Interview: Designer Helen Chi of Lady Leisure

Get the lowdown on the Lady behind Lady Leisure.



Behind the Scenes With…
Helen Chi, the ‘Lady in Charge’ of Lady Leisure

by Bridget Eldridge

Helen Chi calls 2005 “the year that everything happened.” When she began selling wholesale jewelry outside the eco-eatery Habana Outpost in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood in the summer of ’05, Helen had no idea that she had a knack for jewelry design. As the summer wore on, Helen began customizing the wholesale pieces, which spurred her own line of original designs that began with her signature Sneaker Chain, a delicate open-chain necklace that ties in front.

We spotted her groovy tie necklaces the one and only day-it must be fate-she sold her jewelry outside of Habana Outpost this past summer and we fell in love instantly.

Peep Lady Leisure’s website and you’ll read, “Lady Leisure is about being independent, believing in one’s self. Our accessories are for the ladies who don’t need to be matchy-matchy, and are free with expressing themselves. Helen brings Lady Leisure for the ladies wanting more options, something different, independent, made with soul, made out of enjoyment.”

This furniture designer turned graphic designer turned jewelry designer is out to prove she can do it all. Helen loves owning her own business and as The Lady in Charge, she not only designs and makes jewelry, but also designs her website and all the print materials for Lady Leisure. Whew. And if that wasn’t enough-we swear this lady has super powers-Helen has a full-time graphic design job and takes jewelry design classes like soldering, wax carving and silversmithing at F.I.T. Oh yeah, and she’s designed the perfect tote for the on-the-go city girl. We sat down with the Lady herself to talk about what inspires her as a designer and a small business owner.

The Vitals:

Birthdate: December 11, 1978
Sign: Sagittarius
Current Digs: Jersey City, New Jersey, which she says is “The perfect blend, it has the brownstones like Brooklyn, but it’s a much easier commute to Manhattan and I can get in my car and go anywhere. But people will debate me on that.”

BB: You grew up in Queens and graduated from Parsons School of Design in 2002. Did you always know that you wanted to be a jewelry designer?

HC: No, but I’ve always wanted to do something creative and I’ve always been very good with my hands. At Parsons I started off in furniture design, but switched to graphic design. Actually, the year I switched, a chair I designed with another student was featured in the magazines Wallpaper and Blueprint.

BB: Wow, we weren’t expecting you to say that! So how did you get into jewelry design?

HC: I wanted to create my own business, so I started selling jewelry at Habana Outpost last summer. Originally, I planned to sell mass-produced pieces that I bought wholesale. But I started customizing the jewelry and I discovered that I really liked making it. I said to myself: I’m a designer, I should just sell my own pieces and get rid of this wholesale stuff! This summer I was nervous to go back to Habana Outpost since I was selling only my own designs, the prices were more expensive and I was worried that people who knew me from the year before wouldn’t be happy. But it was very well received.

BB: Where did the name Lady Leisure come from?

HC: I was visiting a friend after I just graduated from Parsons in 2002. I hadn’t found a job yet and she said to me “Well haven’t you become the lady of leisure?” I dropped the “of'” and the name just stuck with me. I loved the attitude “Lady Leisure” evoked. I held onto the name until I could think of what to do with it. It all came together in 2005.

BB: The “I Heart Ice Cream” necklace caught our eye at Habana Outpost, but we heart all your thrown chain necklaces. Where did such a unique design come from?

HC: The sneaker chain is my signature chain, the very first piece I designed. I was influence by my surroundings-sneakers thrown over telephone wire. I heard it could symbolize so many different things, so I looked it up and there are so many definitions. It could be a gang sign or a death or someone gets a new pair of shoes and that’s how they get rid of the old pair. My boyfriend told me that kids at his school would throw shoes over a telephone wire at the end of the year. I started with the sneaker charms and the open chain that ties around the neck gives the necklace the look I was going for.

BB: Your brass line boasts gorgeous jade stones in beautiful colors of guava, turquoise and lemondrop that really pop and are a completely different feel from your gold and silver chains.

HC: With the brass line I wanted to create something more feminine, colorful and pretty with the jade stones. The Brooklyn Earrings are my favorite; they look like door-knockers. Those were also one of my original designs, I guess I’m attached to my early stuff.

BB: You also have a line of super cute tote bags that are über-functional for, as you say, “the woman doing her thing.”

HC: The measurements had to be just right, deep enough to fit manila folders and magazines, but also wide enough for sneakers. And since it’s a tote bag the placement of the pockets was really important; they had to be higher up, so the city girl looking for her MetroCard could reach in and grab it without taking the straps off her shoulders. I still get compliments on that bag. It was a real learning experience.

BB: We love that your business card reads “Helen Chi, The Lady in Charge.”

HC: When I was looking for internships while I was at Parsons, it was trendy to work for the small fashion houses and independent music labels. In my search, I noticed that most of the small, independent fashion houses were owned by men and that didn’t appeal to me. Women buy everything. It made me want to own my own business.

BB: So how do you like being The Lady in Charge?

HC: Saying that I own my own business and seeing myself grow in such a short period has been so rewarding. I’m doing things I never thought I would, like pay sales tax! Owning my own business has strengthened my confidence, I’ve developed contacts in the fashion world and I feel like I’m part of a design community, collaborating with other artists or designing photo shoots with stylists. It’s much more friendly than I thought it would be.

BB: Growing up in New York City, you must have been influenced by designers your whole life. Who inspires you today?

HC: I’m influenced by the industrial designer Tobias Wong, who designs furniture, jewelry and graphic pieces; jewelry designer Alexis Bittar for his hustler’s spirit; and, clothing designer Wendy Mullin of Built by Wendy for her success as a small business owner. She has published a book (called “Sew U” that came out in September), expanded her store to three store locations (in Mahanattan, Brooklyn and Los Angeles) and has a strong following. I really admire her growth in this business without losing her brand, you know? She started so small in the beginning.

BB: You seem to enjoy not only the creative aspect of Lady Leisure, but also the business side. What has been the biggest surprise of life as a business owner?

HC: When you own your own company, you have to do everything yourself. It’s not just designing the samples and making the jewelry, but you also have to market your product, design your own print materials and keep the books. It’s my pet project, I have to nurture it to help it grow. I’m enjoying the process; it’s very loose. I have a full-time job so I can take my time and make jewelry out of enjoyment, not stress and worry.

As a business owner, I also had the opportunity to sponsor B-Girl Be, an all female hip-hop event with a fashion show, film festival and visual art exhibit, in Minneapolis, Minnesota by donating some of my bags. That was pretty cool.

BB: Any embarrassing fashion mistakes as a kid that you’d like to fess up to?

HC: Do you remember jams? The long colorful OP shorts. I’m sure people would wear them now. I would also pull tube socks up to my knees because my dad did it.

BB: Wait, you took fashion cues from your dad?

HC: Laughs. Yeah, but I don’t any more.

BB: That’s a relief. What should we look out for from Lady Leisure in the future?

HC: Down the line, I want to do a kids line-there’s a huge market for it. Mothers are always asking me when I am going to come out with one.

I’m launching a unisex line for Spring 2007 — actually designers are always a season ahead, so I guess it will be the Fall 2007 line.

Well, no matter what the Lady in Charge will call it, kellygolightly is eagerly awaiting the arrival of her new line. Check out Helen’s tie chain necklaces, bright jade stones and super-cute functional totes right here at Lady Leisure.


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