A Conversation with Eunice Lee

Fashion Designer & Entrepreneur

Photograph by Dylan Mangahis

When I think about UNIS — I envision understated, simple and sophisticated in a timeless manner. Along the way, how did you develop that design sensibility?

It really started when I was at DKNY.

When I was there back in the 90’s, it was all about big gigantic logos like Tommy Hilfiger, DKNY, Nautica… and you’re so young, you didn’t grow up with any of that really but it was so huge back then. All the guys that I worked with on the design team were so tasteful. There was a guy that always did Ironman. My old boss Dean Michael White was English and always had simple taste. And there was another guy who I worked with for a very short time but all of those guys wore no logos; wore literally super classic clothing. If it was a v-neck sweater, it was always the best v-neck sweater. If it was the t-shirt, it would be the best t-shirt. They really thought about everything they wore and put it together in the most simple way. Sometimes I get so jealous because a guy can literally wear a pair of jeans and a white t-shirt every single fucking day and always look amazing.

There are some days where I’m like “I’ll wear the exact same outfit!” because I’ll have multiples of the same thing. There’s something so awesome about that. I think it’s about the simplicity of “if something looks good and feels good on you” or when I see that in guys that there are so many simple looks that as a woman, I’m like “that guy looks hot” and it’s always the most simple outfit; the simple and most tasteful outfit.

So that’s why you decided to go the menswear route?

Right, right. I mean in the beginning what happened was I went to Parsons and only studied womenswear for all those years, but the very last year there were so few menswear people back then. They were just scrounging to get menswear students in and I ended up interning for a menswear brand. Finally, for our senior thesis, they were like “we want you to do menswear.” I was like “Ehh, okay fine. I’ll do it.” So I went to work in menswear for 4 years at DKNY, then I decided there’s gotta be more to life than v-necks, crewnecks, and polos. Literally, that’s all it revolved around: a certain formula with menswear, and you couldn’t… I just felt bored as a designer.

So I moved over to womenswear: focusing on women’s jeans. I realized firsthand how fucking crazy women were, women’s design teams were and how overly dramatic design rooms were that I realized that it wasn’t me. I asked myself, “Why did I ever leave menswear?” Then I went straight back into menswear.

Photograph by Dylan Mangahis

What helped more Parsons or actual work experience?

I always think that Parsons is a design school — but fashion is a trade, so I actually went to a trade school. I knew exactly what I was supposed to do when I left school whereas if you go to liberal arts college, you’re left feeling like “What the fuck am I going to do with my life, you know?”

So for me, I think it’s your work experience that really forms you. It has less to do with your school experience. School experience is learning like the basics. Not even the basics of actually working. I always tell anyone who starts working with me: you have to know how to file, you have to know how to send a FedEx package, you have to have common sense, you have to have all those things should be the base of how you should start working for anybody. When you don’t even know those common, basic things… that’s how you start training to be a designer. These days, you do have to know how to set up a FedEx package, you do have to know a little bit about everything just to get through your day.

I think it’s real work experience being around a group of people with great taste. That’s really what formed who I am as a designer today.

Was there a series of events that lead you to say to yourself “I’m going to do my own thing” [by starting your own brand] or was it a scenario of working for someone else and not having the control that you wanted?

I mean, if you work at a big company, everyone understands this… but when you run a small company and you have all these people who are like “I worked until 10 pm!” but they came in at 10, so that’s only 12 hours… like I used to.

Okay, I never came in before 10 o’clock or maybe 9:30 at DKNY but we stayed every single night minimum until 9 o’clock. Right before show, at least one month to two months beforehand, we would start staying every single day of the week. A lot of it was because we had sample rooms in the building, so as an assistant you had to take care of all the sample makers. We would make sure they got fed, that the car services all came to pick them up, that we were down there every couple hours to make sure things were going along, pushing things forward, begging for things… and that was actually a valuable experience for me. Just in life.

Here as a small company you have to show up to factories and know how to talk to people who actually sew garments.

Photograph by Dylan Mangahis

When did you decide that you were going to do your own thing?

Well, so we would kill ourselves for shows and there be a showroom as big as this store. We’d have 67 looks; 67 individual looks every single day for weeks-and-weeks.

We’d just be working on those looks before the show and then the next thing you know you end up going to like Macy’s and you’re like “What the f*ck? This looks like dog sh*t. The production is nothing like how we really fit it as designers, you know, for show.

This doesn’t make any sense like why…? Nothing about this makes sense. Everything felt like a let down at the end, and really: when you’re doing a wholesale business on 7th Avenue, it’s super garmento and you don’t even think about the end customer. You’re like “Great! I designed this fabulous collection and who the f*ck knows who’s going buy it or see it or anything.”

