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Rodale's Organic Life - The Innovation Issue

Designer Jussara lee sits in her Manhattan shop surrounded by jackets with polka-dot linings, patchwork slip dresses, shirts with off-center ruffles. Dressed in a sweater embroidered with a rhinoceros, she reads like fashion royalty, but her approach is revolutionary. In an industry built on fast fashion, Lee takes the slow road. Instead of churning out collections, she sews to fit, making bespoke items that are stylish and sustainable.

Everything is made within a subway ride, using biodegradable fabrics, natural dyes, and artisan methods. Little winds up on the cutting-room floor. “We use our creativity to repurpose leftover fabrics, buttons, trims; give them a second life,” Lee explains. Recycling makes sense to her. It follows the cycle of nature, which gives fashion its raw materials.

A Brazilian of Korean heritage, Lee, 49, spend her São Paolo youth getting in tune with that cycle. “We formed a love of nature as we explored beaches and marine life,” she recalls. During the first decade of her 25 years in business, however, ecology took a backseat. “I wasn’t concerned with waste,” she says. “I was concerned with pretty collections.”

Lee could’ve kept on that path. But it was out of pace with her lifestyle of healthy eating, exercise, and spirituality. “So I got rid of concepts that didn’t fit my beliefs,” she says. Her philosophy now: Make fewer pieces and build them to last – fashion that earns its price tag, ranging into the thousands. Lee sees the cost as an asset. “People have to think if they need it. That goes against the capitalist model where you just want them to buy.”

In 2013, says the EPA, nearly 13 million tons of textiles were discarded. Lee hopes to convince the next generation that sustainable companies like hers are a viable choice over disposable-design giants. Recently, she organized a panel at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Called “Field to Frock,” it paired vegan and slow-food advocates with Lee to draw parallels between their work. “I want to show that small can be great, that slow is essential,” she says. “And all of it translates into success.” In time, Lee thinks, slow and steady may win the race in fashion. 

-Randi Gollin