Mi Jong Lee is Founder and CEO, MI JONG LEE | EMMELLE – An American brand. A New York atelier. Discerning style for real women.
Mi Jong Lee is a designer women’s ready – to- wear collection designed and produced exclusively in New York City under the creative direction of the brand’s namesake Korean-American designer, Mi Jong Lee.
How did you get your idea or concept for the business?
After Parson’s School of Design, I decided to take a more independent path and opened my own first 400 sq. foot retail store. It was always about a vertical infrastructure that would support each other.
Life is ironic that 39 years ago what I envisioned is now what we are seeking again: An omnichannel perspective. As fashion seeks to evolve, E-com , physical store, B2B all have to have streamlined structures that can coexist.
- When and why did you start your business?
I started the business in 1982. After deciding in 1980 that the world of academia in South Korea of that time was not inclusive of women, I chose to come to NY, go back to school at Parson’s and follow my passion.
- To what do you attribute your success? (Please try to include mention of your work with WPO).
Like most independent women, I thought that it was me,myself and I’s responsibility to figure things out. After joining the Women Presidents’ Organization, my perspective was blown away with the support and solidarity. I am now a firm believer in seeking support and giving support to women in business. In a world that has a 60-hour routine work schedule, the monthly WPO chapter meetings are invaluable and the larger organizational support has been key to my success.
We cannot do this alone, we are stronger together in support of each other. WPO is a sisterhood that represents this and I am a recipient of that support especially during pivotal times like those in which we are living.
- What is unique about your business?
I have always considered fashion as functional art, not a trend driven business. It is my passion to maintain the artisanal aspect of garment textile, print and construction. “Slow Fashion” is what I aim for in the midst of ‘fast fashion’ churning mill.
I want my pieces to last 10 years in a woman’s closet, be timeless whenever she wears them– An expression of who they are as individual empowered women, not a momentary representation of a trend.
My company is organic in operational nature with a team that has worked together for decades, preserving a working collaboration and involvement in the garments that they produce.
We have a flexible infrastructure as we produce everything on our premise that can accommodate customization and special requests.
- What made you choose this type of business/career?
Sometimes , I feel life chooses you and you answer. After a degree from Cornell in Sociology, I was headed for a career in academia. Returning to Korea after leaving there at 7 years old, I found the societal environment not conducive for women and chose to leave. Forgoing the nationalistic idealism, I was then free to pursue my passion for art and fashion. Then came Parsons School of Design.
- What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
I truly believed in the organic nature of small business and the people who are involved. This is the DNA of this company and the reason for the longevity of my business. The growth is not fast but steady and on firm foundation as long as it is not interfered by the pandemic.
- What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
They say your strength is also your weakness. The organic nature of what I have built also became part of inefficiency and lack of accountability that is prevalent in a more corporate environment. So, as the growth went from 5 employees to 10 then to over 20, I had to learn to reassess and institute some corporate infrastructures without taking away the core organic nature of the company.
- What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
Everyone says, follow your passion and so did I, without it there is no magic to follow. But it is just as important to not be a prisoner of the passion that will blind you from an objective overview of your business.
You have to be able to have structural organization to incorporate the objective bird’s eye view of the business separate from passionate emotions.
- What’s been the best advice you received as a business owner?
To be able to separate personal attachments, whether it is a project or a personnel issue. You can make a decision anyway that your corporate philosophy demands but you have to know the parameters of this decision objectively.
- What is one business idea that you’re willing to share with our readers?
I have learned and experienced the immense capacity we have as women in business to be able to pivot, rethink, reimagine our minds and will to meet the challenges of these days.
Pivoting my high fashion apparel business to PPE gowns in 3 weeks while quarantined with COVID has shown me that we can persevere if we continue to open our parameters to what is possible in today’s constantly changing paradigm . Do not hold on to the past in a blind way, don’t let it paralyze you, understand that we have to be open to new realities and stay alert as a new terrain gets settled.
To Learn more visit https://mijonglee.com/
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