A creative soul at heart, Lorraine Lee stumbled across the idea for her business by accident. She was inspired to create her jewellery label TALEE – a word which translates to ‘rope’ in Bahasa. Through tying knots, an activity her family used as cognitive therapy for her father’s permanent short term memory loss. Her brand was her way to self-heal and rebuild from the emotional hardship her family faced. We caught up with the Malaysian designer on a recent visit to Singapore from Canada (where she currently calls home) and found out more about the journey.
She studied printmaking and architecture
“I’m an arts-focused, creative thinker, and was always exposed to a lot of material experimentation. During my academic years, I was a printmaker. I experimented a lot with etching, fibre and metal works. Overall, I’ve always been fascinated by how things are made from scratch.”
Her first job sparked her passion for handcrafting
“Before Talee, I hadn’t worked with yarn or even really sewn before. After studying printmaking, I attended architecture school which introduced me to the digital world – another medium I dived into. Following that, I got a job with a Canada based bag company called Mother Co in design production and prototyping. I worked with leather and canvas, and would make their bag samples from scratch.”
A time of emotional hardship in her family inspired Talee
“My dad suffered short term memory loss brought about by a cardiac arrest, and we later found out he had a rare heart condition called Brugada Syndrome. After realising his memory loss was permanent, my family had to adapt to a new way of living and I guess, individually find our own ways to heal.
After some time, we realised that he was able to retain information better when stimulating more than one sense at once, and so now and again, we used to give him a bunch of ropes to tie. He used to be a boy scout and as a boating family we grew up on the water, so it was always something he loved to do. To me, tying knots with him felt like a moment that I could stop time.
One particular occasion, when he and my mum came over to Canada from Malaysia for my graduation, I picked up some of the offcuts from one of our knot sessions and became inspired to create something from them. Tying those first knots with my dad and eventually building Talee into what it is today really has, for me, represented healing through making.”
“Tying those first knots with my dad and eventually building Talee into what it is today really has, for me, represented healing through making.”
She launched the business with just $50!
“I never intended to rush into building a brand. $50 was just enough to create a website and buy my domain name and first production materials. At first, I created a necklace design from the knots. A few people found it really eye-catching, and I started taking orders from family and friends. Then I began experimenting with a silhouette for earrings, which took off. It wasn’t until demand really increased though I thought it could actually become a real business venture!”
Movement and form always inspire her design
“I’m driven by form before material. When it came to designing our ARU loops, for example, I had a vision of how I wanted the piece to hang on the ear; how its silhouette would hang, how it would sway with your body.
I also knew from experience I didn’t like heavy materials and wanted to look for something lightweight. I knew the material I used would need to hold the form nicely. That’s what led me to experiment with yarns and pearl cotton. I also loved the idea of the product being washable, and in general wanted to step away from the typical material used for jewellery like ceramic, precious stones or pearls.”
Lorraine with women in a rural community in Sabah, crafting TALEE’s jewellery dust bags
Giving back is a must, not an option
“I think we should all strive to leave some sort of footprint in the world and be socially responsible. In March 2018, I began working with Sabah Women Entrepreneur & Professionals Association (SWEPA), an NGO that empowers female entrepreneurs to retain active roles in their own economic development. This non-profit works with individuals in impoverished communities. They also teach them hard skills like handicraft making, agriculture, sewing and bee harvesting.
We now partner with SWEPA on their ENRICHE program. They provide opportunities for women in the villages to develop confidence in their sewing skills. One group have learned basic sewing techniques to produce our TALEE – LIFE pouches; jewellery dust bags that come with each earring purchase.”
Being patient has helped her brand grow
“I’ve always been quite organised and business-minded at a young age. But I think the one thing I practice well is patience. I’ve decided to stick to that attitude, despite the millennial pace we live at now. I take time to post photos, I will wait for the right stockists, interview or trade show to come along. I’m willing to let in the best opportunities that match my values, rather than being seen everywhere and anywhere.
Her tip for new entrepreneurs…
“Stay open-minded and learn from other industries. They may open different doors to you, and you might discover something that could improve how you run your business. Just because you work in the fashion industry, doesn’t mean you only have to network within the same bubble.”
SWEPA information kindly provided by Krystal Leung
Shop the collection by Talee here.
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Susannah believes better design can help create a brighter future. A former magazine editor, she now runs ZERRIN and works at the intersection of consumers, brands and sustainability advocacy.