Ximon Lee Wins H&M Design Award: See the Collection and Read an Interview with the Designer

Ximon Lee SS14 collection lookbook image photographed by Shirley Yu

On Tuesday morning, H&M announced the winner of its Design Award — a menswear designer for the first time — Ximon Lee. The award comes with a roughly $56,000 prize, mentorship, and the opportunity for Lee’s pieces to be sold at H&M stores later next month.

Get a preview of his award winning collection photographed by Quentin De Wispelaere here:

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In June of 2014, Lee was also the recipient of the Parsons Menswear Award for his collection. At the time of the award, we ran an interview with the designer which you can read below.

This interview by Vince Patti originally appeared on BlackBook in June, 2014.

Last Wednesday was the Parsons senior fashion show, a much-anticipated event for anyone watching emerging talent, and fashion tiger moms alike. This year the seniors showed at a new venue, in the new Parsons Building on the corner of 13th and 5th, feeling highly curated and very homogenous. But among the forest of men’s streetwear, one designer stood out: his name is Ximon Lee. He hails from a small town on the border between Manchuria and Siberia. We sat down with him during one of his few free moments to talk about designing for retail, Post-Soviet Russian style, and melting trash bags.

I wanted to start right off the bat by asking you about Dover Street. Can you tell me about your relationship with them and how that started?

I did this competition earlier, as a part of the IT Group, which is pretty much the biggest fashion retailer in Asia. I won the prize… and I developed this capsule collection for them. The IT market in Beijing is pretty much the luxury market. It’s pretty much between a conceptual collection and something wearable and marketable, something people can wear on a daily basis.

Is that gonna be for pre-fall?

The production, according to them, is August, and the collection will be launched in December. It should be in the store for next spring. They said globally, but I’m not sure which physical store. The main store in the center of Beijing would be great. It’s good exposure in the Asian market.

So would you say you’ve drawn influence from other designers in that store? Say, Rei Kawakubo.

So, IT brought us to the store as part of the competition. We got into all different brands, not just Comme des Garçons. But our generation is influenced by all of them–Raf Simons, Phoebe Philo–all their designs and philosophies. Personally I wasn’t a big fan of Comme des Garçons already, but I think what they’re doing is really pushing the boundaries of fashion.

Of course. I think also practically or in a business sense she’s doing something very interesting. So, your thesis: the title was “Children of Leningradsky”. Can you elaborate on that?

I was born in a very small town on the border between China and Russia. It’s like suburbia. I keep remembering from childhood the people who crossed the borders and trade. There are interesting trades that happen there, like bubblegum or Chinese white wine for a Russian fur coat. To them, it was nothing, but they would like to get a pack of bubblegum. So that’s really interesting–my mom had a collection of fur coats. It’s lonely, everything’s gray. It’s all really influenced by Soviet architecture. The buildings just look like blocks, very geometric. We moved from there. My life is all about traveling because my parents traveled a lot. I had a hard time making friends in school since I pretty much transferred every year. It got to a point where I got sick of meeting people because I knew I’d just be leaving at the end of the year.

So, do you think that loneliness played a part?

Yeah, it definitely played a part. I think that’s when design comes, in high school. I pretty much put myself in a bubble. I wasn’t really into schoolwork cause every school my mom sent me to was a different education. My mom had a strange way of educating: “You should go to an American school in the country so you can get an international education.” And you’d get a completely traditional education; it’s a Chinese-owned school. So it’s very different. And every city has different dialects. So design became something that distracted me. I don’t really know what I designed back then. It’s all visual things; I clashed things on my homework book, a lot of architecture too. What I was touched by in the documentary [“Children of Leningradsky”], going back to that, was how the kids were constantly moving. They’re pretty much abandoned and there’s no home for them after the collapse of the Soviet. I actually cried after watching it because the architecture looked so similar, and the style. I don’t want to say that, because I hate to romanticize something that is quite sad for them, but I think it’s romantic, especially when the boy is holding a heart. I think he found toys as love and was proposing to the girl, but they were super young and didn’t know what it really meant. It’s very emotional, and I think they know more than me. Some of the words that come out of their mouths, they really know what they’re doing.

When I heard the title I immediately thought of Gosha Rubchinskiy, the menswear designer from Moscow. I was curious, because his stuff is nothing like yours. It’s funny how you guys approach similar thematic topics but in very different ways. 

When I started the collection, I had never heard of Gosha. I started looking at random architects and photos of children from the Soviet time. I had a collage book when I was at Central Saint Martin’s; I did all the research in London. At one point I went to Russia to look at things and do research. A photographer friend of mine, Masha, did a preview photo shoot of my mockups. She showed me all of Gosha’s work, and I was stunned. His aesthetic is about the culture, and he still approached people who are very anti-fashion and let them wear his stuff. All the imagery is very attractive to me. I put it on my inspiration board. I want to meet him and see how our two different perspectives would come together.

Let’s move on to more aesthetic stuff: the associations that I made right off the bat were Margiela and Comme des. Were you thinking structurally about the history of either of those houses, or alternatively, someone avant-garde, when you were doing the collection?

