Dana Lee’s menswear design—from her early work under the A-Z Collection label, to her new eponymous collection—reveal an intimate understanding of what men like to wear, day in and day out. Basic and unfussy, with a meticulous eye for detail, Lee’s clothing has a natural simplicity that lends itself readily to long-term daily wear. This isn’t surprising, given that her interest in fashion was honed in secret deadstock rooms of Canadian department stores. 01’s Redia Soltis spoke with the New York-based designer about her life and work.
You were raised in Vancouver, Canada. What can you tell us about growing up here?
Well, I was born and raised in Vancouver, aside from a few years where we moved up to a pulp and paper town in northern BC. Vancouver – particularly North Vancouver- was such an amazing place to grow up. There are not many cities where one can be on a ski hill looking down at the ocean and city lights at 11pm at night, back home in 5 minutes, then 20 minutes later be meeting your friends in the middle of city or wrapped in a Hudson’s Bay blanket on the sandy beach side. We spent a lot of time outdoors,doing everything from camping,fishing, swimming in the river, hiking, skiing, to all night dance parties in the forest or in some random farmers field in Chilliwack. I had a few good girlfriends and then we hung out with a lot of boys – most of them were into making music or skateboarding. I was pretty quiet and reserved, but definitely grew up with lots of interesting personalities around me.
What made you decide to go into fashion design?
I remember always having an affection for clothing, and in my late teens got really obsessed with the art of casual dressing, constantly searching for perfectly worn or dead stock clothing. Before Downtown Eaton’s (the classic Canadian department store) shut down, there used to be an annex on the 5th floor full of dead-stock merchandise from the 70’s and early 80’s. There was also a secret annex in the Army & Navy on Hastings Street that had deadstock dating back to the 60’s. Both places were so good, and not many people knew about them except for seniors and LES residents. I began taking the bus there on the weekends when I was 16, and found the most amazing, interesting, and perfectly generic garments: hospital scrubs, poly-cotton t-shirts and longhorns, vintage silk slips and blouses, industrial work-shirts, and tailored men’s blazers for about $60. The image of being a designer never really seemed that appealing, but I just found I had a lot of energy to put towards clothing. Initially I pursued fine arts and then sciences, then I switched over to fashion.
Growing up your father was an architect. Do you think that your design process is influenced by him in any way?
My Dad was really into West Coast contemporary architecture and Danish furniture, so we lived in a series of post & beam houses and had teak everything. I honestly didn’t think much of it at the time. There was always something being built – usually out of cedar 2x4s. My earliest memories are the smell of wood being sanded and getting slivers while playing with Lego on the stilted decking. As a child, both my parents really encouraged us to do creative mind-bending stuff: making buildings out of milk cartons-you could cut and fold inwards and outwards, but weren’t allowed to tape anything on. We were definitely not the coolest kids on the block, lol. So yes, both my brother (who went onto become a talented landscape architect) and I were likely influenced by my Dad and my Mom.
What is the oddest job you ever had?
I am embarrassed to say! But, my second oddest job was working in a garment factory.
What made you decide to design menswear rather then women’s?
There was just something appealing about monotony and practicality of men’s clothing. Also, I was kind of turned off by the disposability of women’s wear and found the creative boundaries of women’s wear to be a bit too wide open.
Can you tell us about A-Z collection? How would you describe your past collection as a whole?
A-Z was a brand that I developed from 06-09. It was a creative take on elementary things such as basic shapes and colors, and clothing basics such as raincoats and scrubs.
You recently debuted your new collection under your own name. What made you decide to rebrand?
The change was more of a new start than a rebrand. Aside from a trademark discrepancy, A-Z was too limiting, thematically. I design from a personal standpoint, so I decided that a namesake brand would be a better reflection of that, and be better for the long-term than a kitschy brand name.
What should we expect to see from your new collection? Will we see familiar staples from A-Z brought into Dana Lee?
There will probably always be some commemoration of the ‘staple’ item, yes.
Is there any materials you are obsessed with right now?
Chambray is popular right now, so this season I wanted to develop interesting ways to use it. For SS10, we made classic-cut jean jackets but instead we used double-layer denim chambray shirting, then really washed it down. I also discovered an ombre bleach technique that created a pink gradient on the chambray. We made some shirts, ties, and jackets like that.
When are you the happiest with your work?
When I see someone wearing one of the jackets I’ve designed to death. I love seeing things I make being worn and really lived in, and looking natural on someone. I am also happy with my work, when it is not rushed and when I’ve had lots of hand-on contact during the development process. Menswear is mainly flat patterns, but there is so much more you can do with the finishing that brings life and endearment to a garment. Sometimes it takes a few extra steps to achieve that quality.
Do you think you will ever branch into women’s wear?
What do you miss about Vancouver?
Recently, the hot springs. Also, my nephew Jordan.
What kind of man do you think you design your collection for?
Someone who has a style opinion and keeps up with the times, but would rather not appear fussy or overdone (or at least for that day). I know a lot of guys like this, and try to picture what they might like to wear.
Any music you’re into right now?
The XX , Neil Young, and Francis and the lights, Bill Callahan, and Viva Radio
What boutiques will we be seeing your clothes in?
Final stockists will be confirmed shortly, but will include Opening Ceremony (LA, NY, Japan), Dossier (Brooklyn), and Les Etoffes (Montreal).
If you were in Shoppers Drug Mart which aisle should we expect to find you?
Ha ha. W-h-a-t?
Photos:1.Dana in her studio/2.3.5. Looks from Dana Lee’s F/W 09/4.Dana at hotsprings in B.C./6. Dana’s dad/ 7.The Lee’s home in Northern B.C.(126.96.36.199. photos by Jody Rogac)