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TikTok Stella Lee bootleg shoes
via TikTok (@with__stella)

The TikToker butchering designer bags into Frankensteined footwear

Stella Lee is confronting her own consumerism with bootleg accessories made from upcycled packaging

With all its Shein hauls, live shopping streams, and DHgate dupes, there’s a tendency to speak about young people on TikTok as if they’re all perpetrators of ecological and cultural collapse. But these kinds of tensions – of wanting to be seen as stylish without having to sift through second-hand shops or spend thousands of pounds on designer clothing – have always been endemic to consumerism. Zoom out a little, and plenty of TikTok users are educating their audiences on alternative DIY methods. Stella Lee is a material designer in San Francisco and has a light-hearted response to these kinds of anxieties: bringing a scalpel to Loewe, Gucci, Acne Studios, and Hermès paper shopping bags and dissecting them into their component parts to craft bonkers and brainy accessories on the cheap. 

Her videos (much like those of Tanner Leatherstein) are of moments of fashion ASMR – a hand blade gliding through expensive packaging, the perforations of a sewing machine, the slice of a zipper. But there’s also a schadenfreude that comes from deconstructing the kind of items we tend to keep as souvenirs, stashed in household cupboards ‘just in case’. “I was treating these materials and labels as more than just pieces of paper and trash,” Lee says, adding that she’s compulsively hoarded wrapping paper and gift bags since she was a child. “I was projecting status, belonging, hype, or escapism onto them. And to be honest, it’s always a cathartic experience cutting up these materials I once considered precious.” Her efforts result in Frankensteined Chanel x Gucci ballet flatforms or Loewe boot-legs, for which she’s not that bothered about getting a cease and desist letter. If anything, it’s a “compliment”. 

Below, Stella Lee talks about the relief of destroying her own Victoria’s Secret bras, growing shoes from cress, and reclaiming the waste that she has personally generated.

Can you introduce yourself to our readers a little, please? What's your name, where are you living, what's your background in design, how did you get here?

Stella Lee: I’m a material designer and artist currently living in San Francisco. Though I was born in the United States, my formative years were spent in Seoul. Upon returning to the States for high school, I was fortunate to secure transformative internships that cemented my passion for material design. These included positions at Under Armour and Nike, as well as a hands-on experience at a knitting manufacturing factory in Peru. In 2017, I relocated to New York and spent four and a half years as a bra surface designer for Victoria's Secret. But I always felt compelled to explore my own creative language and push my boundaries as an artist. And this is where the shoe story begins.

You mentioned that you've always been obsessed with packaging. Why is that? What are you trying to hold on to when you hoard packaging? 

Stella Lee: It all started when I was a kid. I used to collect Christmas wrapping papers or pretty shopping bags to decorate my journal or make cards. As I grew older, I realised that my attachment to these seemingly trivial objects ran deeper than just their aesthetic appeal. In Alec Leach's book, The World is on Fire But We're Still Buying Shoes, he talks about how objects can transcend their materialistic value and acquire meaning through projection. I was treating these packaging materials and labels more than just pieces of paper and trash because I was projecting status, belonging, hype, or escapism onto them. And to be honest, it’s always a cathartic experience cutting up these materials I once considered precious.

But this was also a lockdown hobby, right?

Stella Lee: During the height of the pandemic, when the world was in a state of uncertainty and unrest, my desire to create was also at its apex and I found inspiration in a workshop led by Helen Kirkum. Her online tutorial on constructing shoes using recyclable materials resonated deeply with me. I still remember repurposing a Vogue magazine, an egg carton, and a beer box. The end result wasn’t perfect, but this experience made me realise that using shoes as a vehicle could potentially be a very fun way to explore new materials. Despite being confined to my apartment, I started experimenting with all sorts of recyclable materials that I had lying around thanks to all the COVID deliveries. Soon after the workshop, the first of many shoes were born, the Amazon Prime shoe!

Do you have a favourite creation? Why do you think your videos are resonating so much with people?

Stella Lee: The Pink bra series (sneaker and the heel) is probably my favourite because it best contextualises my work. While I was working at my corporate job, I couldn't help but question my role and how it contributed to the fashion industry's biggest problem, waste. So I intentionally purchased one of the exact bras that I had designed, took it apart, and used it to build a shoe. It was my way of externalising that inner conflict. But I don’t think that’s why people relate to my work. Perhaps it’s the universal appeal of the shoes?

It's funny because your designs are both a sustainable reworking of waste and an ode to consumption. Do you think there's a link there?

Stella Lee: 100 per cent. The link is the irony itself. While my shoes initially stemmed from a curiosity for experimenting with materials, the materials themselves would not exist had I not been an active participant in consumer culture. So, in a way, I am reclaiming the waste that I have personally generated. This paradox represents the very conflict that I grapple with, as I consider the impact of fashion on our planet's climate emergency. To truly understand my role in the system, I engage in honest conversations with myself, reflecting on the motivations behind my purchases and the hopes and dreams that I bought into. Ultimately, I recognize that fashion goes beyond just clothes.

Are your designs actually wearable or do you consider them more art objects? And are you worried you might get a cease and desist letter from brands?

Stella Lee: I view my designs as art objects, even if they could potentially be worn. Some people have asked if I’ll ever create a brand, or make commercial goods to sell. I tell them another fashion brand is the last thing everyone needs right now!

As for the possibility of receiving cease and desist letters from brands, I would take it as a compliment that my work was recognised. But what I really hope for is to find a solution where we can work together instead of against each other. Let me be clear though, my work doesn't aim to defend or shame any particular brands or consumerism as a whole. Corporate responsibility in the fashion industry is important, but we also need to acknowledge the hard work that goes into making those changes a reality. And while it's easy to point fingers at brands, it’s equally important to take a hard look at ourselves and the difficult choices we need to effect in order to make a real impact on the environment.

I saw you've also been experimenting with growing your own materials. Where would you like all of this to lead you career-wise? What's the goal? 

Stella Lee: My current short-term goal is to showcase an exhibition that talks about the paradoxical nature of fashion and consumerism and then I’m going to aim to push the boundaries of my design even further. While there have been remarkable advances in developing novel biomaterials, there is still a significant gap between consumers and companies that needs to be bridged. I will use projects like the microgreen shoe to provoke discussions about the intersection of fashion, materials, and the environment.