Social Work to Fashion King
HE started out as a social worker but when he realised he wasn’t satisfied with where it was taking him, Samson Lee took another path. It took the 34-year-old renowned local fashion designer huge amounts of confidence to divert from what he used to do to what he now does. “I grew up in Suva and attended Yat Sen Secondary, then finished off high school in Christchurch, New Zealand. Later I went on to Brigham Young University, a private university in Laie, Hawaii to study social work,” Lee said. His first job was for a non-government organisation called Pacific Counselling and Social Services. Despite having travelled thousands of miles to study and graduate with a degree in social work, he changed his mind and decided to come back home to become a fashion designer. He’s been doing designing for the past two years now. The Nalotu villager from Yawe in Kadavu, with maternal links to Daliconi in Vanuabalavu, said he definitely had support from his family and friends. “My parents have always supported me, but getting into fashion was one of those things we just didn’t see eye to eye on,” he said. “The arts and fashion were not for them. They are very old school.” His parents didn’t think their son could make it big in the fashion industry, but as the adage goes ‘confidence is very sexy’ Lee had to go boldly solo with his quest to make a name for himself. “In a way, my parents didn’t think it would work, so for me personally it was just all me. It was my motivation, my drive to get to where I am today. I had to push myself.” His friends, on the other hand, were encouraging and advised Lee to carry on with his heart’s desire. “My friends always reminded me that I had nothing to lose. If I started this business and it didn’t work out, at the end of the day what would matter most would be that at least I tried.” “So this is a big accomplishment, opening my own boutique just two years after I was designing at home.” Lee started designing and selling his collection online. “I first began printing on clothes, something I got inspired with back in the days during my mum’s Tiki Togs era, and I tell you a lot of people walk in here thinking this is a Tiki Togs shop.” Tiki Togs was a popular Fiji fashion house that printed
fabrics and manufactured clothing that sold through the company’s retail outlets. “Basically I am reviving something that died ages ago and the prints are motifs that have been reconfigured to give it more contemporary flair, so we don’t offend any cultural group by taking their original designs.” Lee’s prints are stimulated by Fiji, its oceans and cultures as evident in one of the coral printed styles on display. “This one I call it the ‘lase’(coral) print, inspired by our rich marine heritage.The feedback I got from customers when they bought my designs online was overwhelming and it sort of motivated me to forge on.” Lee is now the designer and director of his business with a newly opened boutique in Butt Street, Suva, with the slogan ‘Celebrating the Richness of Life’. The shop is small, but once you enter the richness of Lee’s world leaps out from the prints on his fabrics and fashions. “I am into big, bold and abstract prints – that’s my thing, that’s what I love doing.” Some of his designs are done in collaboration with other local artists such as installation and mixed media artist George Evans. Since Lee is of the view that fashion is an art, he tries to incorporate art as much as he can within his designs. While giving the interview, two male customers entered the boutique asking for bula shirts. One had already bought a shirt and had now brought his English friend to purchase one as well. Unfortunately, the shirt he wanted was out of stock but they said they would return next day to check if the their choice was back on the shelf – that’s the sort of demand for Lee’s designs
“I would say that my stuff is affordable for working people. My printed stuff is actually from $145 for a rayon bula shirt and $165 for a cotton while dress prices range from $250 to $300.” Lee’s favourite designers are Diane von Furstenberg (DVF), formerly Princess Diane of Furstenberg who is a BelgianAmerican fashion designer best known for her iconic wrap dress; and Carolina Herrera who is a Venezuelan fashion designer known for her ‘exceptional personal style’ and for dressing various First Ladies including Jacqueline Onassis, Laura Bush, Michelle Obama and Melania Trump. “I love their work so much because they exude luxury and class and they give back to charity as well, which is what I think fashion is all about. It is not just about creating but also being humble and giving back to the community, which is what I try to incorporate with my line of work.” Last year Lee had his first launch at which he raised $14,000 to donate to WOWS Kids. At this year’s Vodafone Hibiscus carnival Lee sponsored Miss Cure Kids wardrobe. Cure Kids is supported by StyleFiji, a charity fashion show that Lee is a part of. Lee is not moving back to social work or to any other profession for that matter – fashion is his passion. “I don’t see myself doing anything else. This makes me happy and I think everyone should be doing what they are passionate about. “I will definitely stay in the fashion industry because it is something that is growing in Fiji and I think it is going to get even bigger. There are many local designers having their own boutiques or shops which is really good to see and if we all stick together this industry will take off.” Lee’s advice to future designers who are hoping to make it big is to make a start somewhere. “Don’t underestimate yourself. If you are sewing your own designs at home, good on you because that’s how I started out too. From that first order I took online, I am still taking orders today. So if I can start small and make it big, so can you.”
Self-confident Samson Lee in his newly opened boutique at Butt Street in Suva.
Staff at the boutique attend to the finer details.
Samson Lee will stay in the fashion industry as it is his comfort zone.
Samson at his boutique.
Fashion is his passion. Samson Lee forges on in the fashion industry.
Samson Lee in his boutique.