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Photography by Sylvain Deleu

Chau Har Lee (London, UK)

Playing with structure and unusual materials, the Royal College of Art graduate creates shoes reaching daring heights, both literally and otherwise

Having studied at Camberwell, the Royal College of Art, and Cordwainers College, Chau Har Lee has had an impressive design profile behind her, winning the Manolo Blahnik and ITS awards amongst others. A born creative, she is dedicated to using new and innovative materials whilst attempting to balance commercial viability and recognition for creativity as a designer.

Dazed Digital: How old are you?

Chau Har Lee: 29

DD: How long have you been designing?
Chau Har Lee: About 8 years now

DD: Where are you based?
Chau Har Lee: Near Old Street in East London

DD: How would you describe your own style?
Chau Har Lee: I try to keep things simple and aim to make most of the materials, using a combination of old and new ideas, techniques and processes. I aim to create pieces that have strength and beauty, based around a concept which can be about a number of things- the body, the materials or a particular theme.

DD: Why did you choose shoe design?
Chau Har Lee: My interest in making came from my mother, I was inspired by her to be resourceful and creative. If it were not for her I would probably never have considered a career in design. I studied an Art Foundation course at Camberwell College and was drawn to shoemaking after meeting Olivia Morris who was a guest tutor at the college. Shoes seemed like the natural progression fusing my two strongest areas which were sculpture and textiles. I went to an open day at Cordwainers College in Mare Street, applied for a BA and got in. I love designing shoes because of the mix of aesthetic, technical and physiological things that need to be considered.

DD: What is the philosophy behind your designs?
Chau Har Lee: I try to design around the foot in a way which compliments the body with an emphasis on using materials in the best way possible.

DD: What kinds of materials do you work with?
Chau Har Lee: I am experienced in handmaking shoes in leather and frequently teach shoemaking courses. I use a lot of leather while working on architechtural interiors jobs and accessories. The MA at the RCA gave me the oppportunity to experiment with different materials such as perspex, wood, steel, fabric and I am continuously on the look out for interesting materials.

DD: What are the processes involved in making your sculptural shoes?
Chau Har Lee: Sketching and analysing the foot, finding various pieces of reference material, making lots of mock-ups. I have used a few diiferent processes for this collection and purposefully used unconventional shoe making techniques. One design has been built in computer using a 3D program. It was then rapid-prototyped- so it was built using a 3D printer that deposits thin layers of liquid resin. A laser beam tells the resin where to stay hard and where to remain liquid and after 28 hours, the platform is raised and all the liquid resin drains off leaving the remaining shoe- to watch the end of the process where the shoe emerges was enormously satisfying especially after so much preparation.
Other shoes in the collection have been lasercut, welded and leather has been stretched and moulded. It's a range of processes from designing on computer to polishing metal by hand. It was a massive learning curve and I've had a lot of advice from other disciplines to work out the best solutions for the look I wanted.

DD: How do you reconcile creating beautiful shoes with wearable practicality?
Chau Har Lee: I did anticipate the question of wearability when designing this collection so I made a pair of the steel heel shoes to wear to the gala night of the RCA show to prove they are wearable. They were just as comfortable and as practical as any other pair of 5 inch heels! I made sure that all the shoes in the collection could be worn- some of them are more comfortable than others but I wanted to show the true beauty of the materials I was using. I thought it was more important to experiment and be creative, it's easier to go crazy and then reign things back in- you can always adapt designs afterwards.

DD: What gave you the idea for shoes that can be disassembled and reassembled?
Chau Har Lee: I was thinking about structure and how to create a simple framework that would be strong enought to bear a persons weight. I had been working on the steel heel construction at the time, so I was thinking about how to use materials in a simple way to provide maximum strength. I was also interested in figuring out a way to construct a shoe without using glue. I got the idea when I was on my way home from teaching one day and while sitting on the tube it started to build a picture of itself in my head- so I spent the whole night cutting cardboard to see if it would work.   

DD: What has winning at ITS meant for you?
Chau Har Lee: Winning ITS8 was amazing- the whole experience of going to Trieste and meeting the ITS crew, who are so dedicated and supportive. It's a warming thought that they exist and are there to encourage creatives. It was also fantastic to meet the judges and other contestants, who were all really lovely. On a practical level, the award means I have been given the freedom to continue to develop my work and the opportunity to exhibit it at ITS9. I'm really excited about my next collection.

DD: Who do you have in mind when you design?
Chau Har Lee: My friends mainly. Also, my mother- I inherited an amazing wardrobe of 1960's tailored Chinese dresses from my mother in the most amazing fabrics, I always picture her back in the day wearing her dresses and my shoes.

DD: What inspires you at the moment?
Chau Har Lee: So many things, but most recently I've been watching nature documentaries- animal forms, movements and evolution. Also, I've recently returned from a workshop with Camper themed 'Natural by Design', there were seminars about the body, new innovations in materials, traditional shoemaking techniques and sustainability issues, so these are topics that are floating around in my head right now too.

DD: Who are your favorite designers and why?
Chau Har Lee: I really respect the work of Balenciaga, Lanvin and Margiela- because of their mixing of the traditional and the modern.

DD: What are your plans for the future?
Chau Har Lee: My immediate plan is to get started with the next collection. I'm hoping to collaborate with other designers on new projects too. I am also in the process of moving into a studio in East London with some friends- two of which are accessories designers who studied with me at the RCA.

DD: Can we buy your collection?
Chau Har Lee: Not at the moment, but hopefully in the not too distant future!