Story by Jean Ho
Photo by Frank Lee
Jeannie Lee wants to know how I get so much volume in my hair. Feeling a little intimidated, I sheepishly blurt out that my hair hasn’t been washed in two days and that I’d emptied about half a bottle of dry shampoo into the crown of my head that morning.
“It looks great!” she exclaims brightly. “So that’s the secret.” With a sigh, she adds, “I can’t ever do that – I do hot yoga, so I have to wash it every day.”
Lee is the inimitably stylish Korean American shop owner behind Satine, an independent boutique frequented by celebrity It-girls and countless other fashion-savvy denizens of Los Angeles since its opening in 2003. The day I meet her at the store on West Third Street (there is another Satine location, on Abbot Kinney in Venice), she wears her hair in a side part and low ponytail. Volume or no volume in her hair, Lee still manages to look effortlessly chic in head-to-toe dark denim: a Supreme baseball jersey tucked into a floor-length ChloeÌ prairie skirt with a row of buttons down the front. A pair of white Stella McCartney platform creepers, silver stars adorning the toes, peek out from underneath the skirt. Lee lifts up the hem to show me her Nike ankle socks. “I’m not very athletic,” she says, laughing, “but I always wear the dry-fit socks, because my feet sweat.”
Back when Satine first opened, Lee was still working full-time as a real estate attorney. “There was a year when the boutique was open, and I was still practicing law, doing both jobs,” she says. “That was hard.” In 2005, Lee quit her law job when Satine began generating enough revenue for her to survive without another source of income.
“I had no retail experience,” Lee says. “I had people who helped me.” She credits one of her friends, the designer John Whitledge, with a piece of sage advice she still swears by when it comes to her business: “He said, ‘under-promise and over-deliver.’ Sounds so simple, but it’s so important. To your staff, your vendors, everybody.” Turning serious, she explains, “The most valuable thing you have is your reputation. If you over-promise because you want to tell someone what they want to hear, and you can’t follow up, then you lose your credibility. If you don’t have credi- bility, then you lose your reputation.”
The West Third Street store is decorated in a way that invites browsing, with major designer labels (Isabel Marant, Alexander Wang, Rochas) sharing real estate on the racks alongside independent brands (I Am Are You, Sechung, Comes With Baggage); jewelry, shoes, handbags and more clothes are displayed throughout the space on shabby chic vintage furniture, like the fainting sofa sagging underneath stacks of Paige jeans in a variety of washes, or the 1950s television sideboard, painted Robin’s egg blue, a charming way to showcase a set of vintage leather backpacks.
“This store is a little more rock and roll than Venice,” Lee says. “In the Venice location, we have things that are quirkier and more girly. And of course we have to cater to Venice, which is a much more casual lifestyle because it’s the beach.” The Abbott Kinney location is 3 years old, and Lee says that in the first 18 months, she worked there every day, “opening and closing.”
“I believe that for brick-and-mortar retail, you have to physically be able to get to your store,” she says, and goes on to speak candidly about the Satine store in Japan, which shuttered in 2008 after only two years. “They were great partners, but to have a licensing deal with a company in another country, another continent, another language, another time zone? It was really difficult to control.” Lee says it’s the same reason she doesn’t feel ready to open up a location in New York City. “I need to be able to drive to the stores!” she says, laughing.
In that spirit, she’s opening up another Satine location next summer, in the Arts District in downtown Los Angeles. “It’s really going to feel like straight out of Tokyo. It’s going to have that vibe,” Lee says, excitedly. She believes that the customer base at Satine’s new location will include a large population of Asian Americans. “Asian couples, more than any other couples, shop together,” she says. “And the man, more times than not, enjoys shopping. Whereas non-Asians, the man’s like, ‘I’m going to sit in my man chair and drink a beer and watch sports.'”
Lee is also envisioning another new project, with fashion blogger Chriselle Lim. “She and I are working with a team to create an e-commerce site. It will include clothes from independent designers that are impossible to find anywhere else.”
On the rise of the Asian American blogger (like Audrey’s last cover model, Aimee Song of Song of Style) who are carving a niche for themselves in the fashion world, Lee says, “I think Asian women don’t have a lot of public role models in Western culture. There’s Lucy Liu, Maggie Q. There’s a few girls, but that’s it.” Lee asserts the importance of having more Asian American faces represented in fashion, as well as “media, film, TV. People are hungry for that – I think it’s changing, but there’s still a lack.”
I ask her what sparked her interest in fashion and she answers immediately: “My mother’s really stylish. Everything looked amazing on her.” She recalls waiting around while her mother shopped. “I would watch her and see what she would wear. A lot of pencil skirts, because this was the ’80s, St. John’s suits. She was so cool; she wore pantsuits and gold shoes. A little flashy and bold.”
This story was originally published in our Fall 2015 issue. Get your copy here.