Practice makes perfect: That adage applies to most skills, including fashion design. Crystal Renee Lee, the founder of CR Lee Designs, is a proud mother, designer and entrepreneur. Originally from San Diego, she obtained a bachelor's degree in sociology from Oklahoma State University on a full-ride scholarship. She moved to Colorado a dozen years ago to study fashion design at the Art Institute of Colorado, and stayed here while creating a business that celebrates the female form. Lee showed her debut collection in 2012.
Today CR Lee Designs is on a roll, participating in 303 Denver Fashion Week, Westword's Artopia and even New York Fashion Week. Lee's latest venture is a stint on the Canadian TV show Stitched, where she competes with other fashion designers for a cash prize. In advance of the September 9 premiere of Stitched and the Massif Fashion Week show on September 27, when she will present her next collection, we visited Lee's studio to find out what makes her tick.
Westword: What inspired you to become a fashion designer?
Crystal Renee Lee: I personally couldn't find any clothes that were of high quality that had a cool, stylish, unique aesthetic but also fit women like myself. I'm not a super-petite girl. At the time, the style lines were just weird for women of my size, so I just wanted to create something different and bold for women. Now it's for everyone.
Do you like to accentuate the hour-glass shape?
Yeah, especially with my clients, I really pride myself on taking women a little bit out of their comfort zone. A lot of that is talking to them specifically about what they love about their body. I really like to celebrate the female form.
Did you study fashion design right away?
No. I was the biggest tomboy ever and played sports growing up. I got a full-ride scholarship to Oklahoma State University. I thought I wanted to heal the world through mentoring and things like that, but it turned out that I wanted to heal the world with fashion.
What are some of your inspirations in your work?
I can be inspired by anything. Especially as of late, my mind is constantly designing... . It's kinda like how you play that word-association game. If I say this, what is the first word that pops into your mind? If you said "black," I would say "silhouette," and so that is how my design process works. It really does stem from anywhere, including music. I can be out on a date with my husband, and it can be a smell or I can see the way another woman puts her outfit together. I can just look at it and be inspired.
What is your jam of the moment?
"Conjuring," by IAMDDB. Also, "Barbie Dreams," by Nicki Minaj. Her whole new album [Queen] is good. I am not usually a Nicki Minaj fan, but this album is good; I have to give her credit.
Sometimes there is a correlation between fashion and film. Do you have a favorite film?
Honestly, I love older movies, like any of the old mobster movies. Even Blow or Scarface. Any of those where the women were dressed bold, but there was an ease to it. You know, like flowy dresses that look ultra-feminine, but they still look powerful. Like Elvira in Scarface, or Ginger in Casino. Hands down, I can watch that film a thousand times over. Her vibe, when she was running the city, that is definitely how I would describe one of my clients or my design aesthetic. It's such a great film. It is timeless, really.
Does San Diego or Colorado inspire your design aesthetic?
A little bit on both ends. Before I had my son, I would travel to the beach. I love to visit Miami. Growing up in San Diego, I love the beach. There is that easy, breezy kind of aesthetic. Colorado has that, too. There is definitely a laid-back style here. There is an ease to it that I like to incorporate into my designs.
How would you describe your brand and style in three words?
Bold, innovative, powerful.
Do you have a favorite color?
No. I have a color that I absolutely hate: Although I am wearing red lipstick now, I just can't design with red fabric. Every time I tried it, I have always had a mental block with it. I feel like one of my strengths is color. I love really bold and rich colors, and even a pattern, if it has the right look to it.
What kind of textures and silhouettes do you like?
Anything that has fluid movement. I always say that I am a sucker for any kind of silk, but also any fabric that has fluidity. I feel like a women's clothes shouldn't compete with her when she is wearing them. One of the most beautiful things about a woman's body is that we have that fluidity and motion in our bodies, and I feel like that should be celebrated instead of being restricted. Don't tie all that down; let it move around a little bit.
What can you tell us about Stitched?
