From mom to entrepreneur, Crystal Lee wears many (stylish) hats. But it was her role as a fashion designer that cast her into the spotlight earlier this month, as she showcased her fall/winter 2019 line during New York Fashion Week in a show hosted by Fashion Gallery NYFW, a collective dedicated to spotlighting emerging designers.
Lee created her eponymous label, C.R.LEE, in 2012 to fill what she believed was a hole in the market. She felt the industry lacked unique, high-quality, conversation-starting pieces for women of all sizes. Lee literally made it her business to mind that gap. “It all began with filling the voids in my own closet, then meeting the needs of friends, family, and other women who expressed their frustrations,” Lee says.
The Southern California native majored in sociology during her undergraduate studies at Oklahoma State University, before attending the now-defunct Art Institute of Colorado to study fashion design. While she was in school at the Art Institute, she also juggled a full-time job and cared for her son, Rhyme (now 3), and her stepdaughter, Shacoi (now 18).
Through her label, Lee focuses on creating daring, distinctive styles. This aesthetic was evident in Sophistapunk, the collection she debuted at NYFW—it was the second time Lee presented her line in America’s fashion capital. “The Sophistapunk collection features tough details like safety pins, paint, hand-distressed fabrics and chain, paired with the sophisticated and luxurious fabrics like silk, velvet and suede the C.R.LEE brand is known for,” she says. “The juxtaposition where tough and refinement meet make each piece a true piece of art and celebration of independence.”
We caught up with Lee to talk about her inspiration, design process, and what showing at NYFW meant to her.
5280: This wasn’t your first time at New York Fashion Week. What made this trip different from the first time you presented a line in New York in 2017?
Crystal Lee: I flew solo! In 2017, I had the honor of showing a couple of pieces along with three other designers. This show was my first show where everyone in attendance was there to see what I created.
What was the driving force behind this collection?
The energy, spirit, and creativity of the ’80s and ’90s punk culture, mixed with the sophistication and edge the C.R. LEE brand is known for. This collection is a celebration of growth, but it still embodies the free spirit of youth. It’s a collection focused on taking calculated chances and stepping out of your comfort zone, trying something new but still maintaining a strong sense of self.
Can you share a little bit about your design process?
A magician never shares their secrets… just kidding! Honestly every collection for me starts a different way. This one started with the way a certain fabric distressed with ease. I built the collection around that technique and then the color palette came to me. Each collection is different, but everything is mainly inspired by how a fabric makes me feel. Then once I start to work with a piece of fabric or different textiles, the ideas just start to flow.
Your entire creative team—from models to photographers to makeup artists—are from the Mile High City. Why did you decide to take them with you to NYFW?
I have been very fortunate on my journey to have a really dope support system. Someone close to me once said the best way for you to pay me back is to pay it forward. Every person I invited along this journey I believe in. I just wanted to extend the opportunity to other deserving people. Plus, I believe it’s essential as this just strengthens the talent in our own Denver fashion community.
Which city inspires your aesthetic more, Denver or New York?
That’s tough because both cities inspire me in different ways. New York gives me the courage to try something new and unconventional, but Denver reminds me to keep it easy and not too fussy. Both cities inspire me equally. Denver’s ease and creative nature and New York’s tough gritty nature create a juxtaposition.
What’s next for you after New York Fashion Week?
A long-ass nap (laughs)…or a quick vacation. Other than that, I’m going to work on continuing to build my brand and I will reopen my books for custom clients. Hopefully, Beyoncé or Trace Ellis Ross call me for a custom piece. Other than that, I’m just going to keep this momentum going and keep my heart open for any new adventures and opportunities that come along.
Crystal Lee will be adding the pieces from her fall/winter 2019 collection to her website, crleedesign.com, although some pieces are one of a kind and will not be reproduced. Lee also takes orders and custom consultations via email at email@example.com.