NEW YORK — Saja is ready for its closeup.
The Los Angeles-based contemporary collection has been quietly growing into a $2.5 million business during the past six years and now designer and owner Yoo Lee is opening her first shop in NoLIta here.
Lee has shifted the focus of the collection to flirty dresses made primarily in silk chiffon that now make up about 60 percent of the collection. Once Lee realized she was dressing a growing number of bridesmaids who sought to wear her dresses post-wedding day, she realized her designs filled a need for an underserved market.
“Our dresses are not so traditional and are at a great price point,” Lee said. “Dresses were really big a few years ago, then denim got so big. I think women want to go back to something more ladylike.”
Saja is inspired mostly by the glamour, sophistication and femininity of the Twenties and Thirties. Detailing such as French seams, silk linings and hand-beading are important to Lee, who got her start working as an assistant to Farah Ebrahimi, design director of BCBG, whom she later followed to DKNY.
Saja dresses wholesale for $100 to $180. Mixed into the 60-piece collection are tops, wholesaling between $80 and $160; skirts, $74 to $150, and sweaters, $50 to $70.
Next month, Saja will open its first freestanding boutique on Elizabeth Street in NoLIta. The 650-square-foot space will house the entire collection.
“Our clothes are vintage-driven and I wanted to have that feel in the store,” Lee said.
To that effect, the store will blend tradition and modernity. White lacquer floors are set off by pink wallpaper and extravagant ostrich leather couches.
“It’s clean and modern, but has the warmth of the neighborhood,” she said.
Saja, which means “lion” in Korean, a nod to Lee’s native land, retails in about 150 boutiques in the U.S., Indonesia, Japan and Hong Kong. For now, Lee is content with her boutique business.
“We want to get into department stores, but as a smaller company, we have to be careful about chargebacks,” she said. “Boutiques are the backbone of our business.”
After the stints at DKNY and BCBG, Lee knew that if she stayed in Los Angeles she needed to design her own collection. She couldn’t see herself working for any of the casual contemporary brands based there and since her husband worked in the film industry, a move to New York wasn’t an option. She started designing and shipping merchandise out of her living room. She attended a designer casting call for Henri Bendel, where one of her pieces was picked up.
“That was how we had our start,” she said. “They picked up a hand-beaded sequin top that took our sewer seven hours to sew.”
Soon after, she met Annette Breindel, founder of the Annett B. showroom here, where the careers of Anna Sui and Rebecca Taylor were launched.
“Annette is one of the rarest people I’ve ever met,” Lee said. “She was very harsh and very critical, but I learned it was better to hear criticisms than to have been patted on the back. With her, you grow thick skin and grow very humble.”
Lee eventually plans to have a show during New York Fashion Week.
“Hopefully next year,” she added. “I’ll only do it when I’m good and ready.”