Currie Lee: Luxury fashion, upcycling and China

by Kate Andrews | April 9, 2010

Originally from South Korea, Currie Lee is a fashion designer now based in Beijing. After retiring from law, Currie founded DimSum of all things Asian: D-SATA by CuR, an ethics-based brand that subtly incorporates luxury fashion with social and environmental concern. Her products are carefully crafted with upcycled, natural materials, such as snake, fish and frog skin (originally caught for consumption in local Asian villages); all pieces are also manufactured in Southeast Asian “cottage industries” by women who earn a living income (vs. minimum wage). In an exceptional demonstration of social responsibility, Currie illustrates that “going green and ethical” does not necessarily mean boring and low-market. We caught up with her to find out more.

Notes on Design: Where are you originally from and what brought you to Beijing?

Currie: I was born in South Korea, raised in Canada and educated in both the US and China. I haven’t really been able to decide on if/where to settle down, and consider myself to be “a girl of the world” as a result. I arrived in Beijing about 5 years ago to complete my second LLM in Chinese Law at Peking University, and I was also working at King & Wood law firm; I have just not been able to leave!

Notes on Design: You were previously practicing as a lawyer. Why did you decide to set up DimSum of all things Asian: D-SATA by CuR?

Currie: I have always had a passion for fashion. When I was young, I remember cutting-up my mother’s couture pieces (the most devastating of which was a vintage silk and feather Christian Dior flapper dress) to recreate “fashion week” with my Barbie dolls! My grandmother and mother also dressed me up in their “upcycled” vintage tweed, chenille and hoothstooth Chanel suits. This is when I developed a further taste for all things vintage and/or black and white.

DimSum of all things Asian: D-SATA by CuR is a realization of my true passion. I also strongly believe in the “waste not, want not” concept, and wanted to embed this philosophy into my work. My pieces are all handcrafted (using natural or recycled materials) in Southeast Asian ‘cottage industries’ by women who earn a living income (vs. minimum wage). I believe that this system provides for social growth, grants people the chance to work with dignity, and rests on the basic ethical value that all human life is equal regardless of geography, economy, race, gender, age or belief.

Notes on Design: At first glance, your products are not what one would associate with being socially or environmentally aware. How do people react to your products when they discover this information?

Currie: Most of our customers make the association (or, at least, pretend to), as they are familiar with D-Sata before they visit. Unfortunately, there are few customers (or even media) who visit/feature us as an ethical and environmentally-conscious brand; as of now, most seem to be more intrigued with my designs. This is both good and bad: though I would love to see more awareness and responsible consumerism, we are able to reach out to more people by not limiting ourselves to a niche market.

Notes on Design: Can you tell us more about how your products are made and how you acquire the materials for reuse or upcycling?

Currie: My products are an example of what is termed “slow fashion.” The sustainability-based “waste not, want not” concept was taught to me by a seemingly simple Bulang villager who presented me with a Gao Hu musical instrument. This was fashioned out of snakeskin, or the remnants of an earlier dinner. As much as I loved the idea of accessories made out of recycled or reused trash (e.g. newspapers and magazines), I realized that such pieces were limited to an audience of fun and fearless fashionistas wishing to make a loud (and obvious) statement. I have actually designed a full collection of “trashion” bags, but started to explore designs for users who were perhaps “fun but not so fearless.”

I also hand-select, with the utmost contentiousness, not so obviously “recycled trash” to create just as fun and ethically and environmentally conscious pieces. From snakeskins, fishskins, frogskins, water buffalo horns, penshells (which were popular during the Victorian era as a substitute for the endangered tortoise shell), oystershells, cowrie shells and other naturally collected shells; from animals that are not “consumed” solely for their skins or horns but also as a food source, I am having fun reusing (and not abusing) mother nature’s beautiful and bountiful resources to create each and every piece.

Notes on Design: Are you conscious about the materials you already have when designing, or do you let the creative process flow freely, and solve production later on?

Currie: A consideration of the production process has never been part of the creative process for me. As all of my collections were inspired by the methods or materials collected during my many trips, the design emerges and the production just follows naturally.

Notes on Design: Can you tell us about your latest collection?

Currie: Unfortunately, this is a secret that I can’t unveil until this year’s Mother’s Day High Tea Fashion Show event at the Ritz Carlton, Beijing. However, I can reveal that my latest collection uses “ordinary” materials, such as corn, garlic peels and banana tree bark, and is laminated in Acacia wood to make the most exquisite box clutches!

Notes on Design: What do you consider to be your biggest achievement to date?

Currie: Having the courage to maintain my stubborn insistence that all my pieces are handcrafted, rather than mass-produced in one of China’s many factories, despite many fashion magazine editors and luxury brand managers suggesting that it would be more profitable.

Notes on Design: So, what does 2010 and the future hold for you?

Currie: I would love to collaborate with other “slow fashion” designers around China to establish cottage industries in minority villages in Southern China, especially Yunnan and Guangxi. There is much interest in preserving Tibetan culture, but not those of Southern China’s many minorities (56, officially!). Many of the gorgeous traditional materials or weaving and dying methods are also being imitated in factories or worse yet at risk of being forgotten by future generations, and I would like to keep these traditions alive somehow.

Designer and writer Kate Andrews was the original editor of Notes on Design blog, founded in 2007.

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