Jussara Lee is a native Brazilian of Korean heritage who has developed a small –scale business operation in which luxury fashion and sustainable practices work in tandem. Since moving to New York City in 1987 to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology, she has designed collections under her signature label that were embraced by prominent retailers such as Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman.
Tell us about family background – geography, culture, language, and religion.
My parents are from South Korea and immigrated to Brazil in the mid 60’s. It was my paternal grandmother’s idea. She moved the whole family of six kids and their respective spouse, including my newlywed mom. I was born and raised in Brazil in 1967 and have two sisters who also were born in Brazil. One is a year older than me. Her name is Iara Lee and she is an activist, documentary filmmaker. The other sister is 5 years younger and owns a Brazilian restaurant on the same block as my shop in the West Village. My mom is a polyglot and we inherited her gift for languages. Portuguese is my first language and I speak English from living in NY for 30 years, Spanish just from speaking to people, French from school and Hebrew because I was married to an Israeli. Catholicism is the main religion in Brazil and babies get baptized at birth. I got baptized at age 9. It was an awkward situation to go through that ceremony as a young adult. I then converted to Judaism when I got married, for the sake of keeping the husband’s family happy and to have my daughter be accepted as one of them. Other than that I don’t care much for religion.
What is your personal story – education, prior work, and so on?
My mother raised us as a single mom and we grew up somewhat poor. However, education was always a priority for my mom and she made sure we attended good schools as we compromised on other expenses. I was hanging out a lot on the beach between age 16 until 19 when my mother offer to pay for my studies abroad. She worried I was going to become a beach bum and thought it was a good idea to support my passion for clothing making. I was attending college for French Language and Literature at that time and moved to NY in 1986. I took a job selling movie and art posters and attended fashion school simultaneously. New York was a different city at that time and a very nurturing one when it came to creativity. I used to experiment with outfits that got me into the best night clubs. My friends always wanted to go there with me because they knew I would always get in with no waiting and with drink comps. Ha ha.
How did you get interested in ethical and sustainable fashion?
I have been in business for 25 years and the real commitment to not producing waste took precedence over everything about 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 do 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 started questioning the concept of releasing collections 8 times a year around 2001. And after the attack on September 11th, I really went on a self-searching journey and felt the idea of making clothes for people to buy every season made no sense. My foray into it happened when I was introduced to hand tailoring. I ceased to do volume production as a way to eliminate impulse buying and waste and started to offer custom made and made to order service where each piece is cut individually for a specific person. It was valuable for me to offer clients the knowledge of how their clothes were being made. I feel it is a lot more gratifying to have that kind of relationship to the clothes you wear. The decision to slow down was based on my personal belief that less is better, quality is much more important than quantity. I wanted my professional life to be representative of what I believe.
How did your educational/professional experience inform fashion work?
I have evolved my beliefs and core values through time and experience. If you go through the motions of building a company with your eyes wide open, you actually come up with a lot of conclusions that for the most part go against what the industry and its media accolades project as being right or wrong. I am always questioning and coming up with my own solutions to problems as I see them arising in front of me.
What is the importance of ethical and sustainable fashion designers and companies?
It is crucial for more companies to let go of the old model of making a profit no matter what the consequences to the environment are. It is essential that we stop denying the pollution and destruction we create while making clothes for people who don’t actually need them. We must to connect the dots, just like when you do in kids’ activity books. It is that simple. But yet, people avoid the reality and don’t question where things come from and where they go once they are disposed. It is a basic concept that gets completely obscured by our dependence on convenience. Once you start practicing moderation, and other behaviours that take in consideration the environment, I realized the compromise is insignificant when compared to the benefits.
What is Jussara Lee?
Jussara Lee is a small luxury brand that defies the conventional approach to luxury. I believe what is precious is to know your clothes were made with the least negative impact to nature possible, that they were made with respect to the makers, in small batches, and locally, so there is no doubt about all the above. And we can accomplish that without compromising the fit, the aesthetics and the quality.
What inspired the title of the organization?
My job is to come up with solutions to problems I consider important to tackle. Blind consumerism is one, disregard to the environment and fellow humans is another. I always knew I was going to use my company to express and exercise my personal beliefs and therefore I called it my own name.
What is unique about your brand?
We employ menswear master tailors and shirt makers to make the women’s clothes. It is rare to find well made clothes for the women.
What are the main fibres and fabrics used in the products and where are they sourced?
We only use fabrics that biodegrade and keep it simple: cotton, wool, linen, cashmere and silk are our staples. And we are now embarking on a circular economy model where those natural fabrics will come from existing clothes and fabrics. That means by next year I want all the clothes we produce, to be made out of materials that don’t come from virgin natural sources because even organic cotton takes a lot of water to be produced. And once they are done with the clothes, they will be able to bring them back for further recycling.
For the most part we use fabrics from local producers and weavers. I design all the clothes and have them produced in the vicinities of our shop and design studio. It gives us a lot more control to have the makers of our products be a subway ride away so we can always interact with them in person. And the goal is to convert all the fabrication, by the end of next year, to materials that already exist instead of raw materials.
What is your customer base – the demographics?
My clients are affluent, urban people who are engaged with the state of the world. I tried to bring them offerings of clothes and services that they actually need. We are working on getting onto client’s closet and purge items that they don’t wear and create textiles out of them, restyle clothes they love and are not ready to part from and mend the ones that need some tweaking.
What topics most interest you?
Waste, garbage, food production, the environment.
