Life doesn’t always go the way you expected. Born to Korean parents and raised in Brazil, Jussara Lee embraced her love of tailored clothing from a young age. After a transitory period that saw her shipping her designs to the likes of Barneys, Berdorf Goodman, and boutiques as far away as Hong Kong and Japan, Lee decided to refocus on craftsmanship. Her bespoke business in New York City’s West Village values simple lines over ostentation. Believing that too many possessions can weigh you down, Lee creates bespoke, no-fuss staples that are made to last. Increasingly, her tack has been to “preserve and conserve,” whether it’s through the use of vintage mother-of-pearl buttons or by turning cutting-floor scrap from one garment into ruffles on another. We caught up with the veteran designer to learn more about her pivot into “zero waste,” her yen for collaboration, and why she chooses to keep her label small.
What was your introduction into the fashion industry? What was your first creation?
On my first visit to Korea, where my parents are from, I got fascinated by their colorful traditional costumes called hambo. I brought 12 of them back to New York and reengineered and repurposed them into contemporary wares. That marked my first collection and solo fashion show which took place at a club in the early ’90s. It is now home for the Jane Hotel.
Were there any designers that intrigued you at the time?
Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood were probably my favorites for their daring disposition.
“The driving force behind my work is my concern toward having the least destructive impact on the environment.”
What inspired your zero waste collection? What techniques do you use?
The driving force behind my work is my concern toward waste and pollution management, conservation of natural resources, and ways of humanely having the least destructive impact on the environment.
My technique is simple: I use creativity, ingenuity, and hand—and hard—work to repurpose every little bit of what is left from the clothes I custom make.
Braiding, hand weaving, crochet, pleating, handkerchief stitching, folding, and felting are some of the approaches I utilize to transform what would normally be considered waste into renewed resource.
Has “no waste” always been a part of your brand philosophy?
No, I have been in business for 25 years and the real commitment to no waste really took precedence over everything 15 years ago when I downsized my company.
I used to wholesale to stores like Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman, had a showroom in Tokyo, and did runway shows. All of that came to a halt when I realized the nonsense of making so much clothes, the tremendous resources they employed, and the residues of their manufacturing: a trail of pollution.
“I realized the nonsense of making so much clothes [and] the tremendous resources they employed.”
You worked with multiple artisans and craftsmen to develop the collection. Tell us about these collaborations.
My collaborations are not just seasonal, they are perennial. I work with traditional hand tailors and shirt makers that make my suits and shirts in the old school way, cutting and sewing each item of clothing individually, using shapers to turn up collars and lapels, and sewing buttons by hand.
I work with a hand-weaver in Brooklyn, who works on a traditional wood loom, with an adult mental-health clinic that engages their patients to cut tiers from my left over fabrics, and with brilliant assistants who take my inspirations to a different level and make my dreamy ideas become reality.
Some of the projects, such as the cutting of the fabric surplus, was extremely labor-intensive, so for that I hired extra help: a friend’s nanny, an unemployed artist, students, and anyone that had a little spare time to offer.
Is there a specific inspiration for the collection?
I was inspired by the Bauhaus movement because it combines craft and fine arts, which is basically what we are doing.
But that was just a starting point. From there, we veered towards a more romantic take on creativity, making hand folded flowers, braiding strips of fabrics into shapes, or embroidering extinct animals into sweaters.
What kind of materials are you attracted to?
We eschew any synthetic materials. We exclusively use cottons, wools, silks, linens, and cashmeres. We coffee-stain and indigo dye our clothes and have been experimenting with plant- and insect-dyeing.
“By keeping the operation small, I [have] a lot more time to care about what really matters.”
Why do you choose to stay small?
Having experienced a larger-scale production and distribution in my early career days, I realized the least amount of clothes I made, the less pollution I created.
By keeping the operation small, I also noticed I had a lot more freedom to be creative, a lot more time to care about what really matters, and a lot more flexibility to change and adjust to new scenarios.