Parsons’ MFA graduate Shihhsun Lee: reinterpreting the art of bespoke tailoring
With a BFA degree in Fashion Design from Shih Chien University in Taiwan and a MFA degree in Fashion Design and Society from Parsons, Shihhsun Lee combines transnational training with couture technique. This, along with his deep appreciation for bespoke tailoring, has given him a unique style and vision. Striving to revive bespoke tailoring, the recent Parsons MFA graduate is adept at creating handmade custom suits with a sophisticated use of fabrics and has translated this into his graduate collection. He sat down with us to discuss how his passion for bespoke tailoring developed, his obsession to create perfectly fitted customized clothing, and why he doesn’t really care about commercial success.
What words would you use to describe your design vision?
Understated, clean, accuracy.
Does this particular vision stem from your passion for bespoke tailoring?
Yes, those words also represent the aesthetic of my graduate collection. A bespoke suit is like a modern gentleman’s armor and when you think of a gentleman, you think of a man who is clever, clean-cut, well-mannered, but also dressed in a nice suit. I’d like to think my work is like a well-mannered wearable that exhibits both modern sophistication and classic craftsmanship.
“UNDERSTATED DESIGN MAKES PRACTICALITY BEAUTIFUL; I WANTED TO MAKE A STATEMENT WITHOUT ASKING FOR ATTENTION; SOMETHING PEOPLE WOULD LOOK AT TWICE.”
What kind of background do you have that leads you to where you are today?
As a kid I was always drawn to everything art-related. I guess I developed a sense of aesthetics partly thanks to contemporary subcultures such as manga. I loved drawing and started finding drawing inspiration from it. These influences came together in my decision to pursue a degree in fashion design. I received my BFA in Fashion Design in Taiwan and finished my apprenticeship with a local bespoke tailor in Taipei, where I gained a deep understanding of the centuries-old tradition, and learned how to take a refined approach to bespoke tailoring. Prior to studying at Parsons, I had to complete compulsory military service for a year in Taiwan. To be honest, this experience influenced my design values and beliefs greatly. Until I joined the military, I took pleasure in experimenting with color and bold patterns and my style was all about being the center of attention. I had an awakening when I discovered how impractical and unnecessary that was, during my military service. I was struck by how those trendy pieces I once appreciated, when worn at inappropriate times and circumstances, had no real meaning at all. It steered me toward what I saw as better insights in my pursuit of becoming a fashion designer. It’s like it provided me with the opportunity to conform and express individuality at the same time. I realized I wanted to design something polished, practical, classic, yet contemporary; understated design makes practicality beautiful; I wanted to make a statement without asking for attention; something people would look at twice.
As someone who is formally trained and apprenticed, what’s the biggest lesson you have learned from both schools and how did they influence you?
Shih Chien University is very technically-driven. I acquired all the essential skills in fashion design: patternmaking, sewing, draping, free hand cutting. Parsons is very conceptually-driven and requires a higher level of research and reasoning. At Shih Chien, progress is not linear; I got to do whatever I wanted to do without being rejected or constantly questioned for the meaning behind it. At Parsons I got to do whatever I wanted to do too, but I had to keep making hypotheses and testing them. It is important to explain the logic of ideas behind your work at Parsons.
What was it like moving from Taiwan to New York?
It feels very different. The fashion world in Taiwan is relatively small; so small that if you want to be a professional designer, you must move past the country’s fashion establishment and break into the Western world. The New York fashion scene functions on a global scale. Everything seems more real to me in New York: a real fashion business, a real system, a real battleground for designers from around the world. I feel like even small things which happen to me in this city could be very important and could change my whole life.
“THE IMMENSE POPULARITY IN FAST FASHION MAKES ME QUESTION AND DISAGREE WITH THE NORMALITY OF IT.”
What makes you feel like that?
My first internship in New York was at Martin Greenfield Clothiers. It’s a family-owned menswear manufacturer known for handmade suits. It was quite a different experience from my bespoke tailoring apprenticeship in Taipei. Both learning experiences were all about seeking perfection and accurate results, but Martin Greenfield has their own factory and the scale is bigger and the whole process is faster. It made me realize bespoke tailoring is clearly much more than just a passing trend; there are people I met and worked with who still believe in the whole handmade revival.
What can you tell us about your experience of making your thesis collection?
My graduate collection is all about finding a new facet of traditional bespoke tailoring. There are so many fabrics and variations of patterns within the collection, including hand stitching florals, geometrics, stripes and novelty conversationals to create one-of-a-kind suits; something you won’t see in traditional bespoke tailoring. I enjoy manipulating classic textiles into modern, intricate patterns and composing the perfect, concise, modern-looking suit. But it takes a CRAZY amount of time to create a new thing, a new idea. The most important part of the collection is to hand applique the fabric. I want to create handsewn digital-like prints that look modern, but feel like classic suiting fabric, which requires numerous hand-sewing techniques such as basting the seams together, hand-stitching the patterns, and overcasting the seam allowances. With such a time-consuming process, time management is the key challenge. There are just so many details packed into every stitch, that the effect gets lost in the big picture. Sometimes, the most challenging part gets overlooked.
You aim to specialize in bespoke tailoring, what is it about the creation of bespoke tailoring that appeals to you?
Maybe it’s the nostalgic joy I’ve got from watching old-timey movies, I’ve always loved the way men dressed in the 50s; they recognized intrinsic value of the well-crafted suit and enjoyed the ritual of having a bespoke suit.
I appreciate the sheer workmanship of bespoke tailoring and that makes me a very technically-driven designer. I am motivated by the handiwork, principles of craftsmanship and the initiatives of pursuing perfection. We live in the fast-fashion era; the immense popularity in fast fashion makes me question and disagree with the normality of it. I understand the importance of accessibility for the masses, but quality is always my priority. It reflects on shape, proportion, color or pattern; those are what constitute a well-made tailored garment in every aspect and you won’t find such quality in supermarket clothing.
“IT SEEMS LIKE BEING A FASHION DESIGNER NOW ALWAYS HAS TO DO WITH THE NOTION OF COMMERCIAL SUCCESS, WHICH I DON’T REALLY CARE ABOUT.”
Are there any artists or designers who have influenced your work?
I would say Rene Magritte and Pina Bausch have influenced me a lot. Aside from the fact that there are many men in suits in Magritte’s work, his painting is visually intriguing because of its illusionistic, conceptual characteristic. His work inspired me to play with fabric patterns and to use lines to give an illusion of depth. Bausch’s dance works are often centered on a surreal situation. She has a subtle surrealistic vision that pushes its way into these stylish and crisp dance-theatre spectacles. Their work, as inspiration, plays a pivotal role in constructing and mediating my aesthetic/design sense.
What would you be if you weren’t a fashion designer?
I would be a bespoke tailor…if I fail to be a fashion designer like no other. It seems like being a fashion designer now always has to do with the notion of commercial success, which I don’t really care about. It’s no secret that what most designers care about is if their collections will guarantee them commercial success. That might lead them to sacrifice some quality and creative aspects in the process, and that’s not what I am capable of.
What are your plans for the future?
I will be working at a suit company based in New York. I won’t have my own label for the foreseeable future. Instead, I will focus on some conceptual projects, something between art and fashion, something that pushes visual boundaries and challenges the ideals of the traditional fashion establishment.
Words Zoey Chu
All images courtesy of Shihhsun