The Gender Inequality Index (GII) relates to the empowerment of women, gender equality, and international women’s rights. The progress for gender equity is positive. Regressive forces exist in explicit and implicit forms. What seem like some of the explicit and implicit forms observed in personal and professional life to you?
To deny the women’s right to abortion and to education are both explicit forms of regression. And to use women’s sexuality as a marketing tool has implications that defy common sense and progress. When I first tried to enter the hand tailoring world I experienced resistance from the master tailors. It was like they didn’t think women deserve that level of craftsmanship, were able to recognize the quality, had fleeting taste and were too indecisive. It felt as if they thought women’s place was in the kitchen and we had no business meddling with tailoring.
Two factors seem to matter in the discussion of gender equality in societies: economies and rights. Many girls and women, especially in developing nations, face disadvantages unknown, or less well-known, to boys and men. Women face discrimination in education, health, the labor market, legal status, political representation, and reproductive rights. When women lose, everyone – boys, girls, men, and women – loses. What might bring this basic fact, with ubiquitous positive consequences, into the public discourse in ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ nations.
It is effective to conduct your own life in a way that others can model after. Financial independence from men allowed me to have a voice without the fear of being punished or isolated. A lot of men use money as a controlling device over women. And women succumb to it perpetuating the vicious cycle.
What mass movements or social movements can fight for the implementation of the children’s rights outside of the fashion industry?
The Convention on The Rights of the Child, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and The Declaration of the Rights of a Child are some of the large movements that protect children’s rights to shelter, food, health care, normal development, discrimination, among others. Save the Children is an organization that implements these rights through donations. And there are smaller ones such as the Lalela Project, that provides education through the arts, to children at- risk.
How can individuals, designers, fashion industries, and consumers begin to work to implement those rights so that these vulnerable populations, women and children, in many countries of the world have better quality of life?
We need to stay informed, be inquisitive to dig out the truth and exercise our consumer power and boycott products that are made cheaply through the exploitation of the vulnerable ones. We need to be active, sign petitions, write letters to these companies telling them we are not supporting their product if they don’t stop the abuse and reach out to newspapers, social media, and spread the word.
From personal observations, more women than men involve themselves in the fashion industry by a vast margin of difference at most levels. Why?
It is probably because jobs in the manufacturing sector have been associated to a female task and don’t require too much muscle power. And women, specially if they are mothers, will succumb to more abuses than men, because they feel the responsibility of feeding the children at any cost.
Also, more men than women appear at the highest ends of the business ladder in fashion. Why?
Testosterone. Men bully their ways to positions of power. Women are built differently.
What might make men more involved in the fashion world in general?
I don’t see a particular need to make them more involved than they are. Look at the CEO of Zara, an overweight man in his late 60’s, filthy rich and who probably doesn’t even have wherewithal to spend all his fortune. Meanwhile he can’t adjust the workers’ salary so they can live above the poverty line.
What might make men more involved in the ethical and sustainable fashion world in general?
Men are attracted to power and money. If there is a reward for being more conscientious about the environment and human rights abuse, there might be a chance more men will get involved in the solutions.
Will having men in the discussion and on-the-ground improve the implementation of children’s and women’s rights?
I believe inclusion is always good. That way the men can hear first hand, the afflictions these women go through. Hopefully they have sisters and daughters and will heed to their woes and sorrows.
What personal fulfillment comes from this work for you?
I see my job as a way of empowering women so they can exercise their influence and help the world become a better place. I must be doing a poor job though because the world seems to get orst by the minute.
What other work are you involved in at this point in time?
I am a conservationist. I try my very best not to create pollution on my account. But I am far from being perfect. I fly on airplanes, that is my biggest sin. I offer my time to give lectures, participate in panel discussion associated to preservation, recycling, environment protection.
Any recommended authors or fashionistas (or fashionistos)?
Here are some books and videos I recommend: Sacred Economics- Charles Eisenstein, Omnivore’s Dilemma- Michael Pollen, Story of Bottled Water- Anna Lennard, The True Cost- Andrew Morgan, Overdressed- The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth Cline, Fashion and Sustainability: Design for Change by Kate Fletcher
Any recommended means of contacting, even becoming involved with, Jussara Lee?
Good ideas to solve the problem of pollution and waste are the best way to get to us. And we are always open to lend a helping hand.
What has been the greatest emotional struggle in business for you?
The biggest challenge is to thrive as a business without subscribing to the rules of radical capitalism and its economy of scale. In order to grow and be profitable, most companies shift their production overseas to take advantage of unrealistically low wages, inhumane work conditions, or by plundering nature and giving nothing back but pollution. The fashion industry is shored up by big players in the areas of the press, marketing, textile, manufacturing. As a small business, you get overshadowed by the magnitude of these hefty companies and no one pays attention to you or gives you an opportunity because you are not a player in that game, you are not ‘one of them’. For the most part you are ignored or rejected by the industry. Factories don’t want to take your orders because the quantities aren’t big enough. Textile companies don’t want to produce your fabric because you don’t reach the minimums imposed by them. The press doesn’t care about promoting or publicizing your ideas because you aren’t a potential advertiser. Profit at any cost is such a pervasive concept in the times we live but one that I could never come to terms with.
What has been the greatest emotional struggle in personal life for you?
My personal struggle has been to live in an urban city my whole adulthood. I want to be a farmer.
What philosophy makes most sense of life to you?
Keep it simple and appreciate everything with joy and humbleness.
Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today?
This was quite a mental exercise and reflection. Thank you for asking me all these questions.
Thank you for your time, Jussara.