When we think of successful designers, we often turn to those who pile their fashion-week front rows with Kanyes and Kims — or large-scale manufacturers who dominate the airwaves and ad campaigns. We often don't see the success below the surface: the people paving the way for a new mode of thinking. This is the part of fashion that is most intriguing, because it's often those on the periphery who influence the status quo, not the other way around.

I met designer Jussara Lee last year thanks to an introduction by a mutual acquaintance. He thought we would get along since we shared a similar approach to sustainability in design. Was he ever right! I was happy to be her “date” to the CFDA Fashion Awards show, sporting one of her wedding dresses that she turned into evening wear simply by dyeing it naturally with coffee grounds. I sat down with her recently to talk about the philosophies behind her eponymous label, Jussara Lee.


How long have you been designing?

It was in 1991 when I founded Jussara Lee, a small-scale luxury design company based in New York City, and unveiled my first collection under my signature name. In its third season, the word got out and the collection was embraced by prominent retailers such as Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman. Since then, I have spent the last 14 years focusing on hand-tailored, custom-made clothes as a means to shift my business practices to a more environmentally conscious operation. I have been implementing systems and adopting methods that enable me to make clothes with low impact to our planet without any compromises to quality and fit. 

Jussara Lee via Facebook


Jussara, you have your own storefront in the city and work with a lot of private clients. Take me through how that works.

We are not a traditional retailer as we custom-make the clothing. Our products are staple investments — handmade by master menswear tailors and shirtmakers. In a unique approach, they extend their quality craftsmanship into women's wear. We nurture a close relationship with our customer base. This allows us to educate our clients on what the actual process is in making their clothes. We heed to their needs while they develop a deeper understanding of our philosophy and the painstaking craft involved. Together we create staple pieces that are cherished and transcend time. The size of our operation allows us to focus on the minutiae and assure the best quality, fit and service. In addition, having a brick-and-mortar shop on a beautiful corner in the West Village helps.


You have an emphasis on sustainability through your design. What are some of your overarching philosophies?

For the past 14 years, I have been developing and following what I call a sustainable luxury business model. This model is built on the same foundation as a traditional one: surpassing fit, aesthetics, craftsmanship and quality. But ours challenges the current perception of it, because sustainability takes precedence over everything. We avoid polluting practices and waste at all costs. The plethora often associated with luxury gives way to creative use of scraps that were destined for the trash bin. Synthetic fabrics that use chemicals give way to natural fibers that are biodegradable. Natural dyes, alteration and maintenance service, small production and implementation of systems that engage the community are integral parts of our modus operandi.


I would believe that the women and men who are attracted to your label have a certain level of sophistication. How would you describe your clientele?

Our clients are mostly financially independent women and men who aren't interested in wearing clothes from big fashion brands but who are seeking quality, fit and understated elegance. They are not the regular shopper, and in fact they are too busy with more important undertakings than spending time shopping. Age group is quite broad since we cater to anyone who is looking for well-made, practical clothes with impeccable fit.

Jussara Lee via Facebook


What’s the concept behind your latest collection? 

The concept of my latest collection is “Zero Waste.” The main part of our theory of sustainability is exploring the artistry of creating beauty out of leftovers — what was previously considered waste and the process of regenerating scraps. 


You often have some interesting collaborations — from artisans to printmakers. Anything current in the works?

We are collaborating with local hand weavers and artisans. 


Fashion week just wrapped up. What do you think is the most overrated aspect of it?

The celebrity frenzy is very overrated. I can’t care less about what the the pop culture icons are wearing or doing. 

All right, then — what do you think is the most underrated aspect of it?

Creativity. The heart and essence of fashion has been replaced by commerce, where profitability is all that matters.

Jussara Lee Shop via Facebook


Where can we find you and your designs?

We wholesale locally produced handmade shirts and have a brick-and-mortar store in the West Village. 


Jussara Lee, 60 Bedford St., West Village. 212-242-4128; jussaralee.com


By Summer Rayne Oakes

Summer Rayne is a model and head of Marketing & Community for Foodstand. When she's not cooking up sugar-free meals or running barefoot, she's likely tending to her indoor gardens. You can see more of her projects at summerrayne.net or follow her on Instagram.