It premieres September 9 on Slice TV. It is a Canadian show; I had to fly out to Toronto to film it. You can stream it here in the U.S. from Slice, which is the Canadian equivalent of Bravo. It's kind of like Project Runway meets Chopped. It was a very intense process.
It was filmed earlier this year. The way that we experienced it was a stylist competition where skilled designers match wits and stitches in an epic fashion throwdown where a competitor is eliminated per round. There are four designers per show. At the end of every episode, one designer rises to the top with a couture-level creation and a $10,000 prize. There is a winner per episode instead of per season.
How was your experience? Was it challenging?
Yeah, it was definitely challenging, but it was a good challenging. It took me out of my comfort zone, for sure. I learned a lot about my design process...like things that come second nature to me that I do here at home when I am not up against time constraints. It was a very positive experience.
Do you have any advice for future fashion designers, or people who see the show and dream of being a designer someday?
There are no rules. My advice to anyone, whether a student or a mom who wants to become a designer, is that it is never too late, but you have to go seek out the information. I think especially now with how much information is on the Internet and with YouTube tutorials, there is so much information available. I am just one of those people who if I am curious about something, I will actively go out and seek and learn, and I'm willing to teach myself if I have to.
Have you always been creative and into fashion?
I've always known I had this creative side; I just didn't know how to express my own personal style. When you are working a 9-to-5 job, on the weekends and evenings you have the chance to dress up. That is why I even decided to get into fashion design — I needed this creative outlet.
I feel like I've always been creative. I don't know if I've always been the most fashionable. [Before I became a fashion designer] I didn't really see the artistry in it. Now I have a new perspective, because I view it as art, and before it was just clothes. I see the power in creating lines and seeing how something moves and photographs. It is much more than a necessity, it is an expression.
What are you up to now?
Busy, busy, busy. My custom clientele has kept me very busy. I just finished up some looks for KS 107.5 Summer Jam, and even some looks for weddings. My clients come to me needing anything from a bathing suit for vacation to something to wear to a white party. As of this week, I am starting to go nose to the grindstone to prepare for my collection at Massif Fashion Week. I will be debuting a new collection, and I am really focusing on that right now. I am hoping to show eight to ten looks. I just want to give people something new and fresh from me.
It's been nonstop since 2012. Up until this year, I have always had another day job. But then this year, I decided to concentrate on doing this full-time, and it's been picking up. I love it.
Who is your dream client?
Beyoncé or Tracee Ellis Ross.
What is your style mantra?
I ask myself and my clients, "How do you want to feel, and how do you want to be received when you get to where you are going?" It can be anywhere from brunch with my girlfriends or an interview. I am always thinking of how I want to be perceived.
Where do you like to shop? Or do you design most of your own clothes?
I like to shop on my own rack. Things usually go pretty quickly, so I don't always get to keep them for myself. Honestly, I prefer to shop at places like Buffalo Exchange. Anywhere I can find one-off little weird things. I like unique pieces.
Do you design your own clothes sometimes?
Yeah. At this point, it is faster for me to design something myself than it is to go shopping and looking for something. It is not rare for me to cut or sew something at the last minute before I leave my house.
Where can readers purchase your designs?
Most of my sales come from clients and custom creations. That is not to say I won't sell in stores, but for now I really value the one-on-one experience with my clients. People are more than welcome to contact me via my website or Instagram so I can create a custom creation.
I am here for my clients, and it's not just about the clothes with my brand. It's about the whole experience when you come to CR Lee Designs. You get all of me when you purchase one of my pieces, so if you need help styling, or are insecure about certain things, well, let's create something that makes you feel good. I love collaborating with my clients, and I don't want women to feel intimidated by high fashion. Everyone's body is different, so it's about how you dress to complement your body.
Anything else about Stitched?
Make sure you tune in. I can't wait until my episode airs and I can share with the people of Denver, because they have been so good to me and so supportive. So I would just like to thank them.
Click here to purchase tickets to the Massif Fashion Week show on Thursday, September 27, when CR Lee Designs will present her new collection. Click here to livestream Stitched on September 9 on Slice. Click here to view more of CR Lee Designs.