A Self-Designed Life: Mi Jong Lee

By Bilha Fish


Having an assortment of beautiful dresses to try on while accompanied by an orchestral arrangement of industrial sewing machines is a new experience for me.

 

Not exactly Carnegie hall, but enchanting just the same.

 

Suddenly the “conductor” appears, and a respectful silence falls. Everyone and everything stands still as fashion designer Mi Jong Lee unfolds the story of her life as a Korean immigrant in the United States.

 

This is how my love of fashion took me to a faraway land where Mi Jong, once a submissive woman restrained by a culture of gender inequality in Korea, would emerge in New York as a creative and independent businesswoman.

 

As I explore Mi Jong’s atelier, her soothing voice explains the meaning of being a successful first-generation Korean-American immigrant. My eyes and soul take in the vast bolts of fabrics exhibiting explosive arrays of color and texture. Cotton, brocade, velour, silk, and lace, organized in rolls along the four walls of the huge work room.

 

Mi Jong continues with the story of her great escape at the age of twenty from a forced, arranged marriage. Disowned by her parents, she came to America. As she describes the struggle she endured as a newcomer, the smile never leaves her face and the twinkle in her eyes tells a story of bravery, joy and self-respect.

 

Anxious, I interrupt her. I don’t want her to forget the dress I noticed when I came into the studio. A dress of pink and blue glitter that I decide at first glance will be mine, to wear at an upcoming gala.

 

Mi Jong returns to her story and describes her week of work, supervising a crew of thirty or so, predominately immigrant workers. Her favorite time is the weekend, when she explores her creative imagination to design outfits for the upcoming seasons.

 

“There is nothing I love more,” she says, “than sitting alone in my office and letting my imagination take over. I am inspired by the many places I grew up following my ambassador father and family to Spain, South America, and Europe, as well as by my own Korean culture.”

 

Recently, the windows of Emmelle, Mi Jong’s exclusive store on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, were decorated by designs inspired by Frida Kahlo. Previously she honored her Korean culture and the glorious work of Matisse.

 

I leave the studio overwhelmed with the thought that Mi Jong, a self-made woman, is now responsible for many others who came to this country as immigrants or refugees. Now they are fortunate to have a strong and dedicated woman providing them with a livelihood and a warm environment.