Interview Jian DeLeon
Photography Courtesy of Écru


Wonjong Lee, better known as Mr. Lee, made his first foray into fashion retail in 2000 with a store in Seoul’s chic Gangnam district (whose style PSY has since made even more famous). In 2004, Mr. Lee and his wife opened Écru, which built on the concept of his first shop and brought European brands such as Maison Margiela and Acne Studios to Korean customers. He also championed Japanese labels including nonnative, Undercover, WTAPS, and Zucca, and in the process, helped them gain a serious foothold in the Korean market. MAN sat down with Mr. Lee to talk Écru, Korean retail, and what excites him about Gangnam.

(This piece was featured in our AW16 magazine - january 2016)
Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I studied cinema in Korea and the US. I’m no longer in the film world but creating stuff for stores and presenting it to customers has the same dynamic as cinema. Thanks to my mom who loved clothes, I got to see lots of different stores even as a kid and it seemed quite natural to love fashion and clothes. In the mid-1990s, I was studying in San Francisco and really got into “vintage” looks and music. At the time I liked being alone so I could concentrate on different things (music and fashion) and construct my own cultural identity and appreciate beautiful things. One day my sister, who was in Paris, gave me a piece by Martin Margiela. This apparently anodyne event was a eureka moment. It was so different from what I had previously understood luxury to be. I decided that I had to take that road. So with my wife – who has always helped me – we decided to open a tiny store, just 15m2, in 2000. As we had no experience in the import market, we went abroad, notably to Paris, to buy things for the store. When I think about it now, we were completely innocent when we launched, but we really, really wanted to do it and were totally excited by it. One day we were buying in a designer’s small store and a sales assistant recognized us and asked why we were buying lots of different sizes. After we explained, he offered to go to the showroom and order the items at wholesale prices. Even now, I remember that assistant’s face – he took us for absolute beginners. From then on we learned all the different processes and this experience helped us open the first Écru store in Korea.

How would you define your personal style?

I try to create a style that lots of people can like. I don’t really look to have one particular style. It’s true that it’s not easy finding a style that everyone likes, but it’s important for me to find a certain harmony for myself and others, and that’s also my style.

What’s the idea behind the name Écru?

I saw the word « écru » for the first time in my life when we were placing our first official order at Wim Neels. The designer explained to me that écru was a natural color and I decided immediately to use it as the name of my store. Something simple and cozy, but if you look carefully, there are delicate details that make it stand out from others. The values I wanted to have are embodied in clothing, accessories and furniture that respect the basics and that correspond to what écru means.

When did you open?

The first Écru store opened on February 26, 2004, which just happens to be my birthday. In Asia when you have an important event, you usually consult someone to choose a favorable date, but I wanted to move past that tradition, so I chose a date that was important for me. For the store I visited a few flea markets around the world to find vintage industrial furniture that could create a solid atmosphere that was still flexible. When customers come into our store, they feel history, but not in an unfashionable way. With the untreated walls, you have the feeling that the space has always been there, like a close neighbor, and that’s what I wanted to create and which is what makes the difference with other stores.

Why did you pick this neighborhood for the store?

No particular reason. At the time I didn’t have any other options. At the same time, as the location is a little off the street, customers have to make a special trip, which gives them the impression that it’s their space.

Do you have a buying team or do you handle it all yourself?

I take part in all the purchasing, but the actual orders is made by our buying team (which is made up of the managers of our stores). We discuss things together and then decide together because the analysis of the managers who are on the front line is extremely valuable.

What are your criteria for selecting a brand?

In general, when I like a brand that I perhaps want to sell in the store, I buy it and wear it myself before making any decision. Most of the brands are chosen in this way. There are lots of collections, but it’s rare to meet a piece that’s sober, uses top-quality fabric and other materials, with impeccable finishes and has its own style. When I discover a piece like that I get excited.

Any buyer’s tips?

I don’t think there’s any secret. You have to believe in your own vision and choices. That takes work and experience. To be a good buyer, you have to choose clothes that you want to wear yourself. On the other hand, those choices have to be based upon earned experience, which gives genuine legitimacy.

What do you expect to find in trade shows?

Trade shows are global meetings. I’m not expecting anything special, but I hope to meet people in the same business sector so we can talk about our ideas and discover their needs. I also hope that we will have good results, but even if it’s not immediately the case, for the show to create a base for future development so we can go as far as possible in Korea and abroad.

How has the fashion sector changed since you started working?

Fashion has changed enormously since I began, particularly in Korea where all brands are now present. Fashion used to be only for women; now it’s for everyone and for all tastes. The consequence is the increasing number of outlets. You now have to have something exceptional or different if you want to continue to exist in this world. When I began our main collection was European, but shortly afterwards big Korean groups signed exclusive contracts with them. It was really hard for smaller companies like mine to keep going. So I began to get interested in Japanese brands and I really enjoyed working with them. The reason I got interested in these brands was that they had their own identities (which was a major difference with other countries) and were extremely diverse.

How has retail changed since you began?

American, retro, avant-garde: different styles have come and gone, and now we’re back with basics. Today our customers are really diverse, so all sorts of concepts can exist. Fabrics, details and finishes are really important for customers. From now on changes in fashion will be quicker. The most important thing for survival is to target your customers well and to understand what suits them best.

How would you describe menswear today?

When I talk about clothing I associate it with music. In music, new styles are always arriving. Men’s fashion works in the same way. There’s street style, retro style and a mix of the two, as well as the reworked military look.

What trends do you forecast for the upcoming seasons?

That’s a difficult question to answer. Personally, I prefer soberer and well-constructed looks, rather than anything flashy. That’s why I prefer creating layered looks to following a trend. For example, instead of wearing a single coat, I’d recommend a lighter coat with other pieces layered underneath.

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