Eight months after moving to Los Angeles from Brooklyn to take the creative reins at Lucky Brand, Kin Ying Lee is growing smitten with the California lifestyle. One has to look no further than her office nestled in the modern adaptation of Mission-style architecture that serves as the company’s headquarters. In her white-walled nook overlooking the railroad tracks that parallel the parched Los Angeles River, she clusters little pots of succulents next to stacks of fashion magazines, a hefty tome from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s recent samurai exhibit and a copy of “Conscious Capitalism,” the business book cowritten by Whole Foods cofounder John Mackey to teach the next generation of entrepreneurs how to combine purpose with profit.
Her own personal style belies a flair for mixing her grandmother’s gold chain and silver bar bracelets with a curved brass cuff from Lucky and tossing a vintage indigo scarf over jeans.
Having launched J. Crew Group’s Madewell and worked there as the head designer for nearly eight years, she also has a knack for injecting coolness into affordable basics. She faces a similar, if not more weighty, task at Lucky, which was founded 25 years ago and is now owned by private equity firm Leonard Green & Partners. She’ll have an opportunity to display her panoramic vision as chief creative officer later this summer when Lucky opens a flagship covering almost 6,000 square feet — or double the size of its average store — at The Point in El Segundo, Calif. In the meantime, the Hong Kong-born, U.K.-raised designer shares her thoughts on L.A. street style, translating quality to Lucky’s customers and lessons learned from her former Madewell boss, Millard “Mickey” Drexler.
WWD: How are you adjusting to life in L.A.?
Kin Ying Lee: Being in a new place, you have that new sense of discovery. To see L.A. from a lens of a local has been really inspiring. Before that, you come to L.A. and, especially if you’re a designer, your mission is: You stay at this hotel, you go to these usual stores, you go to these restaurants. You only see L.A. from a very different filter. Now being here, you’re like, oh my gosh, Los Feliz and Silver Lake have a certain personality. You go to Pasadena, it’s a certain personality. You go to Venice Beach. Every pocket reflects a different personality within L.A. and I love that. I think there’s a really great diversity that is really invigorating.
WWD: What do you think of the street style in L.A.?
K.Y.L.: Definitely much more casual feel. I think that kind of washed attitude in terms of the casual laid-backness is really kind of nice to see. I tend to personally gravitate toward casualwear anyway. I love denim. Of course that is a huge grounder for myself. And seeing that with the California life and how people wear it and why. In a way, if you think about it, at the end of the day, with humans you’re always reacting to your environment. And that’s what it really boils down to. And you realize the reason why people are laid-back is because you can layer [and] you can have a jacket on all the time. Whenever it is a little bit chilly, you do throw on a beanie. That L.A. look becomes a function in a way, rather than a form. And so I love that. I love seeing and soaking that kind of attitude up.
WWD: Has L.A. street style changed the way you design and approach your collections for Lucky?
K.Y.L.: One of the things that I’m attracted to with Lucky is the pillars of the brand. The pillars are grounded by California. You have your moto, music, California and Americana. All those things are so natural to the environment as well as Lucky. It’s all-encompassing in terms of the influence. Yes, it does influence me. In a way I’ve come from a place where I’ve been thrown into California life. It’s like wow. It’s a refreshing take. Maybe that’s why fall feels like a nod to the love of California.
WWD: With the main denim line retailing for between $99 and $168, Lucky is stepping out of its moderate price range with leather bags, jackets and miniskirts that retail for about $200 and higher. Why did you decide to offer more expensive things for the fall collection?
K.Y.L.: If you think about Lucky, it’s 25 years old now. When I first saw the brand, it was 15, 16 years ago. It was one of the first premium denim brands, if you think about it. This is before Earl Jean and Earnest Sewn and Paper [Denim & Cloth] and all those brands. This is a brand that actually was the premium brand. To me, it really captures a customer that really knows quality. For me, it was one of the situations that the customer deserves better product…At the end of the day, leather is a huge marriage to denim. And especially with our brand pillar in terms of Americana and that nod to vintage and moto, leather is a huge piece. We really can stand for leather jackets, for instance. And our bags, it was made in the leather belt factory. The leather is heavy, it’s rich, it’s very elevated and the colors are really authentic. That’s something our customer, the Lucky customer, really deserves and understands.
WWD: What lessons did you learn from J. Crew Group chief executive officer Mickey Drexler when you worked at Madewell?
K.Y.L.: I learned so much. What do I boil it down to? There’s two. One is basically being true to the brand. I think that’s huge. I think that’s one of the things that I’ve learned from Mickey…The other one is learning about trusting your gut. Your gut check is huge. That drives a lot of decision-making. At the end of the day, it’s from big decisions to small.