Chau Har Lee: “The one-to-one tutorial with Manolo Blahnik was memorable ”

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One of her collections was inspired by Luigi Colani and Pierre Cardin. Chau Har Lee admires their optimism, delight in materials,  futuristic vision, their pure idea and how the design object becomes almost fetishised. She combines traditional shoe making techniques with new technologies. Thinking three-dimensionally and using rapid-prototyping and laser cutting to create architectural structures. With this fact Har Lee won in 2009 the ‘ITS 8 Accessories Award’.

How did you start your career?
“I was unsure of what I wanted to do until I did a Foundation course in art and design at Camberwell college where I made the decision to study footwear. I studied a BA in Footwear and Accessories at Cordwainers College in 1999 and graduated in 2002. During my studies I did work experience for several places like Johnny Moke and a couple of independent bespoke shoe makers. I then worked in various roles in fashion, footwear, accessories and luxury interiors, including production assistant at Nicole Farhi, freelance designer and maker for independent fashion label LMNOP and couture assistant at Georgina Goodman. Eventually I wanted to concentrate on my own ideas for shoe design with a view to having my own label, so I decided to apply for the masters course at the Royal College of Art. Now I am really happy being a freelance footwear designer.”

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Where did you grew up and how was it like?
“I was born in London where my parents ran a Chinese restaurant in the centre. I have a large family so it was always busy in our home with lots of food, noise and ornaments around. I am very close to my family and I learnt a lot from my parents and older siblings especially in terms of being resourceful and creative.”

Why the interest in design and especially shoes? How did it started?
“I have always loved designing and my fascination for how things are made is huge. Started at a young age watching my mother making dresses at home. My family encouraged me to pursue my creative interests so I studied an Art Foundation.  The decision to specialise in shoes came after I met Olivia Morris who was a visiting lecturer at Camberwell college and set up a shoe project. I discovered footwear to be an ideal mix of textiles and sculpture which were my strongest interests at the time. I did some work experience for a  friend and made my first pair of shoes,After that I studied the BA in Footwear.”

You studied at RCA, can you tell us more about your time there?
“I had a great two years at the RCA. My personal tutor, Sue Saunders was also my BA tutor at Cordwainers, so I felt immediately comfortable, she has been an amazing guide and always given me the best advice and encouragement. I met some fantastic people who have become really great friends. The support from students and staff at the college was brilliant as well as the opportunities presented. I really benefited from cross discipline collaboration and learnt new skills that now influence my design, such as using 3D computer programmes.
I had the privilege of having a one-to-one tutorial and critique with Manolo Blahnik which was such a memorable experience and definitely a high point in my life.”

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Where do you find inspiration for your collections?
“It changes all the time- and it comes from everywhere. It usually starts with a concept which could be related with an image, place or conversation and it grows from there. I begin to research by gathering information and imagery, it gradually starts from an image in my head and I then draw or experiment in 3D and eventually a collection starts to build up.”

The materials and models you’re creating are quite inventive and eccentric? Why this choice?
“My vision was to create something that was different to a conventional shoe, both in the way it was constructed and the aesthetics. The collection I designed at the RCA was a natural progression of my work throughout my time at the college – I consider the work I produced over the two years as a continuous stream of ideas where each project was the next step from the previous project, and I think my work will continue on in this way. I want to introduce new types of skills and processes such as 3D computer technologies and laser cutting in contrast to the traditional ways that shoes are made. A few of the designs can be dis-assembled and flat packed, this is because I want to create a shoe that doesn’t need a lot of components.”

Is it hard to create a tension between masculinity and femininity?
“It took a while to get the right balance in the final products and sometimes it was difficult to step back and think about what I was trying to achieve with the collection. But it was also a massive learning curve as many of the materials and processes were completely new to me. Although at times it was very stressful, I loved every minute of it so I wouldn’t say it was hard, but it did take time and focus.”

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What do you think of shoe design nowadays?
“I’m very excited by shoe design nowadays, I think generally people are open to new ideas in footwear especially looking at how it has changed throughout history, and seeing it continue to change through a whole host of current footwear designers”.

Favourite music during designing?
“It changes depending on my mood- and what stage I’m doing. It’s usually something upbeat and singy.”

Most eccentric movie ever and why?
“I watched a Space Odessey recently which I got really into it. I thought the effects and general visuals were amazing, especially for the time it was made, and although I found it quite difficult to watch, I got totally engrossed and it stayed in my head a few days after watching it.”

What are you future goals?
“My future goals are to continue to develop my ideas in the next collections and hopefully will collaborate with other designers and companies.”

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This interview was taken in 2009 for ILOVEFAKE magazine

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