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Interview: Fashion maven Leeyong Soo

Bridget Wood

photo credit: Kayla Piccolo Photography

photo credit: Kayla Piccolo Photography

Recently we chatted to Leeyong Soo, ahead of her appearance on the Q&A Panel at our film & conversation event The True Cost on 15 June. 

Leeyong is a style icon, designer, fashion writer and strong advocate for fair trade and sustainable fashion. She is also an op-shopping extraordinaire, creating masterpieces from discarded gems.  

SS: You’ve worked for Vogue Japan and Peppermint Magazine, you have your own fair-trade jewellery design label and a successful fashion blog, even though you didn’t formally study fashion. What influenced your decision to pursue a career in the notoriously competitive fashion industry?
LS: I actually think the fashion industry is much more competitive now than it was when I started out, and it was quite competitive back then, even. Getting into my first fashion job, Vogue Japan (or as it was at the time, Vogue Nippon) was really a bit more luck than anything else. They had just launched (in 1999) and I was in Tokyo working at an English language magazine. As I spoke Japanese and English, they thought I'd be handy and took me on as the assistant to the fashion director (who was new to Tokyo from England and spoke no Japanese) - and that's how I ended up in the editorial department of the magazine of my dreams. I remember thinking when I had the interview that I'd be happy if I even got to clean the toilets at Vogue (fortunately I never had to!). I don't actually work full time in the fashion industry now, everything fashion-related that I do at the moment is (unfortunately) more of a side project as I need to make an income. I do love creating things and using fashion as a medium to tell stories and get messages out there, hence my jewellery brand Wilderness Bazaar and my writing for Peppermint and for my own blog, Style Wilderness.

SS: You are considered a ‘DIY guru’, transforming recycled clothing into masterpieces. How did you develop this skill and what do you look for on your regular ‘op-shop hunt’?
LS: I've always made things, starting out with clothes for my dolls and teddy bears and moving on to making my own things in my teenage years. At that time I was making things from scratch usually, rather than reworking existing garments, which I still do today but not so often. There are so many existing garments that can easily be customised that I'm afraid I don't often work up the energy to sew something completely from scratch (it's the cutting out of the pattern pieces and finishing things off neatly that puts me off most of the time!). Apart from a day learning to use the sewing machine with a friend of my grandma's when I was about 15, developing my garment construction skills has mainly been about trial and error and a lot of opshopping. I basically cannot go past an opshop, I have to go in "just for a look". I generally try to find shoes because I can't make them myself, but I also always find myself looking at the clothes and searching for good quality fabrics. I would never buy the newer pieces in synthetics or stretch fabrics as they are just not my style and the fabric is usually terrible in terms of both comfort and looks. Instead, I look for natural fibres and interesting prints - and if something is not my size but I love it, I will think about how I can alter it to fit me, although sometimes it is just too difficult and I end up leaving it on the rack.

SS: You worked for Vogue Japan in the editorial department for eight years. What are some of the most memorable experiences you had during your time there?
LS: Meeting Isabella Blow (and getting her to her various appointments in the two or three days she was visiting Tokyo) was memorable as her hats were so large it made getting in and out of taxis nearly impossible! I also met Dita von Teese and we briefly bonded over our love of flea markets and op-shopping! And I got to go to a few overseas fashion weeks, which were real highlights. But it definitely was not all about meeting celebs and going to fancy events. Most of the time it was a lot of hard work - sometimes until 2am or so - collecting items to shoot, calling press to put holds on things and find out prices, and personally spending hours picking up or returning items to the press (or, as I got a bit more senior, overseeing an assistant who would do this). My career highlight was the project I did with fair trade company People Tree, in which we asked four top designers to allow People Tree producers to manufacture their designs, which were then sold at major department store Isetan and at People Tree stores, as well as online. We covered the project in Vogue too, to get the message out that fair trade could be fashionable. These days most people know about it, but back then it was still in its infancy in the fashion industry and it didn't have a very stylish image!

SS: What does ‘sustainable fashion’ mean to you, and was there a particular experience that inspired you to strongly value this?
LS: Completely sustainable fashion doesn't necessarily exist yet as there are so many aspects to sustainability (the ethics of the people making it, its effect on the environment not only during its manufacture but also during shipping and being worn, etc etc). I'm not sure that there was a particular moment that turned me to sustainable fashion, especially as I have always tried as much as possible to make and mend my own clothes. Perhaps it was when I was trying to launch a range of clothing while in Tokyo and someone told me I could get things made cheaply by some elderly women in a particular area of Tokyo. I don't remember the details but it kind of sounded like they were being ripped off and I didn't feel comfortable with pursuing it, so decided to make everything myself instead. In terms of my personal wardrobe, I started buying secondhand clothes from markets and op-shops when I was in my late teens, mainly because they were cheaper, not for any ethical reason. It's as I've got older and there has been more of a buzz about ethical fashion (and because I'm notoriously unenthusiastic about parting with my money!) that I've made more conscious decisions to buy secondhand items in all areas of life whenever it's possible. There is so much stuff out there that it seems ridiculous to me to pay full price for something new if I can find something just as good for less secondhand. When I do buy things new I try to find the most sustainable option within my budget.

SS: There is growing awareness of the impact of ‘fast fashion’, what do you think are the major challenges in the way of broader controls and changes in the supply chain to look after workers and the environment?
LS: It's kind of a vicious cycle and of course brands need to take responsibility for their workers, but I actually think the main issue is the consumer and lack of education. People have got so used to cheap new clothes being available all the time (literally, due to online shopping) that they drop in to the chain stores and buy things without really thinking about why they are so cheap. Then they wear them once or twice until the trend changes or the bad-quality garment falls apart and they go and buy something else to replace it, and the cycle continues. If every consumer questioned the processes of the brands they buy, brands, regulators and even governments would be forced to clean up their acts as people power is a huge force these days. 

Leeyong writes at her blog Style Wilderness, Peppermint Magazine and has a jewellry brand Wilderness Bazaar, which you'll be able to check out at our event, before the film. Get your tickets here for what's sure to be a thought-provoking and compelling night!