NEW YORK — Jussara Lee would like nothing better than if other designers copied her think-small ideology.
Her tidy and inviting West Village boutique is a one-stop shop for custom-made items, built-to-last designs, environmentally friendly accessories and attentive service. Lee recently started customizing loyal shoppers’ vintage items.
Her Sustainable Luxury Business models is based on biodegradable fabrics, natural dyes, local manufacturing, alterations and maintenance services and community building. She upcycles scraps from her designs and create garments that aren’t about trends. The designer is in talks with Pratt Institute’s director of sustainability Debera Johnson about using her boutique as “a bridge” for students to showcase their work and collaborate on handmade textiles.
After 25 years in business, Lee has no plans to scale up, make millions or collaborate with a fast fashion chain. “I like the idea of being present and having these interactions with people. That’s important. And it’s what makes my business different and successful. I don’t have a backer, an investor or loans. I don’t owe money. It’s a very pristine kind of situation. You’re just flowing with it because it depends on you. It depends on a team but the team is small,” she said. “I think more people can embrace the same philosophy and process. It will make them a lot happier than working for some company that they don’t believe in.”
At one time Lee’s annual sales were $3 million to $5 million before she switched tracks. When her 10-year Meatpacking District lease ran out, she regrouped, eventually taking a Beford Street location near her sister’s Brazilian restaurant Casa. She said, “I decided it was a lose-lose situation. You plunder nature to get the raw materials, and the process is totally faulty. You basically take advantage of people to make these things fast and cost-effective, then you push it on people to buy more than they need and it ends up polluting nature, which is where you started the whole cycle.”
Her customized designs retail from $250 and go up to $3,500 for a cashmere coat. Most consumers do not use 75 percent of their wardrobe, according to Lee, whose career advice to young designers is, “Start something small. Think about what people need. People don’t really need new clothes. That’s a fact.”
From a personal standpoint, Lee also bikes to work, composts her garbage, started growing her own vegetables and brings her own containers to buy bulk foods. That commitment level might be extreme for some but her intention is for consumers to consider their consumption levels. She also works with the eightysomething tailor Rocco Ciccarelli, whom Lee first met through her former Meatpacking District neighbor Thom Browne. Handmade versus machine-made allows for higher-sewn armholes, which improve the wearer’s range of movement, among other things. Lee also relies on a Brooklyn weaver Weaving Hands to create items out of the unused remnants of her designs. And Lee’s friend Maria Zim provides the farmer’s market style flowers in her store.
Even her store’s shopping bags are handmade of recycled goods by Stitchwallah, a co-op comprised of homeless people in India. A champion of preserving craftsmanship, Lee said handwork is also good for brain health and depression. During an interview last month, Lee said she is eager to share her business model so that “tons of people can follow the whole script step-by-step. When you do things for the common good, you don’t mind sharing solutions.”
After picking up her FIT diploma and a $5,000 gift from her mother, Lee started her own company manufacturing everything locally 25 years ago. For the first 10 years, she wholesaled her collection, selling to Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman and others. After taking that traditional industry route, participating in trade shows, holding runway shows, shooting look books and ad campaigns for 10 years, Lee said it dawned on her that she herself didn’t buy clothing every season even though she was producing a collection every season. “Back then it was eight seasons. Now I hear it is a collection every month, she said. “It was a different world because we didn’t have fast fashion in the way that we do now.”
Dismayed by how many of her own highly educated friends embrace farm-to-table but not a buy-local approach to fashion, Lee said she wants people to just consider how their choices affect the environment and beyond. “A lot of times people say, ‘Oh, that’s depressing’ and I say, ‘No, it’s invigorating because you are aware of it and we can do things,’” Lee said.