That was the biggest thing because when I first opened the store I was like that was the biggest awakening of my entire life. The first two years I had no idea who the f*ck my customers were. I didn’t know who my customers were at DKNY. I sort of didn’t care. We just fantasized that they were the models that were walking down the runway and when you realize who your real customers are, that’s who you have to design for.

So when I opened the store on Elizabeth Street, I saw guys come in and say “Ehh, I don’t like the way these pants make all this noise” and “I don’t like blah-blah-blah.” They would come in and basically teach me what they wanted. Or if I designed some passion piece or something more fashion-forward and realized no one’s buying it… Am I going to spend what little money I have on something like that? That also formed doing really simple tasteful things and realizing those are the things that sold best for me.

Even from the beginning — you know, not everyone has a lot of money, not everyone can make those crazy purchases and most my guys have always been very aware of what was in their bank accounts. There will be times where I’ll notice someone being in this store because they saved up for something. All of those experiences make me think that I want to do the best I can for them, you know?

Trust me, it’s been far from perfect but every season I’m like “Ugh, I have to make this better.” Things can’t fall apart and obviously, nothing should ever fall apart, but life just doesn’t work that way and neither does production but you do the best you can.

But basically having those experiences at those companies you just realize I want a more direct connection to the customer. The best part of having a small company is that there isn’t the bureaucracy. I like something and that’s how it goes into production. I don’t have to have 20 million other people have their two cents on my design. Really, the only two cents I want are from the customers. I don’t want it from 20 different merchants and people who don’t matter. Just get it to the customer and have them decide, ultimately, what’s good or bad.

Photograph by Dylan Mangahis

So it’s a learning experience every season and you’re learning more and more… would you say you wished you made the jump earlier?

I don’t think so because even when I made [the jump], I made so many mistakes — so many expensive mistakes. When I took some time off I also realized I’m not even doing the menswear the thing I started off in. I wasn’t even doing it the best that I could. I took a step back and asked myself “Why the f*ck am I doing trying womenswear because I did that for two years and sunk a ton of money in it. Womenswear is a much bigger business, you can get in so many more stores than you can in menswear.

I really decided I had to focus and instead of trying to impress everybody with 20 million different styles, just barely making it as a business. I really asked myself which pieces are the most important because that’s how I have to focus all of my finances on. When you have so little money to run on, I had to ask myself what are the things I really believe in the most?

What’s the best shirt?

What are the best pants for me as a brand?

What’s the best fitting t-shirt and the quality?

All of those things. If you really look at the store there are very few pieces of UNIS but what’s happened is guys come in and focus on only those pieces I put out every season.

And also the other thing is there are other brands that I totally respect but I don’t necessarily believe in over-designing clothing. Every once in awhile I’ll read those stupid comments that everyone tells me not to read but someone’s usually like “Yeah, you know last season was so much better than this season and no one understands why it was or wasn’t.” No one understands how difficult it is to have a clothing line; how you really have to make these decisions not just because you think “I want a boring collection.”

These comments were saying something about the model and the lookbook, and how the model gives it so much attitude but the clothes are really boring. But f*cking that’s how it should be! You as the person should make the clothing look cool, the clothing shouldn’t outwear you as a person.

I think that is exactly the whole point of UNIS the brand. You could wear every single item but it shouldn’t look like it was from any one brand and that’s what I always thought ever since the beginning. If you wore an entire UNIS outfit no one should know that entire outfit was from UNIS. No logos, no nothing, it’s about the understated.

A guy who’s understated is probably the most confident guy; one of the most confident guys in the room. You really understand that about taste in general.

Yes, you want a little flair but right now what I’m offering is the basics. As the company grows, I’d love to do my version of what I think is fun, seasonal and more fashion-forward. I already do that but in a subtle way like my pleated-skinny chinos. A lot of guys are having a hard time understanding why but I keep it in line every season because I really believe in it.

I’m like “Why are they so scared of it?”

They look so good on, and the really subtle things are sometimes more fashion-forward than you think, in a more obvious way.

So you’re a woman designing menswear. That means you can’t truly try on the clothes you design to figure out what fits, etc.

I’m like one of the only few women. I don’t know any other women designing menswear and it’s really been blood, sweat, and tears. It’s always a boys club; I don’t quite always fit into those things. I have had enough experience over my corporate working experience and just having this retail store that I do have a lot of working experience as a menswear designer. That in itself has become super valuable.

I really love menswear. I love the whole idea of it; the simplicity. You don’t have to change 20 times a day. It’s different portions: it’s really about a t-shirt and a pair of jeans or chinos. I like that there’s consistency and there aren’t huge shifts. It’s really thinking inside the box and how can I do this better every season while being one of the few women doing menswear.

