Kin Ying Lee is the head designer of Madewell, J.Crew's hip younger sister, and like the brand she stewards, is easy-going, approachable, and almost always clad in denim. The jeans are a nod to the history of the brand, which launched in 1937 as a purveyor of work wear. "Coming into this heritage was a dream," says the Hong Kong–born and U.K.–raised designer of quintessentially American fashion. "Madewell was a utilitarian brand. We can add the frills, but it has to be grounded in function." Madewell's fans appreciate the basics and relish the frills; Lee's distinctive twists on her building blocks of denim, knits, and work shirts have made the brand a consistent high-growth bright spot for J.Crew.
Although Madewell is a mass-market retailer, with more than 30 stores and an e-commerce and catalog business, Lee's sensibility has created an identity that is more real girl than fashionista. Each collection's unusual and eclectic mix of colors, prints, and accessories seems to defy the rules of fashion while somehow remaining cohesive. Lee imagines her customer this way: "She doesn't live and breathe fashion. She's not a victim."
Lee cultivates this aesthetic through frequent visits to upstate New York vintage markets, scouring for both big ideas and minute details. Her finds are added to inspiration boards that line Madewell's offices in Greenwich Village and drive the creation of this year's spring and summer lines. In the center of one canvas is a fragile lace bib purchased from a vintage vendor. "If we were to make this, it would be a $1,000 item," she says, pointing to the intricacies. That's not an option for the Madewell shopper (tees average $50; jeans, $90), so Lee had the pattern printed on a knit. "I want to make sure we're giving her something beautiful, something with integrity," she says. "But I don't want her to take out a loan in order to get it."
Moves from Hong Kong to England and learned a new language at age 6
Graduates from Kingston University with a job offer waiting in the U.S.
Gets engaged; accepts position with J.Crew and moves from Ohio to New York
Starts developing Madewell from the ground up
Gives birth to daughter Isabella
Gives birth to son Marco
Photo by Brad Harris