Chau Har Lee
Luxury Footwear Consultant
Cutting her teeth with the likes of Bally and Nike, then as Head of Women’s Shoes at Saint Laurent, it was only natural for Chau Har Lee to take her footwear know-how on the road. Now consulting for luxury Maisons and innovative sportswear brands, Chau tells us about her journey.
How did you get started?
I did a BA at Cordwainers College back in 2002. Then I tried to get as much experience as possible. I worked for various companies to learn how the fashion industry worked and how the seasons work, just trying to gain skills.
I then did a Masters at the Royal College, which was a real turning point for me in terms of feeling more confident as a designer, because it was two years of pure indulgence in your own ideas. That was a great time to be purely experimental and not have to worry about budgets, who’s going to wear it? Is it commercial? It was fantastic just to be purely indulgent in your own thoughts.
Who was your tutor there?
I had a tutor called Sue Sanders and she was amazing because she also taught me through my BA so, we had a relationship already and she knew exactly how to handle me. She knew when to push me, when to tell me to stop and when to tell me to go home and just have a break. It was really good. I had the best time and I met lots of really fun people.
What happened after you left Royal College?
Everything changed! My collection was received really well, and as a result I was invited to do London Fashion Week, Paris Fashion Week and New York Fashion Week with Fashion Easter New Gen. Then I was offered a position at Bally, I worked with them which was great fun and got to travel a lot and then on to Nike which was amazing.
Talk to us about the transition from Bally to Nike.
Well it was Nike! The world famous, number one amazing! In the beginning when they approached me I wasn’t quite sure about it because I’m not a sneaker freak, so I didn’t really know what they’d expect of me.
They invited me out to Portland and I showed my portfolio to a few of the Design Directors there. They also weren’t too sure what to do with me so we thought the best place for me would be somewhere that’s quite crafty or innovation driven. We went for a category called NSW; this was the category for women, which was really nice because it was an introduction into how sneakers work and how to design them. It was an amazing place; you have all of these things at your fingertips, the materials, people and expertise.
So how do you handle all the travelling? Do you have any top tips?
The Euro Star is quite a nice train journey and for the long hauls you can get in your jim-jams and sleep on your blow up pillow! I’m not great at reading as I just fall asleep, so usually I tune into some films and because I hardly go to the cinema now, a twelve-hour flight is a good time to catch up on all the films that I’ve missed.
Did you always want to be a Footwear Designer?
No, not at all! I always liked making things and didn’t quite know what to do with that. When I was young I just made stuff, I’d pick up an origami book and would start making. Then I went to Art College did a foundation course and that is really where I learnt how to use that in a design sense.
When you’re at Art College you’re making things for a purpose. You’re given a brief and you have to learn how to digest it and interpret it in your own way. So that was when I started to become interested in design.
However then it was… well what design? My strengths were textiles and sculpture and luckily enough we had a visiting Footwear Tutor come in. She set a project and it seemed ideal because it was a mixture of technical, structural, and aesthetics.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
I think the most rewarding part is seeing your designs getting realised. It’s amazing to see shoes I’ve designed worn by people you wouldn’t imagine. You see the photo shoot and the models wearing them but when you see real people in them that is a really great feeling.
Do you ever stop anyone in the street wearing your designs?
No, I just stare at them!
How do you get behind the essence of a brand?
A lot of research, and just trying to get involved as much as possible. I go through the history and try and imagine what the Creative Director is into. I dive in as much as possible and then take a step back and look at it from a distance.
What is the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received?
There has been a lot. I have been fortunate enough to have some really great tutorials, one of them being with Mr Manolo Blahnik, which was fantastic. He has worked in the industry forever and is the most amazing shoe designer in the world. To still have that energy and that passion for what he does is really inspiring. He is still able to tutor others and bring out that passion and excitement and stories. He’s like his illustrations, so full of energy and life.
If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, what would you say?
Probably not to be so nervous about things, to be more decisive and just do stuff.
How do you disconnect from your job?
Going to the countryside and putting the iPhones down, seeing the view and going to the sea.
If you had three words to summarise your job, which three words would you use?
Oh that’s hard. Passion. Structure. Desirability.
What are your thoughts on fast fashion? And are you a consumer of it?
I pop into Topshop every now and then but I get scared and run out. I think it’s too fast to be honest.
When I shop now I look for pieces that I really like and I will enjoy wearing and it will stay in my wardrobe. I have a lot of pieces from my mother’s wardrobe which she wore in the 60s and 70s. That’s what I enjoy wearing the most. I don’t need to buy anything apart from underwear and socks and things like that! I think that fashion shouldn’t be so fast, when my mother’s clothes are still so relevant today.
What was your mum like? Was she super fashionable?
No not really, but she lived in Malaysia until she was in her mid 20s and then she moved to the UK. She had a lot of clothes made for her, because it was the done thing. We are exactly the same size pretty much, so all of these Chinese dresses with the Mandarin collars in really amazing fabrics with flowers and big prints I could wear and it’s such a personal thing.
I will never throw them away because my mother had them made for her, they are brought over from Malaysia and I will hand them over to my kids one day. That is what I enjoy, fashion is something to enjoy and to cherish.
So how do you think your role is changing, now that fashion is changing?
Well I think that it is hard to say, everything is changing so much, and it's difficult to know in which way, hopefully it’s in a good way. There is always a danger of things being repeated all over the place and there’s enough space for ideas so it would be nice to explore more perspective and different attitudes. Fashion is an expression at the end of the day, so it would be nice to see a broader range of it.
Do you find that you have to be more reactive with your role?
Yes and no. I think because of social media, trends are happening so much quicker now and things are viral and in the press so you have to be aware of that but not to be to guided by that.
I think it’s also good to step away and not look at social media sometimes and just go back to my studio, have some stuff around me and just start to create things and start to build.
If you have too much information and to many people saying how you should be doing things and what it should look like your judgement then becomes very clouded.
What about your social circles? Do you have a lot of friends in the fashion industry, or are you mostly disconnected from it?
No actually, a lot of my friends are in the fashion industry but it wasn’t a purposeful thing, we just all went to college together and went to our foundation course together.
It’s always nice to realise that we have to stop the day job sometimes and go out and have fun and go to the pub.