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Velma Lee

Designer and Creator of Custom Clothing

(Gowns, show costumes)

New York, New York

Past affiliations include  law department Coopers & Lybrand (PWC)

JD Rutgers University

BA Brandeis University

Passion drives a career in fashion

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On a typical day as a designer

On learning couture from the inside out

On going for it

Listen to interview:

Full Transcript

ex judicata: Hey there. Thanks for taking the time to talk. This is all about lawyers who have transitioned out of law into other fields. We’re trying to offer good advice and stories of people who left law and established successful careers.

Let’s start with why you went into law in the first place.

Velma Lee: Well, when I was at Brandeis, I majored in political science with a minor in English. When I started getting closer to graduation, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my degree. So I decided to apply to law school. And that’s really how that came about.

ex judicata: So, there was no long-term goal, no plan, none of that, just a solution to what you were going to do now.

Velma Lee: Right. I enjoyed my major, but I didn’t know quite what to do with it.

ex judicata: Then, what made you decide to leave law and start your own business?

Velma Lee: That’s a very good question. I think that practicing law and being around lawyers all the time was a great experience. It was a great experience jobwise too. But when I started having children, I felt my job wasn’t so practical. I didn’t want to leave my children all day and travel and go to meetings. I wanted to be with them. I figured I brought them into this world, I should take care of them when I can instead of having someone else do it. But if people do that, that’s great for them. I didn’t feel that was what I wanted to do.

ex judicata: I kind of felt the same way that, having a really high-powered career was not going to do it for me. I could either be really good at my work and not be able to give the time I wanted to give to my children or I had to come up with a solution.

Velma Lee: Mostly I would say that too. I liked my job, but I wasn’t in love with my job. So I wanted to see if there was something else out there that I would love.

ex judicata: What kind of law did you practice and where did you work?

Velma Lee: It was international tax law. I worked for Coopers & Lybrand, which at that time, I think was one of the big eight. And now I believe there may be just four left because they all merged. I liked it there. Then I transferred to the Boston office when we moved back to Boston, and it was good. But then, of course, I got pregnant and was getting ready to have children.

ex judicata: So the change was really about being pregnant, wanting to be there for your kids, and wondering what to do now.

Velma Lee: Exactly. I knew that I wouldn’t sit on my laurels. I enjoyed working.

ex judicata: So how did you go about leaving law and starting your own business? You were going from making good money to having to invest in a business, giving up a steady job with a good salary to build something new.

Velma Lee: It was tough. I read a lot about starting a business. I actually had help from the SBA, the Small Business Administration. I came up with a business plan, a proposal, architectural drawings, floor plans, and all that. I knew where I wanted to have a business. I lived in Brookline, Massachusetts, at that time, and I thought that area was a lucrative possible area to open a business.

ex judicata: Right. And you started with a children’s store, not your current business.

Velma Lee: Yes.The children’s clothing store was called Model Child. It was a cute concept. In the beginning, before I opened, I advertised like crazy. I advertised in local papers and the incentive for people to come shop there was to see large photos of their children on display. I had a studio in Newton, Massachusetts, take pictures for me of children (after the parents signed a waiver, of course) in clothing from the store. Then those pictures were hung up in the store so people would come to see them. Friends would come by. They’d shop in the store.

ex judicata: That’s a totally novel concept. I’ve never heard of anybody doing that. So there was a lot of creativity and a lot of marketing that went into building that business.

Velma Lee: Building, marketing, and advertising, all of that, was important. It has to be sort of on the creative side too.

ex judicata: Did you work with marketing specialists or any other business professionals or did you kind of put it all together on your own?

Velma Lee: I worked with marketing specialists. There was no Internet then, so I advertised in newspapers. I hired people to create a logo and people to do my business cards. I had people doing this, people doing that. I would go to New York four times a year to buy for the next season. You always have to be ahead of the game, and you always have to be forward-thinking. It was great. It was hard work, but what good comes without hard work, right?

ex judicata: There’s a lot to learn, a lot to manage, and a great deal of creativity and hard work involved!  It’s a combination of all of that, right? But then you left that business and started your custom tailoring business. How did that come about?

Velma Lee: People started asking for specialty items even more special than the specialty items I carried. They would ask for custom bridal flower girl dresses, first communion dresses, and other customized items.

I said to myself, “Oh my goodness, I can’t hire a person to do this because the overhead already is so high.” You open a business, you’re paying employees, you’re paying for the space, you’re paying for insurance, you’re paying everything.

ex judicata: So how did you learn to do that customized work?

