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Historians and writers have wondered what will be said about the human reaction to the pandemic decades from now. Nearly every industry and community was shaken up and forced to reckon with inconceivable loss, and everyone has responded differently. For many, it was, unmistakably, time to manifest change. Designer Esther Lee could no longer justify working in the conventional world of fast fashion, where she witnessed enormous amounts of waste and labor exploitation that weighed on her conscience.
Sthr, which launched last summer, is the result of her stepping away from what didn’t feel right to create something she genuinely believed in. It involved doing away with seasons, throwaway trends, poor factory conditions, and cheap fabrics and, instead, tirelessly thumbing through swatches to find just the right luxuriously soft silk and cotton and touring factories in New York to find just the right fit for her very own brand.
And Sthr is very much Lee’s own brand. The designs are created for her and her girlfriends’ tastes: what they would wear while out together and maybe even to one of their weddings. (They wouldn’t be the first.) Each piece is the result of a long design process, wherein Lee aims to perfect the garment. A romantic corset top is complete with delicate pleating, fabric-covered buttons, puff sleeves, and peplum trim. A slip dress combines on-trend details like cutouts and ruching in a way that feels timeless and in line with Lee’s nonseasonal approach. These ethereal, ultra-feminine pieces may be made with Lee and her friends in mind, but they also happen to be just what I want to wear while drinking mimosas with my friends or meeting up with my boyfriend for a dinner alfresco. I know you, WWW reader, are going to feel the same way, so I’m eager for you to read more about Lee’s ethical business philosophy and shop her beautiful designs.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your business?
My name is Esther Lee, and I’m a first-generation immigrant from South Korea. I grew up in Seattle in a family full of creatives. My grandpa was a renowned war photographer in Korea. My father was also a photographer; my mother, a painter; and my sister, a professional violinist. I went to Rhode Island School of Design, where I received my bachelor’s and moved to New York to pursue a career in fashion design.
Sthr is a nonseasonal brand that revolves around perfecting one thoughtful design instead of a whole collection. We use deadstock fabrics and natural fibers, such as silk, cotton, and wool. We also partner with reputable and socially responsible factories here in New York.
And if you had to sum up your business in five words or fewer?
Sustainable, ethereal, timeless, slow fashion.
What inspired you to start Sthr?
I’ve worked in the fast-fashion industry for the past 10 years, which involved traveling overseas multiple times a year. It was during these trips that allowed me to see firsthand the amount of waste and unhealthy conditions factory workers had to work in. Knowing this was one thing, but seeing this really put things into perspective for me. In addition, I was getting burnt out from creating dull, uninspiring clothes, and I felt awful about being a part of the problem: contributing to the rooted waste issue and going against ethical principles. I had a vision to bring back slow fashion by creating a brand rooted in sustainability and ethical pro
duction that supported the shrinking local garment district and gave back to our community. The pandemic allowed me to reflect on my current full-time position and juxtapose it with the vision I had for a business that authentically values sustainability and ethical principles.
How did you get interested in ethical consumption and production?
My firsthand experiences traveling to factories in Asia planted that seed for me. When I saw the unhealthy working conditions overseas and then the cost sheets of factory labor, it was a jaw-dropping moment for me. I was astonished to see the disconcerting working conditions and unacceptable levels of compensation. With that knowledge, I could never produce anything with a factory without physically visiting and seeing the people who make my clothes. Also, a big part of business is building trust and relationships, and I wanted that close relationship with my factories.
Can you tell me more about your decision to do away with fast fashion and fashion seasons? What has been the reaction to that?
The apparel market is saturated with poorly constructed, trendy clothes that are made to come and go in a blink of an eye. My closet in my early 20s was a perfect reflection of that. It was a revolving door—in with the new and out with the old. As I’ve gotten older, I learned the value of high-quality garments that aren’t specific to a season. Those are the set of clothes that survive the seasonal closet interchange. I wanted to create clothes that could always live in a closet for years, no matter the season. Essentially, I wanted to create forever pieces that would stand the test of time!
The reaction to my nonseasonal approach has been positive. I think my customers appreciate the versatility.
What has been your proudest moment as a business owner?
When my customers reach out to me to tell me how happy they are with their orders. I cannot ask for more (some of them have even chosen to wear my dresses for their weddings!), especially when I know that, from concept to production, the entire process has a minimal carbon footprint and every worker has been compensated appropriately. It’s extremely rewarding to know that the pieces I created live a whole life after I ship them out and that my customers are making some of the best memories in them.
How did the pandemic and stay-at-home orders affect your business? How have your priorities shifted since the pandemic started?
Sthr was born during the pandemic, which had its ups and downs. I had to order a wide range of swatches as opposed to seeing and feeling the fabrics in person. With shipping being incredibly delayed, I think it took me months to find the perfect-quality cotton. On the flip side, I think more factories, models, and photographers were willing to work with a new brand/designer like myself. Everyone was more willing to take on a job and negotiate prices, which worked in my favor.
How are you preparing yourself and your business for the world to open back up?
