PASSION / OBSESSION
A Conversation with Designer BETSEY LEE
By Marie Havens
Betsey Lee”s passion for fashion has always been, in her own words, an obsession. I met up with her to discuss this obsession and how it informs her design aesthetic, her business model, and her life.
Marie Havens: This past August was your one-year anniversary of opening your store, proudly named after you: Betsey Lee. How is everything going?
Betsey Lee: We are really happy with how it’s all going. There has been such a positive response to the store and the clothes. And people from all over the world, of all sizes and ages, are loving it. That kind of confirmation is so powerful–it’s good to know that I am on the right track.
MH: What led you and your dream to this little corner of the world in Brooklyn?
BL: Dumbo is striking and unique. I loved it the first time I visited (going to factory 15 years ago). The industrial buildings and cobblestone streets right on the river and the views both within the neighborhood and of Manhattan. It is my favorite spot in New York.
MH: Many people don’t know that your aunt is famed fashion designer Betsey Johnson. Fashion talent (and perseverance!) certainly runs in your blood. Was she an influence on your decision to enter into the fashion world and how did you become a designer?
BL: Betsey was huge influence on my life in so many ways. How could she not be! It may not be obvious in my minimalist design and neutral palette, but her influence is there. Betsey makes clothes that you can move in and live in, she makes clothes that make women feel good, and she is true to herself always. That is what inspired me to get into fashion.
MH: You are also a wife and mother. How have both roles influenced the choices you’ve made? And did you find being a mother ever conflicted with all the work involved with being a designer?
BL: When you are a mother that influences all of your choices, of course. For me, it was a good thing. I was focused and mature when I started in the industry. I had boundaries with work, but I also pushed myself to give as much as I could to my career. It wasn’t easy, but I wouldn’t say it was a conflict. My son is 17 now, he is really independent so I have the time to be a business owner.
MH: Can you tell me about your journey and what led you here?
BL: My passion / obsession for clothes has been there as long as I can remember, but the translation of that into a career came a little later. It wasn’t until after college and after having my son that I decided to take my love of clothes and make a life of it. I traveled a lot before and during college. I was exploring the world and myself for years before I entered the fashion world.
For years, I had been making my own clothes, sometimes selling them to friends etc. The reason I started designing was because I couldn’t find what I wanted to wear at any store. It was ultimately my aunt Betsey who guided me into patternmaking and thus into the fashion industry.
MH: In many ways, you are re-defining how designers are perceived and how collections should be created and sold. Why is it so important to you to change aspects of the fashion industry and how people purchase clothing?
BL: Though there are things in the fashion industry a lot of us want to see changed that is not as important to me as finding new ways of building a successful fashion brand. People value small business, local manufacturing, and most importantly they value unique designs. This is how I have always wanted to to start out as a designer, and now there is consumer culture that appreciates it. It just makes sense.
MH: Even your creative process is unique. What’s your ideal design process?
BL: I always design for me first. I wear each piece I design to make sure I feel really good in it and love it. Then I get to see all of my designs on my customers, that way I am staying connected to what I am doing and staying connected to the customer.
MH: You also encourage and believe in artistic collaborations. And within your store, you feature and sell many other designer products from jewelry to handbags, including my good friend Richard Killeaney’s Ocheltree handbag/home interior collections. Are collaborative projects something you always envisioned for your brand?
BL: Absolutely. Every brand and store needs several influences to be as strong as it can be. Since we are not big companies with teams of designers, collaborating is a way to reach more people. Several designers are growing their businesses together and succeeding together.
MH: Your store and its modern design/layout is really fantastic. In many ways, it’s more like a gallery space. So what’s the next evolution for the store and your brand?
BL: Our next step is the launch of our website / online sales. For the brand, I am going to continue building on the foundation we’ve laid over this first year, adding more range of product as we go.
MH: Any desire to have multiple store locations? Manhattan? West Coast? Europe?
BL: Yes, I would love to open a couple more stores. That is the ultimate goal I think.
Betsey Lee is a designer based in Brooklyn, New York.
Written by Marie Havens
Photography & Design by Marie Havens
Betsey Lee at her store in Dumbo, Brooklyn, November 2013, Photography by Marie Havens/StudioHavens.com