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Fashion School Diaries: An Award-Winning Otis Student Finishes Fashion School After a Culinary Detour

"Just because I did go through all of that, I was in more of this determined state of mind of: I'm gonna finish what I want to do."
Jamie Lee (L) with her winning design for Eduardo Castro. Photo: Courtesy of Jamie Lee

Jamie Lee (L) with her winning design for Eduardo Castro. Photo: Courtesy of Jamie Lee

Fashion school students around the world are preparing to enter an industry that's rapidly changing. There are courses to pass, design prompts to ace, runway shows to prep for and professional connections to make. In our series, "Fashion School Diaries," those students give us a firsthand look into their day-to-day lives. Here, we meet Jamie Lee, an Otis College of Art and Design class of 2019 fashion student, ahead of her student show.

While Los Angeles native Jamie Lee always knew she wanted to study fashion — at Otis College of Art and Design, specifically — she ended up on a bit of a detour. She initially enrolled in the school's fashion program right after high school, back in 2012. "Then, because of family problems going on at home, I had to withdraw," she explains. She always intended to go back, but her dad encouraged her to follow a different career trajectory, culinary, as her older sister had found success in that field.

"Of course, parents are paying for education at that time, so I went to culinary school and then Cordon Bleu in Pasadena," she says. "I graduated, worked in the industry for about a year and a half and then saved up enough money ... I just kept having that thought in the back of my mind like, 'I want to do fashion.' I really liked the environment at Otis and just kept thinking. 'What if I did graduate? What if I did continue on with what I wanted to do?' So I pushed myself to go back to school."

Lee graduates this month, and at Otis's 37th Annual Scholarship Benefit and Fashion Show, she took home an award: For their designs for the show, students collaborate with, and take directives from, industry mentors. Each mentor presents a Thimble Award to a student mentee (or two, if the design was a collaboration) at the show. Lee, who worked with both Jason Wu and Eduardo Castro, received Castro's award alongside her design partner

We caught up with Lee as she was putting the finishing touches on her futuristic gown for Castro and '50s military-inspired look for Wu. Read on to hear more about her fashion school experience and career aspirations.

Jamie Lee's Jason Wu sketch. Photo: Courtesy of Jamie Lee

Jamie Lee's Jason Wu sketch. Photo: Courtesy of Jamie Lee

"I focus more on womenswear. We're in such a closed environment at school, it's just trying to figure out my niche and what I want to do. I came in here thinking, 'I want to do womenswear contemporary.' Then it grew out of that. I want to explore different realms of fashion and even understand merchandising aspects as well.

Networking is one thing [I've liked about Otis], getting to know all my classmates. Like you saw upstairs, it's like a family. Illustrating ... understanding the construction of a garment, and here they actually teach you how to sew from the beginning. I know a lot of schools have that idea of, you already know the basics of sewing. So I feel like that was very good to have just because I was able to sort of expand upon my basic knowledge that I had before coming here.

I like so many designers. I feel like I was really into eveningwear back then when I was little, because I first was super into fashion when I was nine years old. I was looking at my sister's Vogue magazines and being like, 'Oh my God, I love this.' A big inspiration when I was little, I was looking at Marchesa, Alexander Wang ... more contemporary. I also like Japanese designers.

It's a lot of time that you need to commit to school. I honestly feel if I didn't go through the whole culinary school thing, it could have been really hard for me. But just because I did go through all of that, I was in more of this determined state of mind of, I'm gonna finish what I want to do. It was a lot of time dedication. You have all those projects. You also have our LES [liberal studies] courses as well. As long as you're willing to put the time and effort into it, it's honestly really easy. You just have to be willing to put the time and effort. You have to be able to juggle multiple things at once. 

Jamie Lee and Julia Park's Eduardo Castro sketches. Photo: Courtesy of Jamie Lee

Jamie Lee and Julia Park's Eduardo Castro sketches. Photo: Courtesy of Jamie Lee

I feel like [at Otis] they do a good job in making you understand both sides of [the industry], because we do have the Business of Fashion class, and then also in Studio class they'll be telling us, 'In the industry, you'll be doing it this way, and you'll be communicating it with pattern makers' and what not.

