Interview with Eunice Lee, Owner and Designer of Menswear Label Unis
January 6th 2012
Designer Eunice Lee, owner and founder of menswear label Unis, has been on my list of people to interview for a long time. We’ve featured them heavily on the main blog as each season has passed and they’ve really excelled over the last few years. Now that they’ve opened a second store situated in Los Angeles, with the first being in New York, I thought it would be a perfect time to catch up with her to ask a few questions on the brand, how it came about, her history as a designer, and why she decided to make all her clothing locally.
As with most of these conversations, we get some interesting and revealing answers back which really showcases the brands ethos and what they plan to do in the future. Read on below and enjoy.
Unis LA Shop Photography by Andy J Scott
1) How did the Label come about and what’s the story behind it?
I worked for a couple of different large brands before deciding to start my own label. I didn’t like the corporate experience at all. It makes you feel disposable, like a number. It’s a very frustrating environment to be a creative in. You could never just go with what you felt was right, too much bureaucracy. It was like designing with a straight jacket on, hitting your head against the wall. Then when the product finally made it into stores, it looked like shit. I wanted more control of my own life and destiny. Having my own store was the dream.
2) What came first the brand or the store, or were they combined as the original concept?
Originally, my plan was to start the way most small designers do and only do wholesale for my first collection. But then a good friend of mine heard about the lease on the Elizabeth street shop. At the time I lived a block away on Mott Street so I knew the neighborhood well. It just felt like the right thing to do. After all that time dreaming about having a retail shop, suddenly the opportunity presented itself. Just a lot sooner than I thought it would.
3) As a female designer creating product for men do you think your perception/viewpoint differs to that of a male designer?
I can’t wear most of the clothes so I have to ask my fit models and friends a lot of questions and listen very carefully to their answers. Consequently, the process takes me a little longer since feedback from others plays such big role. But I feel fortunate that I get to do it that way because it means I can constantly be improving on design, fit, and quality. I never have to worry about my own tastes painting me into a corner.
4) Do you draw upon the energy of New York at all and what specific elements of the city inspire you most?
Absolutely! There is so much energy, and such a diverse mix of people. It really is unlike any other city in the world. Guys really care about their appearance here. There’s a lot of style to be seen walking in the streets. It’s very inspiring.
5) Do the personalities within your customer base influence the design process at all?
My customer base definitely influences the design process. The shop has always served as a sort of testing ground. It’s probably the biggest reason I’ve become such a “practical” designer. I get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. What sells and what sits on the shelf.
Back when no one knew what I looked like I would have my staff call me Jennifer any time I was in the store. Customers were a lot less likely to speak their minds if they knew the designer was present. This way I could hear their honest feedback. It was harsh at times, but I learned a lot. I can’t do that anymore but I still learn something new every time I’m in the shop.
6) What is the best advice you have ever received?
I’ve gone through some pretty rough times over the last ten years. More than once I’ve thought, “Is this what I’m supposed to be doing? Should I just quit and get a real job?”. But every time I’ve hit one of those walls someone has always told me to keep going. That even if it looks like it’s the end of the road, it’s not. And they’ve always been right.
Experience has taught me that if you really want something to happen work your ass off and it will.
7) What goes through your mind when new stores ask to stock Unis? Do you have a hard time trusting that they’ll protect the brand identity you’ve worked so hard to build up?
It’s important to pick stores that have a knowledgeable staff and that know how to merchandise my brand properly. We thoroughly research all of our stockists before committing. It’s important to me that we can all trust each other, that the relationship be mutually beneficial.
It’s sad to say but there are a lot of bums out there. I’ve been burned a couple of times and it never gets any easier. I’m a small business. So to have stores not come through on their payments is a big deal and it happens more than you’d think.
8) Who were your early influences in terms of design?
Working at DKNY was really influential. I know it’s difficult to imagine now but they were a really exciting company back in the day. I learned to love menswear there and I was very heavily influenced by my bosses at the time. Really cool guys that did not want to wear logos. They wanted nothing branded. Just tasteful, understated clothing.
9) What are the most satisfactory and rewarding aspects of your job?
I think every designer will say this, but it’s totally true: I love seeing someone I don’t know wearing Unis! It makes all the blood, sweat and hair pulling worth it.
10) Why did you branch out into menswear instead of designing for women?
Womenswear is crazy. A beast. I like the pace of menswear much more.
And of course, I love men’s clothing! It’s simple and subtle, and lends itself to a much more laid back lifestyle.
11) If the store wasn’t based in New York where do you think it would reside? Do you have any plans to open at a new location?
I just did, in Los Angeles. We opened a few weeks ago. Jason Gregory, the founder/design director of Makr Carry Goods, co-designed the interior and did an amazing job. The space is about 1,100 square feet – double the size of the NY store. I’m really thrilled with how it turned out.
12) It’s refreshing to hear you manufacture locally opposed to abroad, is supporting American industry an important aspect of what Unis is trying to achieve and what are the benefits of sourcing locally?
All of my tailored items are made in NYC, and all of my casual garment dyed or washed styles are made in LA. During the recession it became extremely important to me that I only work with American factories. We understand each other better as we’re all dealing with the same struggles. There’s a strong sense of community and support.
Making locally also means I get to be present for the manufacturing, which has been hugely educational. And the more I learn the more efficient each season is.
13) On a final note, is there anything new in the works that you can tell us about, and do you have any last words for our readers?
Currently I’m working on boxers and a 5 pocket jean, which I’m very excited about. And we’re still getting the LA store off the ground, but so far the reception has been great.
And, as for your readers, I just want to say thanks for the continued support. There’d be no Unis without you.