Julie Lê: How I Shop

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute librarian is surrounded by inspiring fashion history every day.
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Chantal Fernandez
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The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute librarian is surrounded by inspiring fashion history every day.
Julie Lê. Photo: Jason Lewis

Julie Lê. Photo: Jason Lewis

We all buy clothes, but no two people shop the same. It can be a social experience, and a deeply personal one; at times, it can be impulsive and entertaining, at others, purpose-driven, a chore. Where do you shop? When do you shop? How do you decide what you need, how much to spend, and what's "you"? These are some of the questions we're putting to prominent figures in the fashion industry with our column, "How I Shop."

Julie Lê might have the best job in fashion.

As the head librarian for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Library for the past eight years, she spends her days pouring over rare books, periodicals, lookbooks, fashion plates, swatches and magazines and helping the Institute’s curators, visiting design teams, stylists and photographers with all kinds of fashion history-related research. “It’s really strange that I found the one spot that could fulfill everything in terms of my interests,” she says. Not that strange: Lê has the perfect background for the job. Originally from Seattle, she studied fashion design at FIT, got a degree in art history from Hunter College and then a master's degree in library science at Pratt Institute. Lê also manages to find time to run the library’s popular Instagram account (with 11,700 followers and counting) that gives viewers access to the materials she gets to interact with everyday. “There’s so many ways to use social media,” says Lê. “Everything’s changing in the library world in terms of finding ways to give people access. You can see what we have and how diverse it is and ask about it later.”

On a recent summer Friday, I visited Lê at the library to find out how her style and shopping habits have been influenced by her work. We spoke about her obsession with red lipstick, her wedding dress and the perfect heels for biking to work — which she does, almost every day, from Brooklyn.

Julie Lê. Photo: Jason Lewis

Julie Lê. Photo: Jason Lewis

"I do feel like I’m always shopping. We are always surrounded by beautiful objects like the pieces in the ["China: Through the Looking Glass"] show. We have current magazines and we have old magazines — our collection goes back to the 1600s and there’s over 30,000 volumes, so it’s kind of intense but also really incredible. We have an amazing collection of Comme des Garçons look books and I’m always like looking through them and wishing I had something, anything, everything. But I don’t look at trends so much. I look at trends I think I’ll wear for a really long time.

Growing up my mom was a seamstress so she made a lot of our clothes. I’m always having to tailor things to fit me or hem it because I’m not as tall as I think I am. It’s nice to see how things are made, I really appreciate that. I have to be able to climb up a ladder and ride a bike in [my clothes] but look chic and ladylike. I’m into decade style dressing: I love the ‘50s and the ‘60s, but I guess it just depends on what catches my eye. I’m a creature of habit.

My look is always about my hair, my bangs. I’ve had the same haircut since I was two. And I’ve always worn red lipstick. I go back and forth between Lipsticks Queen’s “Red Sinner” and then Revlon’s “Love That Red.” That’s what my mom wore. I’d steal her lipstick or I’d get it at the drugstore — it’s been around forever. I remember being three years old and getting in trouble for painting my nails red because I’d dripped the bottle all over the carpet. My signature color has always been red even though I do wear a lot of black. I even use the same makeup products my mom did — like the cat-eye liner Lancôme Artliner.

I wore a lot of black when I was younger. When I buy new things, they’re generally black because I like to be flexible in that way. You can change your look so easily with one dress. I have a lot of dresses and it can been anything from a flowy trapeze swingey dress or something really fitted and tailored. I never wear pants, not even when I bike to work, sometimes in heels.

When I look for vintage it has to fit because I don’t want to spend too much time having it tailored to fit me. If there’s not a lot of work to do then I’ll buy it. I like red, navy, I love yellow. And every once in awhile if there’s a crazy print I’ll do it. I went to Tokyo recently and there’s tons of amazing vintage there, but you always pay the price for something you really love. It’s not the thrill of the finding something and thinking, 'This is ten bucks, this is great!' It’s about being more thoughtful and actually investing in something.

I love shopping in my neighborhood. I live in Brooklyn, in Fort Greene, and I love French Garment Cleaners. It’s really well curated and one of my best friends Alec [Stuart] owns it and his partner Greg [Beyer] runs the shop. It’s nice to go into a store and try clothes on and have people there that will tell you either to wear it out because you look so great or if you wear that you’ll never get a date ever again. They’re really honest and it’s great to have that feedback.

Julie Lê. Photo: Jason Lewis

Julie Lê. Photo: Jason Lewis

Some seasons I’m always buying the same designer from French Garment Cleaners and I don’t even know until I’m looking at the tag, like Rachel Comey and Adam Selman. I mostly shop when I travel or when I have a specific event or occasion that I have to shop for and I always buy something that I’ll wear more than once or find a way to dress down and wear to work. In the city I’ll go to Creatures of Comfort. Every once in awhile I’ll go to Barneys, but I’m not a big department store person. I like supporting local shops.

I’ve been [at the Costume Institute] for almost eight years. There’s a lot of flexibility here. People appreciate creativity and style so it’s not totally super corporate professional dress codes. Sometimes in archival work or library work you get really dirty from boxes, taking out papers and used books — so it’s okay to dress down and be casual.

I have one denim jacket, a Helmut Lang one from the late 90s, which when I bought was dark indigo and since then has become really pale and super shredded. I do wear it every once in a while — it's the one denim thing that I have and it’s always a surprise when I wear it because it’s so ratty, but I don’t mind.

In terms of bags, lately I have just been buying things that fit inside my bike basket. I have an Alexander Wang one that fits in my basket perfectly. And a couple pair of shoes and everything else I can cram in there. I have these Rachel Comey heels that I wear biking and I just got this pair of Thom Browne oxford flats. I started wearing Chuck [Taylors] the other day because I just discovered wearing sneakers and flats. But I can’t even bike with those, they slip off the pedal. The oxfords have a little heel so the pedal wedges right in there.

The last thing I bought are Thom Browne heels for my wedding. My mother is a seamstress and she’s making me a traditional Vietnamese dress called an áo dài. The silhouette’s really traditional but the fabric is contemporary. Red is a really traditional color for weddings and I think white signifies death, for funerals, so I’ll be in red and it’s perfect, anyway, because I can’t wear white — I get lipstick on everything. The dress is 100 percent silk and it’s a mandarin collar, really chic. The panels go straight to the floor and there are slits from the waist down. You wear these long pants underneath so that’s the funny part — I’m wearing pants on my wedding which I normally don’t do, but it’s under a dress so it’s okay.

In fashion, everything has its references and nothing springs from a void, so you see trends come back over and over and over again. It doesn’t disappoint me and it doesn’t prevent me from looking and it also gets me really excited about stuff from the ‘90s or ‘80s that people will forget about. Lately [library visitors] have really been into this periodical called “Street.” It’s Japanese and it’s so great because it’s street fashion before the Sartorialist. Everything was shot on film and people are so unaware. It’s great to see how people styled themselves through just images."

This interview has been edited and condensed.