crazy amount of work!
Why prompted you to make the shift from menswear to womenswear in the first place?
CCL: My early menswear collections got good press when I did London Fashion Week, but back then, menswear sales were marginal. There weren't the number of retailers and menswear consumers that we have today. Part of it also had to do with my dream of taking over my father's business — which I currently work on, in addition to my own line — and continuing the Lie Sang Bong womenswear brand. I don't feel like I'm missing out, though, because my work always has a mix of masculine and feminine influences. This look (below), to me, is both; it's a pretty take on Sherlock Holmes. [Laughs].
What does the future hold for your brand?
CCL: I'd like to explore the relationship between technology and sustainability further. This season, for example, we collaborated on insulating hoods and scarves with an engineer/artist, that inflated with air instead of relying on goose or duck feathers.
Oh, I'm not sure I noticed them at the show...
CCL: There was... A little bit of a malfunction, and they didn't slowly inflate as intended while the models walked the runway. Before that, they functioned perfectly, I swear!
Technology is great... When it works!
CCL: Oh well, there's always next season... [Laughs]