HONG KONG–A model flounces down the catwalk, smiles with a casual thumbs-up, and on her way back high-fives the next model coming down the runway. More like a group of friends than competitors, the women are draped in hues of wine, grey and black – pieces that are the oeuvres of young and successful Hong Kong native Civic Lee Sze-wik. The 30-year-old has a long list of accomplishments, from founding his own design label to participating in New York Fashion Week. But Lee sees design on a deeper level than what meets the eye.

‘I think that in city life, people often wear a mask and work hard to put their originality inside,’ Lee said. ‘For my clothing, I want my customer to dig deep and find the pureness within.’

Lee’s label, ‘rotten banana’, was conceived in 2005 with the idea that inside, everyone is a mix of cultures and ideas. While many American-born Chinese people are called or call themselves ‘bananas’ – yellow on the outside but white on the inside – Lee aims for the banana that is ‘rotten’ and thus a more diverse and accurate mixture on the inside.

The idea of respecting people from all walks of life is a part of his job. Apart from the clientele of his label, the designer also remembers the people who help him create his products, from the garment workers to the models wearing his clothing. ‘I ask the models to high-five each other as they walk the runway, to share instead of competing.’ As in a rotten banana, he says, ‘this imperfection is what I think is perfect’.

When he graduated from Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Lee – then focused on graphic design – travelled to New York on a year-long scholarship at Parsons The New School for Design. At the end of that year, he wanted to stay on – but the deadline for enrolment had passed, the office told him. He went back to the office day after day for over a week, each time being rejected and told to leave. Finally, one day they gave him an assignment and a short deadline – and said that his acceptance would hinge on it.

Lee, while nervous, had an idea. ‘I had observed that in the city, McDonald’s was on every street corner, eating up the city and the people who lived in it,’ he said. So he sewed for hours making clothes that he hung inside a large box painted with the logo of McDonald’s. To see the clothes, the judges had to peer inside, and be eaten by the box – just as McDonald’s was eating New York. With this kind of creativity, Lee was allowed to stay at Parsons and chose the field of fashion.

Lee continued studying fashion in New York – from Parsons on to New York University and the city’s Fashion Institute of Technology. In 2006, he received the youth design talent award from the Hong Kong Design Centre.

In four scrapbooks, Lee has followed the trajectory of his art, work, outlook and life. On the pages of one are written some facts about cicadas, insects that take 17 years to shed their exoskeletons. ‘I collected these cicada exoskeletons for five years there in New York,’ he said. He turned them into fashion, peppering two pieces of fabric with them. He then asked strangers in the city’s Union Square to be photographed in the cicada garb. He has pictures of people young and old wearing them – even one couple kissing as their arms are covered in the cicada shells.

‘I think, because of September 11, the whole city was still covered in sadness,’ said Lee, reflecting on his time in New York. ‘I thought, what can you do to change the heart and mood of the people? I realised that fashion can change your mood.’

So when severe acute respiratory syndrome hit his native Hong Kong in 2003, Lee and his friend Stanley Tang created Hongkongholic, a group for people to join to express their creativity and expose artwork to the public to lift the Hong Kong spirit. The group is a work in progress in Hong Kong, said Lee, adding that it needs more government support.

Lee plans to continue marketing his ‘rotten banana’ label, in shows around the mainland such as one he had in Guangzhou last week. In the long term, he plans to branch out from fashion. One plan, he says, is to make a film with animator Tang.

Originally published: Aug 20, 2009 by The South China Morning Post (link)