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Being able to work with [mentors] who are actually in the industry, it's [about] being able to understand their point of view, because they have so much experience in the field and being able to see how they kind of can see it in their line, but also working with our school curriculum. For Jason Wu, it was a lot about toning down your ideas, so we would start off from a really big idea and then make it more minimalistic and more contemporary. With Eduardo Castro, it was the complete opposite. It was like, 'Push your ideas more. Make it further. What can you make to make it more dramatic or more interesting?'

So, at first it was a little bit confusing because while we're finishing up our Jason garment in studio, we were working on illustrating our Eduardo Castro stuff. It was more trying to get out of that idea of making everything more minimal, but making it crazier. My initial inspiration for everything was trying to understand the mentor's point of view, and then as I started designing, it became something that I got really into. Especially with Eduardo Castro, patterning out that jacket was an extreme pain, but it was also really fun to experiment and understand different materials in a way that we normally aren't taught at school.

I feel like I've put myself into the project as I work on it even more and then it transforms to what I want it to be and I become happy with what I have at the end. In the beginning I'm not sure if this is going to work out, but in the end it's a relief to see it walk down the runway. As soon as you see it, you're like, 'ah, all my hard work is just there.'

Jamie Lee and her design with Jason Wu. Photo: Courtesy of Jamie Lee

Jamie Lee and her design with Jason Wu. Photo: Courtesy of Jamie Lee

For the Jason Wu one, [the inspiration] was 1940s/1950s silhouettes that had military inspiration as well as couture inspiration. Based off of that, I branched off of Dior's New Look, so having that very cinched waist, dramatic hip and then also exaggerating the shoulders so that it looks more vintage, but also having top stitching or sheer elements and pleating to make it more modern. Then it went into, how can I make tailoring more interesting? I had pieces where the tailoring aspects were on the outside so you saw feather stitching on the outside. You saw shoulder pads showing on the outside or a puff of lining on the shoulders.

And then for Eduardo Castro, this one was a group project and me and my partner, we went off the idea of technology taking over organic material. And then we have that very structural element of the jacket, and then that coincides with the dress, which has a very structural element on top and then it melts to more organic shape on the bottom. That one was definitely interesting to do. 

The biggest challenge was sort of getting out of my own head because I tend to overthink things a lot and so when I'm doing things, rather than getting it done, I would be stuck mentally, being like, okay well I need to do it like this, but if this doesn't work out I need to do it in this other way

We [still] have to finish up our garments. A lot of them are probably around 90% done. It's just a lot of finishing touches, a lot of beading, a lot of crystalling. Other than that it's pretty smooth, I feel like. It's not as hectic as I thought it would be. But that could be just because we prepared a lot for it, because everyone's always saying [the end of the year is] just going to flash by.

Details of Jamie Lee's Eduardo Castro design. Photo: Courtesy of Jamie Lee

Details of Jamie Lee's Eduardo Castro design. Photo: Courtesy of Jamie Lee

I'm really nervous, just because it's our last show and then me and my partner actually won the Thimble Award for Eduardo Castro. It's a very humbling experience just being able to be chosen by the mentor, but it's definitely nerve-racking because you have to go onstage and pose for a second.

I hope to get a job [after graduating]; assistant designer somewhere, that's what they seem to push for — assistant designer positions. I am interviewing with a few different companies right now. I'm willing to stay in L.A. or go to somewhere else. I'm pretty open on moving, just because I grew up here, so being able to see somewhere new is nice. But it's difficult because I'm also supporting my mom right now, so it's sort of dependent on that.

I interned at Abercrombie over the summer [in Columbus, Ohio]. It was definitely a learning experience, going somewhere completely different. I had family out in Ohio so it wasn't as bad, I guess, as going somewhere completely new. It's so different from L.A. It's like a small town. Everyone knows each other. But I got to learn a lot, especially about how the industry really works and the corporate aspect of the industry.

I do hope to have my own line one day. But I feel like that's not until later on in the future. [I want to] learn as much as possible and hopefully open my own place later on."

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