Reginald Lee: One foot in front of the other

Reginald Lee: One foot in front of the other

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All you divas and fashionistas, gather ’round! It’s almost time for Philly Fashion Week, when designers convene in our fair city to get a jump on the hottest trends and coolest fashions. Beautiful models will present exquisite garments alongside luxury products and world-class entertainment.

And this year, one of our own will share the spotlight. Those who like to put their best foot forward may know Reginald Lee from Aldo’s, where he’s the manager. But he’s also a fashion designer. Let’s walk in his shoes.

PGN: Describe the family.

RL: I have three sisters; grew up with two parents, though they divorced when I was in college. My dad was a computer programmer and my mother, she had several jobs. I think she just loves having degrees!

PGN: Was drawing your favorite medium?

RL: I think so, but it was hard to figure because, when I was younger, my father didn’t want me taking any home-ec classes. He thought that kind of stuff wasn’t for men to do and he took me out of the classes, but I did it secretly on the side.

PGN: How did that feel, to be shamed and told you weren’t supposed to like the things you loved?

RL: It was sad. My mom and my grandmother used to sew and knit and crochet, and I would watch them to see how they did it, and then I’d hide in my basement and pin fabric by myself. But looking back, I always wished my parents could have seen the work that I did and be a part of it. It never happened, so I’d use my little sister as my guinea pig. I loved making gowns and having my sister spin around in them.

PGN: Where did you go to college?

RL: I studied fashion design at the Art Institute of Philadelphia. Honestly, I was very sheltered growing up, so I didn’t want to stray too far.

PGN: Were you a mama’s boy?

RL: [Laughing] Yes! When I’m designing, I always think about how my mom used to walk. She’d wear heels, and I always knew the distinctive sound of them clicking. Even at school when I’d get in trouble for something and she’d check on me, I’d hear her heels in the hallway and I’d know it was her from her walk.

PGN: When did you make the decision, This is what I’m going to do and I don’t care what anyone thinks, and why fashion instead of the fine arts?

RL: I feel like I’ve always had a knack for fashion. I’d watch “Cleopatra” or “Indiana Jones” and loved the glitz and the glamour of everything. Watching my mom and my grandmother sew, I just gravitated to it. My first “client” was my little sister, because her Barbie dolls needed clothes. My mother kept everything, so we had a lot of our old baby clothes around. I’d take my sisters’ old socks with the lace trim at the top, turn them upside down and cut armholes and start creating an outfit that way. I’d tell her to tell our parents that she made it.

PGN: Awww, that’s beautiful and terrible at the same time!

RL: Because I wasn’t allowed to take any fashion classes, I had to figure out how I could design without letting anyone know what I was doing. So in a lot of my drawings of superheroes or whatever, the outfits were really elaborate!

PGN: So I’m guessing that if you went to the Art Institute to study fashion, Dad had to become aware at some point.

RL: Well, yeah, I finally got to the point where I said, This is what I want to do: I want to be creative. It wasn’t something that made him happy, but he basically said, “As long as you’re living a good life, I’m fine with it.” So I got a bachelor’s degree in fashion/apparel design.

PGN: Going to school and working full-time is impressive — and coming out at the same time. You had a lot on your plate.

RL: Well, my coming-out experience wasn’t as amazing as I thought it would be. I thought once my mom knew, once I actually said the words, she’d be totally fine with it but … It wasn’t that way at all. [Long pause] My parents pulled me out of school. They thought that design school was making me gay. They put me into therapy and counseling. It was hard. I just never thought my mom was going to react that way. I already knew how my dad was going to react. [Getting tearful] He said I was a disgrace to the family name and that I had to leave.

PGN: Oh, man.

RL: It was awful. I was sitting down one day and thinking about my life, about where I was. [Sniffles] Being sheltered in a small town my entire life, I just didn’t know what the world was about. I was watching Patti LaBelle on TV. It was a concert and she was singing a song called “Two Steps Away.” There was a verse of the song that stood out to me: “I don’t understand my life/Or the version that chose you/And I knew that it was time for me to go … ” [Stops talking for a moment] I was only 19 and everything I knew was gone.

PGN: I can’t imagine how scary it would be and how vulnerable you could feel in that situation.

RL: [Whispering] Yes.

PGN: But you survived and thrived. And your story is important for others who have been in the same boat because look at you now: You’re about to show a collection for Fashion Week!

RL: [Wiping eyes] I am and … Ha, I said I wasn’t going to cry! I was just going to answer your questions and not get emotional!

PGN: [Laughing] I’m sorry. I’ve been told I have that effect!

RL: OK, the collection. So in 2008 I did a few little fashion shows, but I was busy with life and work, had a breakup and I didn’t really work on my own stuff even though I’d received good feedback. My friend kept encouraging me to get back to my own designs and I wound up auditioning for “Project Runway.” They ask you a series of questions and one of them is, “What have you done this year?” and I realized that I hadn’t really done much so I thought, you know, it’s time to change that. I started making a bunch of outfits so I could put up a website and a friend of mine reached out to me and said you should be in Fashion Week this year. So I was like [casually], “Oh yeah, sounds cool” and then someone from Philly Fashion Week saw my pieces and called. He said, “Your work is amazing, we want you to be a part of the show.” And I was still hesitant because you’re so vulnerable, and I hate being vulnerable.

PGN: I guess it’s like having people judge your babies, and telling you if your kids are pretty or ugly!

RL: Exactly! But I decided to do it anyway, in part because a couple of months ago I fell and cracked my skull. Lying in a hospital bed was a wakeup call. I don’t want to have any “what-ifs.” Having a near-death experience will put a fire under you.

PGN: What makes your collection unique — what’s your flavor?

RL: I’d say my flavor is a whimsical sex appeal. I try to have hidden treasures within my work. When someone sees a piece, I want them to have a certain memory.

PGN: If you could transport back in time, which fashion period would you visit?

RL: Oh, so many — the 1700s or even the 1800s. Or maybe medieval times … I like them all. I’d love to get an old piece, say from Queen Elizabeth or Mary Queen of Scots, and revamp it with a modern twist.

PGN: Which three celebs would be in your entourage?

RL: Elizabeth Taylor because she knows how to have fun! If they must be alive, Nick Jonas seems pretty chill, Sade because she has the sexiest voice known to man and Ryan Reynolds because he is hilarious!

PGN: Not Patti?

RL: Oh yes, I’ve never met her, but two fun facts: Apparently we used to get our fabrics from the same place. The owner would make her hats, and my grandmother and her sister grew up with her. 

PGN: Favorite reality show?

RL: “American’s Got Talent” and, of course, “Project Runway.” I will get on that show!

PGN: Any tattoos?

RL: I have “Jusqu’à cette terre s’effrite et même aprés je vous aime” [translation from French: “Until this earth crumbles and even after I will love you”] on my ribs. It was something I’d say to someone I once loved.

PGN: Has the relationship with the family gotten better?

RL: I haven’t spoken to my father in years and I’m fine with that. But my relationship with the rest of the family is great. And I’m still a mama’s boy! 

For more information about Reginald Lee, check out his Instagram pages @feathertattoo and

@reginaldleebrand.

 

For more information about Philly Fashion Week, visit www.phillyfashionweek.org.


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