In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
In June, J.Crew announced that it had dismissed its women's designer and hired in his stead Somsack Sikhounmuong, then the head of design for sister brand Madewell, where business has been booming even as its older sibling's sales faltered. Rising to replace Sikhounmuong was Joyce Lee, who had been on Madewell's team for seven years, initially as an accessories designer and later as the head of that division. While the spring 2016 collection was the first she had a hand in as head of design, it wasn't fully hers; the brand works so far in advance that the concept for the season came together under Sikhounmuong's direction. But in the coming seasons — and for fall especially — we'll be seeing Lee's voice coming through more and more distinctly.
I stopped by J.Crew and Madewell's offices on Broadway in Manhattan to get to know Lee, who's gone from striving for a Marc Jacobs internship to leading the team steadily filling American women's closets with leather boots, easygoing apparel and many, many pairs of jeans.
Let's go way back to your education and early career. I hear you studied at FIT?
The beginning is actually pre-FIT, because I initially went to undergrad at both UC Santa Barbara and UC Davis, studying textiles when I ended up at Davis. That was because my parents weren't the biggest fans of having me go to design school, because they thought, like typical Asian parents, that, no, you're not going to be able to make money, so they steered me away from that path. The closest thing I could get to in my undergrad studies was textiles.
Right after college, I moved to London. I worked at Wallpaper magazine, and did internships in the fashion department there. That's when Marc Jacobs was insane with his accessories — his bags and his shoes at that time, early 2000s, were amazing. That's when I knew my calling was accessories. When I moved back to San Francisco, I worked for Levi's, and I did research into finding a program to learn about the accessories business. I found this [one-year] program at FIT... I moved to New York, and from then on I haven't looked back.
How did things progress after you did the accessories course?
I was obsessed with Marc Jacobs at the time, and I was like, I need to work for Marc Jacobs. All these little things kept happening, where everyone I met in New York — because I didn't know anyone when I moved here — would have some weird connection [to Marc Jacobs], like, 'Oh, my friend works there.' It wasn't ever anything that was helpful. But it was in the air. Then my teacher happened to say, 'I'm about to call my old student right now, who's an intern there. Let me just ask her if they're looking for more interns.' She and I talked, and she said there's nothing right now, but finally the bag people were like, 'Okay, we need somebody.' I interviewed, and they hired me.
I love how targeted your approach was, knowing exactly who you wanted to work for and in what capacity.
That's what's crazy, how specific it was. But then it happened, and it just made me feel like if I really do want something to happen, I can probably work toward it and do it.
I worked there for two years in both bags and footwear, and it was so cool — it was runway stuff. I did that for a while, and then I ended up freelancing for Madewell when it was a tiny concept. Like, it wasn't anything yet. I was doing accessories, and [Madewell] wanted to hire me, but at that time, I had gotten another offer from Michael Kors, so I went and worked for Michael Kors. It was established and I would get to continue to do the footwear thing I was doing.
Then my old boss, who was my boss at Marc Jacobs, started her own line called Gryson, and she and her husband wanted to hire me to be their first employee. I loved working for her. She still is my biggest mentor to this day. I jumped at that opportunity to work with her again. She gave me the opportunity to switch [categories]; I'd been doing shoes for three years, and she was like, "I trust you, and I think you can learn bags just as easily."
Did you feel like in other environments that you have to choose a lane, like shoes or bags, and stick to it?
At that time [I got offered the Madewell job], it didn't feel like what I wanted to do, or maybe I wasn't confident that I could do all these different categories. That was a big turning point, when I was able to switch gears into doing bags.
So how did you end up back at Madewell?
[Around that time] I walked into the new Madewell store on Broadway, and I was like, I love this. It was so cool to see where it had gone. I related to it, and I felt like this was the brand I would be wearing all the time.
The Madewell recruiter called me that day, and was like, 'Hey, Joyce! We have an opening for an accessories designer. Would you like to come in?' It was so weird. Like I was thinking about it, and then she called. It was eerie. I went in the next day and interviewed with the team, they hired me that day, and now I've been here for eight years.
Like fate. How do you think Madewell's voice and aesthetic has changed since that time?
I just think it's in the past few years grown up and cleaned up and edited more, whereas it was more eclectic initially.
So what was your trajectory from accessories to landing your present job?
Somsack [Sikhounmuong, Madewell's former head of design, now the head of women's at J.Crew] came on three years ago. He and I knew each other through mutual friends before that, and I think we always connected...What he liked, I liked. It was a fun relationship, bouncing things off each other and working closely together. I never really in my head was aiming for this.
You weren't gunning for the top job?
No, it wasn't like that. I have a very strong point of view of what the brand is and who the girl is, because I really do feel like a Madewell girl... It was a challenge for me and a lot of new, but I was up for it.
Having such a background in accessories and fabrics but not necessarily in clothing, how did you prep for leading all the category teams?
The team is so talented, and a lot of them have been here for a while, too, and are a huge part of the DNA of the brand. I have a perspective on the overall look and feel, but then when I get down to working with each of the teams, it's very much collaborative. I talk about what we're seeing out there and what's right for us. How do we take whatever's happening, but do it in a Madewell way? As someone who wears the clothes, it's easy to be like, 'I'd wear it if it was like this, or if it was a little cropped.'
Are there particular items that you made as an accessories designer that went on to be total blockbusters?
The Transport Tote is one of them, our classic tote. That has now evolved into a bigger family, and it's cool to see one thing be a very key piece in the Madewell wardrobe. The Billie Boot I think is another key, easy, casual, walkable, but simple ankle boot. Those are good grounders for what our girl wears all the time.
I think I read on Madewell's blog that you had a kid recently.
She's turning one. It's been a crazy year.
What you always hear from female executives is that women who just had a baby are always the best bosses, because they're both incredibly efficient and very empathetic. Do you feel that way now?
I think women have superpowers. Seriously.
Did you discover yours?
Yes. I always knew they were in there somewhere, like maybe one day they would come out. Then one day you have a baby and you become, like, superhuman. You're able to do so much. You operate on no sleep. And like you said, you just become more efficient because you only have so much time.
What sorts of goals do you have for Madewell in the next year?
I think the Madewell girl's lifestyle is still untapped.
Like, do you guys do much with home?
That's a huge one, that I think would make so much sense for us. Sheets and bedding and textiles and fabrics and tabletop and ceramics and objects. That would definitely be one of our dreams. [Shopping for home goods] is hard. It's either really high-end and hard to attain, and then there's stuff that's a little too...
Where you go to Bed Bath & Beyond and don't love any of the sheets, so you go with some stripe pattern that hopefully isn't too noticeable.
Right. I think there's definitely an opportunity there. We're also going into maternity jeans for fall. Our girl is a young mother, also. When I was shopping for maternity stuff, I was like, I just wish we made Madewell jeans that had the built-in stretch panel. [Laughing] Since we're a jeans brand, we should be able to fit that.
Back to the topic of being a leader, I'm curious about what you've learned in the transition from going from a creative to managing creatives? When I'm editing someone else, for instance, it's always that balance of shaping their piece without losing their voice.
That's exactly it... It's finding where you need to build and focus your attention on. Where you need to delegate and trust your team, versus where you need to be involved.
This interview has been edited and condensed.