I’m feeling hopeful and excited that people will want to dress up again. (We can finally ditch the sweats!) Once more and more people get vaccinated, I’m looking to do a pop-up or even start inviting customers to our studio to try on clothes and shop! I think it’s important for people to feel and see the quality of the garments in person.
Can you speak to the inspirations behind your pieces? Who are they for, and how do you envision people wearing them?
The inspiration behind my pieces comes from the way my girlfriends and I dressed as city girls. In New York (pre-pandemic), most people make plans after work. We city gals love happy hour and long dinners. On days we had plans, we would put on a special top and dress it down with jeans or trousers. My tops are those versatile pieces you can dress up or down. My pieces are for anyone who appreciates quality and thoughtful design. I see people wearing my pieces both casually and formally.
I loved learning about your Donation of the Month program. What organizations have you donated to so far, and how are you picking them?
Through the Giving Tote bag, Sthr has donated to Loveland Foundation and Win NYC. Twenty percent of the proceeds from April and May along with 5% of Sthr’s last preorder round will be donated to Stop AAPI Hate. We choose organizations that are on the smaller side, so the amount we donate makes a direct impact! We also partnered with content creator Francis Lola and raised over $1000 for the AAPI community fund about a month and a half ago.
While on the subject of your donation program—which I believe I read started in response to the rise in violence toward the AAPI community—would you mind sharing with me the ways in which you’d like to see members of the fashion industry support the AAPI community, especially AAPI folks who actively work and participate in the industry?
The Giving Tote donation program actually launched with our line from the very beginning! As far as fashion-industry member engagement, I understand not everyone or every brand can donate. However, I think it’s just as important to spread awareness and not be silent about the recent events. I would love to see the AAPI folks in the industry share their own stories or experiences with others. I think, oftentimes, these members may not think that a donation or even a post may
have that much of an effect. Thankfully, outreach on social media is exponential and not linear, so any sort of awareness is good awareness.
We like to give a little Spotlight love to other brands. What are two to three of your favorite brands you like to support, and why?
Caalo: Beautiful and luxurious outerwear brand founded by Chelsea Claridge. I love the idea of trans-seasonal outerwear. They have stunning trench coats that can convert from long to short.
Oori Ott: A sustainable loungewear brand founded by Korean American designer Hannah Park. Inspired by classic American sportswear and Korean tradition, Oori Ott pieces have a timeless and cool vibe.
Havre Studio: I love how the founder, Madeleine Frandsen, gives a second life to vintage menswear suits. Everything is recycled and repurposed. The brand’s iconic two-piece look is a must-have for every fashion person!
Sthr Ballet Bodysuit ($140)
“The Ballet Bodysuit is made of stretchy ponte fabric for all your dance moves. It has whimsical bubble-sleeve details and a low-cut back with ties for a sexy-yet-feminine touch.”
Sthr City Girl Top ($420)
“City Girl Top has delicate draping along the bodice and sleeve openings. Boning is inserted along princess seams for a corset fit. It also has delicate, playful ties at the shoulder for a fun and secure fit.”
Sthr Dreamer Top ($280)
“The Dreamer Top is a bustier-inspired top with delicate details along the bust and buttons. It has cute puff sleeves for a playful vibe and released pleats for a slight peplum look. Feel free to unbutton a couple if you’re feeling sassy!”
Sthr Glam Top ($420)
“The Glam Top is inspired by a wedding dress from the roaring twenties. It has a bias-cut peplum for a waterfall, high-low look. It also has a low back and cutout detail for a sexy moment.”
Sthr Love Letter Top ($280)
“The Love Letter Top is also a bustier-inspired top with pleats releasing at the waist for a flattering peplum shape! It has playful long silk ties at the shoulder.”
Sthr Spotlight Dress ($695)
“The Spotlight Dress has the most delicate hand-tacked drapes along the bust, waist, and cuffs. It has long, adjustable ties in the back and side cutouts for additional drama.”
Sthr Timeless Slip Dress ($550)
“The Timeless Slip Dress is your go-to slip dress for any occasion. With a delicate drape detail along the bust and buttons down the front, it’s a perfect A-line silhouette that will flatter every body type. It comes with a peekaboo detail in the back for a touch of playfulness!”
Sthr Unwind Pullover ($180)
“The Unwind Pullover is an oversize, boxy pullover with a contrast topstitching detail to complement the 3D logo embroidery. It’s comfortable but also the most stylish pullover you will ever own.”
Sthr The Giving Tote ($49)
“The Giving Tote is named after the famous children’s book The Giving Tree. Every other month, we donate 20% of the proceeds from the bags to an organization of our choosing.”
Sthr Pride Is Love Giving Tote ($69)
“For Pride Month, Sthr has partnered with the amazing illustrator Justin Teodoro to create a special limited run of the Giving Tote. For the month of June, we have chosen to support the organization Love Wins Food Pantry, which was created to address food insecurity caused by the negative economic consequences of COVID-19. Volunteers in the New York neighborhoods of Jackson Heights and Elmhurst noticed that all of the food pantries in the area were operating out of churches, so they wanted to create a resource for the community that centered and celebrated queer people. Love Wins operates out of the neighborhood gay bar Friends Tavern.”
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