Eunice Lee is the designer behind Unis, a boutique menswear label founded in New York City in 2000. After years of working for major fashion houses, Lee founded her own brand to reflect her honest approach to business and design. Now, Unis creates menswear basics of the highest quality, opting only to work with a carefully selected group of like-minded manufacturers.
What drew you to fashion design?
I always wanted to do something creative but I was at the same time after a sense of security, due to my upbringing and coming from an immigrant family. I initially thought I was going to study fine arts until I realized that I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills with that. I actually went into the fine arts summer program at Parsons to see what it was like but quickly realized that everyone there was in the fashion program. I think it was the practical aspect that made me gravitate toward fashion.
When Parsons asked me if I’d like to do my final senior project in menswear, the practical side of me thought: “Well, I’m graduating with 60-something other students, and I would be one of only a handful of menswear designers. I basically won’t have any competition finding a job.” I knew that I had to graduate and pay rent. So I opted for menswear and it ended up being the right choice for me.
You went straight from school to working for large companies. How has your experience working in big fashion houses influenced what you do now?
The company I worked for straight out of school ended up going bankrupt a few months in. Everyone lost their job—people who had worked there for 15 years. It was a really emotionally distressing experience.
Parsons sent me to an interview at DKNY, which in the mid-’90s was the most interesting big corporate menswear job you could get. They were doing fashion shows and were probably more fashion-forward than Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein. But after I’d been working there a couple of years, they went public and laid off a large number of people too. Again, those things really stuck with me through my first few years of working. I filed those memories away.
At the same time, A.P.C. was just this quiet little French brand with a store in New York City. Their store was really interesting to me because they seemed to own their environment. Working for corporate American brands, you would work around the clock putting together fashion shows, only to see the clothes on the rack at Macy’s looking like garbage at the end of the season. I wondered if I really wanted to work so hard just for that.
Have those experiences affected how you forge relationships with your manufacturers?
When I set out with Unis, all my manufacturing relationships were in Asia. When I look back, I don’t know what I was thinking. But I didn’t realize there were other choices. In Asia, they chew you up and spit you out. They’re not into helping you if you aren’t growing fast enough.
After the recession, I realized how important it was to do everything in my power to manufacture within the US. I think a lot of American menswear brands felt the same. They understood the financial and symbolic reasoning for domestic manufacturing.
You clearly pursue honesty in everything you do.
You do the best you can every day, every season. At times when I’m training new staff, I say: “You know what, just tell them the truth. Yes, we’ve had some problems with manufacturing” or “Yes, you’re right, that isn’t correct.” I’m always interested in stuff that has the highest level of authenticity possible. People appreciate that. I think about myself, what I would want, but that doesn’t equal me always getting it right. The customers definitely tell you when you get it wrong.
Do you think the way you privilege honesty comes through in the designs?
I hope so. Sometimes there are people who want more bells and whistles and sometimes you go through trends that just aren’t you. But I’ve been in the business and around fashion long enough to know that what I have to do is to find how I fit within certain fashion cycles. I’ve focused on excellent basics. You can get the bells and whistles somewhere else, but you come to Unis to buy a really great white shirt. I like when guys dress quietly. You see someone’s genuine taste by their impeccable white shirt and a pair of jeans, or a perfect watch. I really appreciate the level of subtlety in menswear.