Velma Lee: I decided that I would take apart every garment and then put each one back together. I took apart men’s suits, women’s silk gowns, bathing suits, French seams, anything couture, and anything for everyday wear. Then I’d put each one back together. I saw how things were made and then I recreated them. I learned by doing. People can come to me for a gown for the Grammys or a bathing suit. When someone brings me something that has to be reconstructed, that’s fine. I can do that. I can do total reconstruction. If someone comes for a custom-made bridal gown, I can do that too. I can hit the whole spectrum.

ex judicata: How did you initially learn to sew? Did you always sew from the time you were a kid?

Velma Lee: No, but my mother and my oldest sister, Vivienne, had a sewing machine and it was so intriguing because it was in a table. You know, it was one of those hidden sewing machines. I loved it. I was like, “Oh, my gosh, that’s amazing!” So using that machine, I learned how to sew. But of course, that’s home sewing, which is very different from having customers and clients and all that.

ex judicata: You said you advertised a lot for the store you established. Do you advertise for your custom design business?

Velma Lee: No. I don’t advertise my custom tailoring business at all. Work comes to me from referrals.

ex judicata: After a while, I imagine business starts coming in because you’ve earned a reputation for great work. When you initially went into the custom design business, I guess you had a clientele from your store and you had word of mouth working for you.

Velma Lee: I did to an extent, but I went from Massachusetts to Maryland. Maryland was a totally different story. Probably the second year after I came to Maryland, which was almost 28 years ago, I did costumes for a dance group, Citi Dance, which was going to be performing at the Kennedy Center. Citi Dance came to me to create the costumes for their performances. So I said, “Wow, that’s a great opportunity!” I did all the dance costumes and attire for their performances. That’s how I really got started here. I sort of eased into this market.

ex judicata: How did Citi Dance come to you?

Velma Lee: It’s funny because I think that there was a connection from Boston. I also think that they said they knew of my name. But maybe it was from the G Street Fabrics store or something that we have here. My business cards are at fabric stores. So maybe they went there, and they found my name that way.

ex judicata: So that is another marketing strategy. Have business cards at fabric stores and other suppliers where people might ask for someone who can do custom designs and create clothing.

Velma Lee: Exactly, all of that, and that’s how a later project came to me.

ex judicata: From someone finding your business cards in the store?

Velma Lee: Right and from talking to the store owners. I’m always there touching, feeling, and buying fabrics.

ex judicata: So the fabric store owners really get to know you. They like you and they recognize your talent.

Velma Lee: My work. Right.

ex judicata: You’re only one person. So how were you able to scale your business? There are only so many hours in the day.

Velma Lee: There are, and I am not a person who will take work if I know I cannot finish it on time. I work long hours. I’m up at 4:45 in the morning and start my day at 5:15. Then I just work until I get what I need to be done for my last client, maybe at 8:00 at night. I don’t see clients every day because you can’t see clients every day and still do your work. So that’s how I’ve been doing things. I have fabric cutters. and I have some people who can help with certain work.

ex judicata: With that help, you can focus on the design and the actual creation. You have to have good cutters. I remember when I was a kid in middle school and I was doing my own sewing, I folded the fabric with one side shorter than the other. When I cut the fabric, I ended up with a very short dress. because you can only shorten. I learned a very valuable lesson that day.

Your business sounds like it’s a lot of hard work, what have been the most challenging aspects of building and operating your own business?

Velma Lee: I guess being your own boss means you always have to generate your own revenue. You’re always thinking about the next person to walk through the door or the next person who calls you or getting that project done in a timely manner so that more business comes to you. So I think those are very big challenges. COVID was a huge challenge.

ex judicata: All of a sudden, there were no parties, no events. What did you do for business then? I remember you were making masks–lots of them during COVID.

Velma Lee: I did. I figured that I could expand my experience book even more. I went to visit my daughters Sydney and Sammi in New York. I kept looking around and I saw that there weren’t masks here and there. So I started designing masks. I hired a patent attorney to see if these designs were patentable. That patent is still in process.

I changed right over as soon as COVID hit. I didn’t even know what COVID was, but I knew we’d all have to wear a mask. That change involved a big learning curve for me because, again, I had to hire people for marketing and advertising, but this time for the Internet, for the website, and for the logo. Everything was new, different from 28-30 years ago.

ex judicata: It’s a totally different way of marketing, a different way of operating. You must have needed a very different marketing plan from what you developed all those years ago.

Velma Lee: Yes, I needed a totally different marketing plan. I just cannot believe the difference. Remember learning Lexis when we were leaving law school?

ex judicata: I sure do. I also remember researching in law school using legal treatises and case reports. Now, it’s so swift with the Internet. It’s incredible.