The collection really came out of nowhere. There’s reference to architecture and the drapes of homeless people sleeping on the street, the silhouettes of material draping over their bodies and the sandwich board walking sign on their body. That’s a starting point. What they’re wearing is a matter of survival. So I didn’t draft a pattern from zero. Instead, I went to the Salvation Army and got a bunch of old man XXXL sweatshirts. All the patterns are based on those deconstructed garments. Margiela is almost the legend of deconstruction, but for me I wasn’t looking at designers but rather something quite ordinary–oversized sweaters manipulated into different sizes.

I noticed at the show I saw that the menswear was very oriented towards sportswear like basketball uniforms and casual clothes. Would you say you see yourself in opposition to that movement in menswear right now? How has that affected you?

Yeah, I see all my peers doing something quite on-trend. I feel like this is really my last collection in my fashion education so I want to push this concept and not think about marketability and wearability. If you look at any piece and simplify it a little, it could be very wearable. A plastic can be developed into a special vinyl; you could easily have a tanktop with a really cool drawstring. In New York, students are more concerned about marketability. The year I spent at Central Saint Martin’s was very different because I could go crazy and experiment with silhouettes.

Could you tell me more about the materials you used for your thesis? I heard you had all of those developed.

All of the original fabrics are really cheap. The entire collection is very cheap. I saved a lot of my budget by doing something homeless. A lot of the denim is from Indian fabric stores in the denim district. No one walks into those stores because of the tacky bling-bling window displays, but in the back they have really cool denim. I bought a bunch of different denims and started thinking about how they could work with different materials. So I ended up bonding them into different types of thickness to fit different looks. Besides the denim, and the bonding material, which is the glue and the sponge between them, I also used trash bags. I spent pretty much three months melting trash bags with different heats and ways of steaming to make them presentable. I also used a lot of bleaching on textiles, not traditional bleaching. I actually dipped a brush in the bleach and then painted on top of the denim so you can see a perfect gradient. That was fun. I realized it could be developed into something with a lot of visual impact. The beginning of the collection was black denim, white denim, some copper trims and panels–all very cold. That defeated the purpose because it was more about the children than their dream of seeing the ocean and the sky. That’s why I started bleaching more pastel blue colors.

Do you have any background in painting?

I studied painting before, but nothing like that.

It seems like Parsons really curated the show well towards a certain aesthetic. How would you say they’ve influenced you, or you’ve influenced the way they’re moving the aesthetic?

I think it’s very interesting and different from the last few years. A couple years ago, the show was at Chelsea Piers and the runway was very long, so the model would come out but you couldn’t see them all standing together. This year there’s three sections, and each segment you realize it’s a very colorful collection, and in the middle it’s black, white, and neutral, and the end is more conceptual, something new. What they’re trying to show is a variety of works. It’s quite impressive because a lot of choices are not what they used to be. It’s more experimental.

They went out and picked a lot of kids who are doing different stuff from the New York aesthetic they were pushing before. So it’s cool they picked someone like you, who embodied that new mentality of deconstruction. It’s funny; even Calvin Klein has gone from doing super clean minimalism to a more deconstructed aesthetic in the women’s spring ’14 collection. Do you think that’s up and coming, like it’s going to have another renaissance?

I had this question for a long time: how can you produce something new? All human beings want something new. You want to get excited, but I feel like everything in fashion is just circulating. Calvin Klein had been doing this really well in the past decade. All clean cut, black and white. It’s good to have in your closet, but they realized the market was shrinking and people want to buy more colorful stuff and wear it, there’s more young generations becoming a big group of spending in fashion. But I think they’ll go back to what they were doing, because it’s all a cycle.

Do you see yourself in that cycle?

I get sick of things really easily. When I look at my collection now, I just feel like I need something new and could have done it better. I think every brand and every person has to have a core to keep. I still feel like my stuff is amateur. There might be something very me, but I’m looking for something to focus on, so I’ll concentrate on that.

For most people this happens for a really long time. What are your plans now that you’re graduating?

I’m not sure, actually. I’m taking a break in the past three days. It’s a luxury. For now I need to finish this capsule collection for IT. After finishing this collection I think I’m going to participate in some of their store events in July. Simon Collins, the dean, is actually going to judge the second competition in Beijing. It should be a great chance to meet people. There’s a store in Berlin that wanted to purchase pieces. There’s a show director in China who wants to introduce me to a director at GQ so we can have a presentation in London Men’s Fashion Week. I feel like it’s not there yet. I want to produce cool works, and when it’s time I want to show it, but I feel like I need some time to keep in touch with them and see how it goes.

If you were to get an offer from any menswear house, what would be the one that you would be most excited about?

I would die to work with Phoebe Philo. Celine’s always been my dream, but they don’t have menswear. I wouldn’t mind. Everything’s so perfect; the cut, the pattern. It’s just beautiful. And Balenciaga. The silhouettes go with them, and I want to see what they’re moving to now. Their menswear collection is quite small, so if I worked with them I’d have a chance to learn.

If you were to start your own line, would you want to be recognized as a New York designer or a Chinese designer?

I got my education here and all my friends are based here, and everything is produced here, so I like this connotation. My background cannot be changed, but if I establish something in the future, I’d love to base it here. Everything is so active, and quite exciting for new designers. After this collection I feel in love with denim, so I’d love to focus on that. The denimwear market is really boring. We need something more exciting, and denim is very American.

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