By Haley Martin
IN HER white-walled Goose Hollow studio, bridal designer Sunjin Lee moves among pen-and-ink drawings of Parisian buildings and sketches of skyscraper-tall models. Lee is an architect by training, and it shows when she talks about her dresses.
“Architects have a very specific aesthetic,” she says. “The tiniest mistake can make a building fall.”
As a child in Seoul, Lee was a fashion hound. But when she enrolled at Sookmyung Women’s University, she turned to architecture and urban design instead, fearing that formal training in fashion would dilute rather than enhance her stylistic vision.
“I didn’t want to negotiate,” she says. “Teachers have their own aesthetic, and you have to meet that and please them.”
Still, outside of her classes, she taught herself sewing so she could alter clothing to fit her petite figure or add personal flair here and there. But when she got engaged, her hobby took a more urgent turn. While many South Korean couples have embraced Western-style weddings—adopting everything from the black tuxedos to the cavernous receptions halls—brides often still rent their gowns from low-quality distributors. The result, according to Lee, is a nationwide epidemic of polyester and chiffon dresses straight out of the ’80s.
“Koreans are very trendy,” she says, “but not in a stylish way; they just follow other people. I think it gives them a sense of security.”
So banishing the cheesiness, Lee set about designing her own wedding dress, influenced by linear forms, structural silhouettes, and an obsessive focus on materials, handpicked from warehouses in South Korea, New York, and Chicago. As it turned out, she liked the result so much she turned to the work full-time. In addition to the regressive fashion sense, Lee says, bureaucratic and cultural barriers confounded her attempts to start her own business. In 2010, she crossed the Pacific with her husband to join Portland’s freewheeling fashion scene.
And while it’s not quite the tulle and lace of Seoul bridal styles, an obsession with 1920s Hollywood glamour means she does allow herself one adornment on her designs: jewels.
“Without sparkles,” she says, “I am nothing.”
---This article originally appeared in Portland Monthly magazine