Velma Lee: I know. It’s amazing. But while the Internet is great for some things, it’s really bad in other ways.

ex judicata: True. We talked about challenges, the difficult parts of establishing and running your business. Now I’d like to know what you like most about what you do.

Velma Lee: Creating. My mind is always moving, thank God. The wheels are constantly turning and I’m always thinking about what I want to add, what I want to take away, and how I want to design this or that. I’m very straightforward with my clients. I always tell them if something isn’t the right style for them. I’ll tell them that’s not the design for them and I will help them select a design that will be great for them.

But creating is my favorite. My daughter Sammi wears all my dresses and my gowns to black-tie events. I don’t create her everyday wear because it’s just too time-consuming and there are very easy-to-wear clothes that you purchase wherever they go, like at Macy’s or Nordstrom. But when she wants to go to a wedding or she wants something special, I’ll make what she would like.

ex judicata: She must be like a business card for you! People see what she’s wearing and say, “Oh, wow! Where did you get that?”

Velma Lee: It’s very funny because I just delivered a dress to New York last weekend. I was doing a final fit, and it was for a former colleague of Sammi’s. Sammi said to me, “She saw this dress on me, and she wants you to design her dress for her wedding.” So I did.

ex judicata: Speaking of designing dresses, you also made Sammi’s wedding gown and her gown for the tea ceremony. Wow. The wedding gown was gorgeous, The tea ceremony gown was in red and gold. It was so vivid and beautiful on her. Well, anything is going to be beautiful on her, but your work was absolutely gorgeous. It must have been so meaningful creating the gowns for your daughter’s wedding!

Velma Lee: Oh, it was very meaningful. But I thought it was time. She was 32 and I felt she should get married.

The wedding gown was made of hand-beaded silk. It had a little scalloped embroidery, tone on tone. Then I hand-beaded all the scalloping again throughout the fabric. But there were added challenges. I did all of the wedding party’s attire, the bridesmaids’ gowns, the men’s accessories, the mother-in-law’s two dresses, and mine, of course, which I did last. Then on top of all of that, I had a full wedding the day before to get done for the daughter of the owner of Boscov’s department store, which is a family-owned group of like 50 stores in Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, and other states on the East Coast. The store owner asked me to do his daughter’s gown for a wedding scheduled for the day before my daughter’s. Hold on one second and I’ll show you something.

[Velma takes a moment to get something to show me.]

Velma Lee: [Velma holds up a magazine.] So here it is. That’s him, the Boscov’s owner, with his daughter on the cover of Pennsylvania’s Bucks County Living magazine. [Velma, please confirm the name of the publication.] You just never know when and where business will come from. Pennsylvania is a totally different state for me.

ex judicata: Wow! Aside from formal wear, what else do you create?

Velma Lee: I design and create everything, starting with the undergarments. I make killer custom body shapers. No one can make this. The fabric is very important and it’s not like Spanx, which are made to fit the masses.

So I make everything from the undergarment to the shoes to the jewelry and I do the hair styling. I’m really full-service.

ex judicata: You also did some Broadway show costumes. How did that work come to you?

Velma Lee: I did. That connection was from the Kennedy Center and the fabric house in New York where I get a lot of costume fabrics. The owner at that time knew me well and I think local people in that business recommended me.

ex judicata: One thing that has been very effective for you seems to have been building relationships with suppliers.

Velma Lee: Oh, yeah. I have suppliers who I’ve worked with for years. They can always supply what I need. I tell them exactly what I’m looking for, like a silk schmooze that’s 30 mm, which is a weightier silk schmooze. I can tell them the color, like natural white, not ivory, not cream, not paperwhite, and they will send me the pieces without me having to pay for them upfront. I can just ship back what I don’t want. So it’s really a wonderful relationship. Unfortunately, when you’ve been in business so long, people retire.

ex judicata: That must be very different.

Velma Lee: Yes because you lose that camaraderie and that business friendship.

ex judicata: Also, I think that years ago, when you went in and asked a question, you had people who were experts in their trade able to answer virtually any question you might have. You don’t tend to see that often now.

Velma Lee: True and many of the workers don’t seem to care.

ex judicata: Getting back to clients and the work you’ve done. I know you designed for a celebrity’s dog! Tell me about that.

Velma Lee: I did. And I got a Forbes article from that. The dog wearing the jacket I made was on billboards. His picture was on everything. That was Reebok and I think that was almost three years ago. Again, that came to me by word of mouth. I am a special projects person, so you can come to me, and I can do what you want. If you want shoes covered in the same fabric, if you wanted a purse and all the accessories to match your dress, I do all that too. Besides costumes, wedding gowns, suits, and all that, I can do those things too. Again, it was all my networking that led Reebok to me. They probably went down a million names because the timing was horrible.

