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Chu-Ting Lee

MA Fashion Womenswear, 2013-15

I graduated in 2007 from Taiwan’s Fu Jen University, in Womenswear, and then went to the Istituto Marangoni in Milan, to do an MA in Fashion Design. I met friends who told me I had to go to the best art college in the world, and that was the RCA, so it became a dream of mine.

After a few years working as a handbag designer for Shiatzy Chen in Taipei, I was really aware that the fashion world there always looks to the West for the best designers and influence. That seemed unfair to me, and worth questioning. I decided I wanted to study in the best place because I knew I could produce work that was just as good as western designers.

In Milan, the teaching methods were quite rigid and conservative – we did lots of drawing, and didn’t have much time to develop ideas. In the first few weeks at the RCA, I soon realised that I could relax, play with material and start to discover my own way of designing.

I didn’t have a footwear background, but that was my specialism at the RCA. I felt that I had a special eye for footwear, and knew that was the direction I wanted to go in. I went in with a completely open mind, prepared to start from zero.

For every project in the first year, I tried to challenge myself with a different material or technique. For my first project, I worked with plastic and learnt about shoe lasts and shoe making techniques; the shoes I made were intentionally unwearable, more like sculptural objects. Then, for every project after that, I pushed myself to learn about new materials and techniques.

The best collaboration I did was in the second year. I’d made a shoe piece from ceramics, for which I asked someone in the Ceramics & Glass programme to teach me the process. Then I realised that glazing was a whole other realm of knowledge, so I decided to approach a Ceramics student to work with. It was around the time of the Work-in-progress Show, which is a great opportunity to see what other people are doing on different programmes. I looked around the Ceramics & Glass exhibition, and found a student called Christina Liu, who was working with glazing techniques and whose work I admired. It was a great collaboration and I ended up including some of her work in my final collection and Graduate Show. I think working together made us both stronger.

My final collection addressed the subject of food, thinking about how what you eat represents who you are. I made eight styles of shoe, with each shoe representing a dish. I also presented a performance at the Show, and borrowed an outfit by Womenswear student Naoya Nakayama to dress the performer. She was cast as the guest sitting at a table, and I served the shoes to her; slowly she began to explore and understand how it all works, like when you go to a fancy restaurant and you pick up the rules and etiquette. Working with performance and film was completely new. Originally I made it for my pre-collection, so it was only ever intended for a private viewing, but Zowie Broach, the Head of Programme, really encouraged me to take it further and incorporate it in my final collection.

I remember that, right from the beginning, our tutor Flora McClean was always interested in more unusual ideas. Sometimes I’d come up with more standard designs, but she would always encourage the other side of my work, the weirder ideas, that come from a more real side of me. With that encouragement, I became more confident and allowed myself to be who I really am as a designer. She introduced me to so many artists, designers and filmmakers, who all influenced my thinking. 

Before graduation, I’d already made plans to hold an exhibition in September, to keep momentum up. The venue I found for the show is a small gallery in the Saatchi Gallery restaurant called Gallery Mess. It was a great way to build a wider audience for my work. This time, I worked with a group of musicians to accompany the performance, so I’m learning a lot about different ways to exhibit my work.

I’m hoping to find work with a luxury brand; that’s definitely something I want to be part of my experience as a designer. Beyond that, I want to continue to work with combining performance and my own collections, working in that crossover space between art and fashion, between sculpture and footwear. Studying at the Royal College of Art showed me that I can be original and break the rules in that way. 

Only through studying here in London, at the RCA, have I realised what it is that my Taiwanese background has given me. Experiencing that distance from my country, I was able to identify a key element, in food. This feels like the beginning of a journey. There’s an important temple festival coming up in Taiwan and I’d like to draw some inspiration from that in future work, and collaborate with a British photographer I know who now lives in Taiwan, and continue that kind of cultural exchange.

"Our tutor was always interested in more unusual ideas. She would always encourage the weirder ideas, that come from a more real side of me. With that encouragement, I became more confident and allowed myself to be who I really am as a designer. "
Chi Ting Lee at her Saatchi Gallery Performance
Chi Ting Lee at her Saatchi Gallery Performance