I’ve met a bunch of Parsons female students wanting to do menswear which is amazing and working corporate there are so many women designing menswear clothing.

In this country, still 60% of menswear is bought by women and if there’s a girlfriend shopping with a guy, it’s a girlfriend’s opinion that wins over anybody else’s in the room including the guy. Like you as boys were dressed by your mothers and were always around, more than you think. Even though I can’t wear it, I have a very specific muse.

This store has been the biggest testing ground for every single product and I don’t always give up on something even for seasons because I could do this better, this could be better… I know I could fix this even if it fits horribly the first couple of seasons. But I’m only allowed to do that because there are literally so many guys that are coming in and giving me feedback.

That’s one of the reasons, probably the only reason, why I’m still in business is because of these stores and the response. If you think about it, if I just did this wholesale “fantasy line,” I don’t know if it would be the same thing.

Photograph by Dylan Mangahis

You obviously find fulfillment and valuable market knowledge from being able to talk directly to your customers!

I answer customer emails even for online.

You know for when pants split down the ass… you know, I respond with “I’m so sorry.” I really am because that shouldn’t happen to something that’s made in America.

And I tell people this all the time just because it’s made here doesn’t mean it’s f*cking quality. Being made in America does not equal quality. My choice in staying here should mean quality but everything’s moved out.

Companies like mine have to go in and improve the quality that’s been left to us. It’s just a choice to stay here and keep the money here in America not send it overseas. I could send my chinos overseas, but I don’t want to. I want to keep the money here in this country, and it’s not me being overly patriotic.

I think it’s that we’ve had kids who interned who are foreign students, and there’s a sense of entitlement. Foreign students with a lot of money come to this country to intern, while there are a lot of hard-working, tasteful Americans now than there used to be when I went to school. I want to employ them too, but there is a part of me that is super patriotic but I think Americans actually know how to work really hard, so that’s how I’d want to surround myself.

With your Elizabeth St. (NYC) store, how different were those customers at the beginning, taking into account the New York economy, lifestyle and shopper’s state-of-mind in comparison to those same factors in opening a store in Los Angeles six months ago?

Yeah, it’s so different.

I think I am still sort of navigating and trying to figure out who or what LA is and how UNIS can fit in. In New York, it’s all about foot traffic and where my store is: I don’t have to do a lot to have business.

Having this LA store, I have to do more because I’m not from here. I need to know what the LA guy wants from UNIS too. It’s not just what I think. That’s always been part of my whole way of doing business: to start navigating together in figuring out what UNIS is and what it becomes every season or becomes even the next season.

I’m not going to concentrate on the sales numbers, it’s really about our understanding and figuring out and how we fit in as puzzle pieces. I think having this store here has really expanded the brand and in a much bigger way by having two bookends to the country.

I think that this store will end up heavily influencing my design aesthetic in a way. I think guys in LA really love fashion more than guys in New York in some ways. They’re a little more flashy here than on the East Coast.

Jake Davis Test Shots: Eunice Lee

It’s really weird. I’m a huge fan of Jake Davis, the director, and I actually became knowledgeable about UNIS and yourself through his Test Shots series. I was super late but at the same time, I’m happy that’s the way I got introduced.

And that’s what is so crazy about the whole blogging, internet thing and how guys in their early 20’s know so much about fashion because of the internet. It is insane to me.

That’s what I grew up on, and — I honestly don’t know anything else.

It’s fascinating… like when the whole blogging culture and all that stuff happened, I embraced that really early. I could be doing it bigger and better or whatever, but I realized I needed to start working more closely with guys like Jake [Davis] when this store happened just because people should know we were trying to do something different with this store. We were trying to keeping it modern and clean and not so “old time-y” but that’s also super Californian too. The aesthetic in this store is very Californian but that whole Internet thing is amazing. I’m glad you discovered me through Jake. That means it’s working.

To conclude, what would you say as a final summation about your path of starting UNIS from an idea, leading up to today, and your vision for years ahead?

I think I’m still in that process of keeping myself focused as a designer; just continuing the path that after all these years that I finally realized that I’m going in the right direction. It’s believing in every single product that I put out and I want more guys to know who UNIS is.

You know, I’m in this business to be a business… and a business that survives. I’m not here just for the sake of art and it’s not about making sh*tloads of money. It’s really just about doing what I love and having other guys discover UNIS the brand.

Photograph by Dylan Mangahis

For more information on Eunice Lee & UNIS:
Visit UNISNewYork.com

Interview by John Liwag
Photographs by Dylan Mangahis
Transcription by Christian Oba

This piece has been edited/shortened for clarity.

Originally interview conducted in July 2012.