A person from Reebok called on a Sunday night and said Reebok was collaborating with Khalid. I’m like, Khalid? I don’t know who that is. They said, “Yes, we’re doing a collaboration with Khalid and now we want his dog in the shoot.” And I’m like, “Okay. I’ll do it.”

ex judicata: You must have questioned whether this was for real.

Velma Lee: Yeah. And I don’t have a dog, you know? So I’m like, I don’t know what you’re talking about. And I don’t usually design dog clothing. I can, of course. I’ve done that in the past. One of my clients wanted raincoats for her dog. The guy from Reebok said they needed the jacket in California by Friday morning. It had to be a Reebok Vector logo tracksuit using Reebok fabric and it had to be custom embroidered. He said the vector had to be clearly seen on the little legs. I thought to myself, “Oh my Gosh, I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” But I said, yes, and then I went crazy for the next three and a half days. I didn’t sleep a wink. I designed a bunch of jackets just so that I could recut, recut, and recut, and I couldn’t wait to get the little jacket out of my house.

When Reebok got the jacket, stay said it fit perfectly! And the dog became a bigger part of the shoot than Khalid. That was so crazy, and it was right before the Grammys. Then for the Grammy giveaway, Reebok had me design 100 more of those jackets in different sizes. They went from extra small to extra, extra, extra-large. It was so crazy. But now, in retrospect, of course, it was really fun and it was an exciting three and a half days.

ex judicata: You really expanded your horizons. So I think that’s very important to be successful.

Velma Lee: Yes. I mean, it’s good to keep this old brain thinking out of the box. It gets a little scary at times. It really does.

ex judicata: Which of your legal skills, if any, have been translatable into what you’ve done since you left law? I imagine your law background would have been helpful when looking over contracts, your store lease, dealing with vendors and their contracts, and all that.

Velma Lee: I do usually have someone just check over things because my legal skills, of course, at this point are not as sharp as they were. Also, I think I am always afraid of missing something. But initially, being a lawyer helped. Even now, when my daughter Sydney got a new job as a dermatologist and had a major contract presented to her, she asked if I would look over too. I said, “Sure, but you have to get a contract attorney to look at this.” After looking it over, I told her that it doesn’t look like there was anything unreasonable. She said that’s what her attorney said too. So that’s good.

ex judicata: What do you wish you knew before you started your business?

Velma Lee: That’s a good question. I wish I knew the dynamics of this area better before I came here to Maryland. It’s an area where people are financially comfortable. I think the people in Potomac, which is where I live, are wonderful. I love being here and I love all the people who live here. I just always want to work with everyone. I make custom graduation dresses for private school students. These dresses are like wedding gowns because if you’re making something special for them, no one else can have it. No one else can have that style.

ex judicata: I guess your business is limited to your area, where you’re located, right?

Velma Lee: Actually, no, I do have clients from all over and some I never see in person. Sometimes I just see them on FaceTime.

Other times I don’t see them at all, like when I had gowns going to the Emmys. I never saw the people. But it’s wonderful to have that experience, you know? And it’s not all the time that I design for huge events. I do smaller jobs too.

So I just don’t know what’s coming next. And I treat everybody with kindness and respect and that’s important because it comes back to you.

ex judicata: What advice do you have for people who are considering going into your type of business from law? What would you tell them? What’s really important?

Velma Lee: I’d have to say that you have to be prepared to work tirelessly day and night. Owning your own business is a lot of work and trying to make clothing has its own challenges. You have to decide if you want to manufacture for the masses or create for private clients. And then you need to direct your various experiences around that.

Also, I think it is very important to deal with everyone the exact same way. Everyone is important. Everyone’s project is important. It could be a major wedding. It could be a hem on a sleeve. Everything project is important to the customer.

ex judicata: What other advice do you have? Certainly, you have to have your finances in order.

Velma Lee: You do. Also, you need to recognize that you’re not going to be a success in 10 minutes, and you need to learn how to build a business, market and network. All of that is very important. You need to build relationships and you have to be patient. You have to take pride in everything you do. Don’t ever not try something you want to do. If you want to open a business, then you should just go for it. You have to. But be reasonable about it. Take the steps that are necessary to try to create a successful business. Do the research, learn the business, and make sure you understand what will be involved. Look, I am my business. When I die, the business dies with me. That’s how it is.

ex judicata: Well, that’s true. It’s your talent. Wow. This was really, really great and it’s so good to see you.

Velma Lee: Oh, it was so fun. Thank you.

ex judicata: Thank YOU!

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