Edeline Lee: "The women I dress are working hard"

·4-min read
Photo credit: Mars Washington
Photo credit: Mars Washington

The scale is the first thing that strikes me when I step through Edeline Lee’s front door, an unassuming entrance just off the urban bustle of the Commercial Road. Inside the Victorian building, a former bank, I’m immediately faced with double-height ceilings and a wide staircase that snakes round in dramatic fashion to the first floor.

I pass workrooms and studios that have light pouring in through the windows, and arrive at the heart of the house, an open, well-proportioned room, wall-to-wall bookshelves on one side, and a kitchen on the other where the designer is sitting, serenely, at the long table. It’s an unexpectedly unvarnished space for someone whose designs are renowned for their effortless polish. Her flattering creations are favourites with the Oscar winners Alicia Vikander and Olivia Colman, and the popstars Taylor Swift and Solange Knowles, while the Duchess of Cambridge too is a fan. But they are also beloved by those with a more office-based existence – the financier Helena Morrissey is a client and Stephanie Phair, the chair of the British Fashion Council and CCO at Farfetch, chooses Lee’s pieces whenever she has a television appearance.

Photo credit: Karwai Tang - Getty Images
Photo credit: Karwai Tang - Getty Images

"The women I dress are working hard – they’re on the board of many companies, they have children, they’re public speaking," Lee tells me as she makes coffee. "Demands are so high that it’s important to create clothes that function. Yes, there’s the fun, fabulous stuff, but I like to find a balance with pieces where you can live your life and still look 'dressed'."

Her shows themselves often celebrate strong female talent, who she calls "the future woman". Past collaborators have included Sharon Horgan, the creator of the hit TV show Catastrophe; the academic Mary Beard; and the theatre and film director Josie Rourke. Lee was born to Korean parents and brought up in Vancouver, learning to sew at school while devouring magazines cover to cover. Finding fashion was like "a discovery of personal power". "You can move opinion with fashion," she says. "I liked that you could make something aesthetically that could influence people." She applied to Central Saint Martins and was thrilled to be accepted. "Saint Martins was the dream, because every designer I admired had gone there."

Photo credit: Mars Washington
Photo credit: Mars Washington

During this time, she interned with Alexander McQueen, which she found a transformative experience. "I realised that it was about developing your eye to see each tiny thing. If you’re aware of every millimetre, that’s when you can do better as a designer." An opportunity presented itself when the red-carpet designer Zac Posen, who was a few years above her at Saint Martins, asked her to join his brand in New York, the first person he ever hired. She took two and a half years out of her degree. "We were so young, it was all red carpets and champagne," she recalls with affection. "But I came back, because there’s something really meaningful about creating your final collection at Saint Martins, figuring out who you are as a designer."

After graduating, Lee was the head designer at the label Rodnik for two years, before the birth of her son Harper inspired her to start her own business. Originally based in west London, she moved to this three-storey house in the East End five years ago, attracted by the idea of a space where she could prepare pieces, see private clients and house her family. "That’s when my business started to get more serious," she says. "If we had a deadline and worked longer hours, I could still have dinner with my son. It was a way to manage being a parent."

Photo credit: Mars Washington
Photo credit: Mars Washington

When she first moved in, she set about pulling up the layers of tiles, linoleum and carpet to reveal textured floorboards. "I get attracted to things that have a patina," she says. "I’m not good at buying new things."

She put back the fireplaces and restored the period features and original cornicing. There’s a sense of the theatrical here, as the rooms contain many set pieces from her
shows – oversize lightbox artworks, a broken mask from her graduate presentation. The handsome kitchen table was once a science-lab bench, repurposed by Retrouvius, and throughout, there are pre-loved pieces found by the designer Adam Bray, and the stylist and fashion editor Katie Felstead, who deals in used furniture.

Photo credit: Mars Washington
Photo credit: Mars Washington

Naturally, Lee is often found wearing her own designs, but is a creature of habit when it comes to wardrobe staples. "When I like a pair of shoes, I buy three pairs," she admits; this past year, she has been living in Nike Air Force Ones. For occasions, she likes to accessorise with jewellery by her friend Cora Sheibani. Lee surrounds herself with pieces that reflect each aspect of her life, from friendship to family. It’s very in keeping with her ethos. "Fashion changes all the time," she says. "But it’s always about telling stories."

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