re—inc friend and production partner Mi Jong Lee redefines industry and gender norms through her bold approach to design and production.
Here at re—inc, we choose to work with factories and artisans that are aligned with our vision. We are constantly improving aspects of our production to make it increasingly environmental and ethical. Our beloved Sherpa Anorak made with recycled plastic waterbottles is carefully crafted by New York City-based Korean-American designer, Mi Jong Lee.
As an industry veteran with over 30 years of experience in design, Mi Jong gives us insight into the experiences and learnings along the way that have contributed to her bold approach to design.
At re—inc, we believe boldly reimagining is in the details, and the stories that are woven into our products. We are sharing Mi Jong’s story in this exclusive interview to offer strength and inspiration, and show positive possibility.
A: I left Korea, came to New York, went to Parsons and studied fashion design. And what I did, instead of joining the industry — I'm stubborn — I wanted to start independently. So the first thing I did was open a tiny, tiny, small retail store, 400 square feet.
That was it. My inventory room was on top of a toilet, naturally! There, I really learned about the industry and the buying and all that, but because I really wanted to make my own collection, it started with one sewing machine in my bedroom. I was a single mother with that single sewing machine. That's basically it. From there, we kept that same infrastructure.
So I made clothing. Our store kept expanding and when production started, we had 2,000 square feet in our basement where we started everything. In 2007, we decided to open our wholesale division and we came to the Garment District. And we've been here since then in this spot. And that's how we did everything that we do.
Q: How do you boldly reimagine the status quo?
A: We design from concept. Consumers have to understand why they're buying and what they're buying. So when I produce, I'm saying something. Either customers emotionally connect or they don't connect. It's for that customer that says, oh yeah, I understand what this is about...My business is all word of mouth. Customers and clients know that what we give is a product that's timeless, right? So I always say to my customers, "You could have taken [this] out of your closet 10 years ago and you can take it out 10 years from now." There is that factor.
When I see the way re—inc is approaching this, the fact that number one, it's a woman-owned company - that is an ethical working company. Everybody goes for the bottom line. And so many things come from overseas. Like you don't know who's sewing overseas and what conditions they're being sewn overseas, right? So somebody, they make beautiful colors, but they make 50,000 beautiful colors. That's all they make.
It's really not about skill labor, or being involved with a garment. It's really about just fast, fast, fast. And it's really about how cheap you can make something. And you don't know the conditions that these are being made in. As we all know, the fashion industry is the biggest polluter in the world. So this is what I told a lot of people who have chosen to work with me in terms of on-demand production.
Overseas, you can produce for cheaper. How many of those pieces are sold overpriced? How many of those are sold at an incredible discount? And how many of those go to landfill? Right? And on the QT, so many people are doing that. And what does that do for our world? Our climate? The carbon footprint is huge.
When you make domestically, you reduce the carbon footprint by a huge percent. The biggest carbon footprint maker is the fact that you don't manufacture where the product is sourced.
And the fact that you're only producing things that consumers are demanding. You know, how important that is? Making 50 pieces is more expensive than making 5,000 pieces, but you don't need 5,000 pieces. Those 50 pieces go directly to consumers, and they're being enjoyed. And nothing goes into the landfill. I think about that. And I think that's huge. So yes, this is why we make it here. And this is why we make it in the environment that we make.
And this is why we're making it with the people that we employ. And hopefully our consumers see that. And we are making, I feel quality, quality garments, and we care about what's coming out. I think it's the way of changing the future, because you're not going to change the future if the consumer mentality doesn't change.
If you buy into fast fashion and oh, you prefer buying 15, t-shirts for, you know, so-and-so price because you just love having 15 t-shirts in your closet, and you wear it, and you wear it, and in less than three months they're all going into the garbage. Well, buy three t-shirts that you really like and wear it for years. That's a consumer mentality change that you all, your generation is making...You collect what you have, you don't just buy-dispose, buy-dispose. I love the fact that when customers come back after 15 years, right, and go, "God, I love this thing and I can't get rid of it, but the lining is shredding by now. Can you just change the lining?" I love that! I love the fact that there is this kind of ownership and attachment to particular clothing, and we should have that.
You collect what you have, you don't just buy-dispose, buy-dispose...I love the fact that there is this kind of ownership and attachment to particular clothing, and we should have that.
Q: What fuels your work?
"And women shouldn't be seen as one dimensional. Like right now—I'm a mother, I'm a business woman, I'm a wife, I'm an artist, I'm crazy haha! I mean, why can't we own that?"
Q: What fuels your work? (cont.)
In 2002-2003, I joined my first women's organizations where I personally learned to ask for help. Because coming into this by myself, I did everything. Women have a very hard time asking for help. It's a thing that I want to tell my daughter...Women also have a very hard time talking about themselves, which I do too, but, you know...we have to! Women have a very hard time walking into a room, right? Men have a really easy time standing there and telling us who they are and what their story is. Women apologize all the time. These are the things that we have to change, because these are the things that, that don’t help our growth further.
We're 50% of the human population. We're still a ways away to gaining 50% of human power out there. This is my inspiration for my work. I design for women who are not accepting the relegating of one dimensionality on them. One of my mentors, when I joined the organization, said something, which was really, really powerful to me. In 1982, I said, "I dressed women as mini men." Do you know how many polka-dots shirts I made to go underneath a jacket blazer? She basically said, "You know what, Mi Jong?", and she's an amazingly empowered woman, "I own my femininity. When I first started in these fields, I hid my femininity. I had to be more macho than the guys. I had to be more tougher than the guys, but these days I own my femininity because it's an asset. I can go into a board meeting and I don't compete. I can cohesively bring things together. I can see both sides of a perspective, all of these things, that’s feminine characteristics." And now, it shouldn't even be a feminine characteristic, this should be considered a human characteristic. All these things that are sort of engendered in women are an asset.
And she goes, "I don't have to go into a board meeting, wearing a three piece suit. I can go in there with my red lipstick and my beautiful blouse. And I catch my shawl and not feel that who I am is going to be painted in one stroke because of how I choose to style myself." So these are the women that have inspired me.
These are the women that I design for and these are the organizations and movements, that I really feel affinity for.
So when re—inc came knocking on the door and I said, this is great. We had just heard about the four founders' fighting so hard for equality. Nobody knows that then they didn't win that that court battle. But, they changed a lot through their fight. So many different organizations also stood up. The women’s soccer team started that movement, which is really fantastic. So that's why it's very important for me to work with an organization like re—inc.