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The chance to exhibit one’s designs in a museum, let alone one in Paris, is rare, but Mi Jong Lee is having her moment in the City of Light next month.
Lee, who is based in New York and designs a collection under the Emmelle label, created several one-of-a-kind gowns in a collaboration with photographer Ernestine Ruben, which will be showcased alongside Ruben’s photographs at the “Images au Corps” exhibit at Paris’ Maison Européenne de la Photographie from Sept. 8 to Oct. 31.
Lee’s mandate was to interpret Ruben’s photographs, which often depict human figures and touch on such themes as “Air,” “Water,” “Moss” and “Fire.” Rather than pursue a literal approach by transposing the images onto the fabrics, she decided to use Ruben’s powerful images as a loose inspiration, employing special cutting and printing techniques and fabric textures to evoke the imagery. For instance, Ruben’s “Moss” photograph inspired her to create a vertically pieced gown made of silk crinkle gauze with a matching cocoon coat; “Air” became a billowing silk organza gown with an opaque black bodice and a white, tiered skirt with a ruched hemline, and “Fire” is viewed by Lee as a four-ply black duchess satin dress with a tuxedo tail coat that is accentuated with a cluster of buttons covered in dyed silk. The gowns will be exhibited adjacent to the photographs.
For Lee, the project represents a moment in her 28-year career. She left her native Korea at a young age and lived in several countries with her diplomat family before studying sociology at Cornell University, and, later, fashion at Parsons School of Design. “When I came out of Parsons, I decided to start with retail first with a tiny store on Madison Avenue and 79th Street,” Lee recalled.
Today, she caters to her clientele from three Emmelle stores in Manhattan, and about 60 specialty stores nationwide. “Unbeknownst to me, Ernestine was a customer of mine, and she was in one of my stores, and asked to meet the owner of the line, so I did,” Lee said.
The collaboration has made Lee think about fashion in new ways. “Fashion, I feel, is a medium of art, but it’s also a business,” she said. “To combine the two can be the challenge, and the fun.”