Style

Jenni Lee Is Changing Fashion From the Ankle Up

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style points

Style Points is a weekly column about how fashion intersects with the wider world.

“A lot of stylists that I know keep trunks” full of socks, says designer Jenni Lee. “They hoard them because they don’t know when they’re going to come across another really good one.” And when they do, they obsess over every detail, from ribbing to weight. “My theory,” she hazards, “is that they see so many clothes, they appreciate the simple little luxuries more.” It doesn’t hurt that a sock remains the ultimate runway styling hack, whether used to perfect coquettecore effect at Sandy Liang or paired with a preppy loafer at Gucci’s recent cruise show in London.

Lee shares the obsession, so much so that she assembled her own hoard. Having not been able to find styles she liked stateside, she began collecting them on trips to Korea. “When people think of socks, especially in the U.S., you imagine kitschy socks with cats printed on them,” she says. As she collected higher-quality styles, she developed more and more opinions. Which led to the question so many designers arrive at: What if I designed the [fill in the blank] I want to wear?

a wooden box with books inside

Courtesy of the brand

Artfully arranged socks at Comme Si’s Brooklyn store.

After emailing Italian factories and not receiving a response, she decided to drop in while on vacation there. “I plugged them in on a map, my husband and I rented a car, and we stopped by each one. I was like, ‘I’m just going to show up. If somebody wants to talk to me, great.’” Two of those factory owners are her partners now, but initially, she was met with skepticism and told that women wouldn’t spend money on a high-end sock. People also told her that the category was volatile, because trends are apt to change much more quickly in the women’s space. But, she says, “I had a conviction that there were other women like me who wanted what I was about to create.”

Socks are an item that seem deceptively simple but are hard to get right—especially when you’re a perfectionist to the degree that Lee is. Hers went through multiple rounds of beta testing. “Because it’s a small item, you’d think it would be easy, but it’s actually harder because it is so small,” she says. “A change in the weight of the yarn makes it feel like a slightly different style of a sock. I spent a lot of time on material, because hand-feel is super important. And then, obviously, foot-feel.”

text

Courtesy of the brand

A sock display at the store.

At $60 for a ribbed silk style and $90 for cashmere, that exquisite foot-feel comes at a high cost, but Lee defends the price point. “If I wanted to sell cheaper socks, I would have to make them more cheaply and not in Italy. I understand the hesitance there, but I do think that people appreciate what they’re paying for and understand it.

“The beautiful thing about fashion,” she adds, “is that it’s an emotional business. There’s no logic for why people should spend this amount of money on the things that they do, but there’s a lot of art and consideration that goes into how people dress, and how it makes them feel, how it makes others feel, how it inspires them.”

a woman posing in front of a wall with a pink object

Marco Galloway

Designer Jenni Lee.

If the idea of the lipstick index, in which customers start to substitute small luxuries for bigger ones, returns to fashion, a bright sock might also elicit the same dopamine hit as a bright tube. “Little luxury and everyday luxury are phrases we use often,” Lee says. “A lot of people are used to wearing their exercise tube sock and throwing on a nice shoe with it. And what we are offering is: ‘No, your nice shoe deserves a nice sock.’”

a woman holding a white lamb

Courtesy of the brand

An campaign image from Comme Si’s Liberty collaboration.

Lee has expanded her empire beyond socks, but she’s done it cautiously. She started with loungewear, including her smash-hit cotton poplin boxers, which are meant to be a street style statement. Her collaborations, too, have been few and well-thought-out. She teamed up with Liberty on pieces in their signature cheerful floral fabrics, a partnership that she says will be ongoing. She also recently linked up with the Swiss brand USM Modular Furniture. “It is a little strange, a sock brand and a furniture brand,” she admits. “But what made it make sense is, our customer is buying their furniture. This person is curating their life with intention, and it goes from their home all the way down to the socks that they wear.”

a room with a desk and a chair

MARCO_GALLOWAY

Comme Si teamed up with furniture brand USM Modular Furniture for an unexpected collaboration.

And she’s opened a haven-like store in Brooklyn, something that has been a dream of hers since the beginning. “I love the idea of having a brand that people want to experience in real life,” she says, adding that she modeled her outpost after calzaturas, sock-specific shops in Italy, including Gammarelli, the famed Roman outpost that outfits the Pope.

But the way she really knows she’s succeeded: things have come full circle and Comme Si is stylist-approved; her wares have been added to countless trunks and kits. (“They photograph really well. You can tell when something looks cheap,” she notes.) Ayo Edebiri and Emma Stone are among those who’ve recently worn Lee’s designs. Stylists “get really excited to introduce it to their clients, because I think they understand that they’re sitting on set all day and would appreciate this little luxury.”

There used to be a different tinge to the holiday refrain of, “Oh great, I got socks again,” but now, they have cachet. I have a friend,” jokes Lee, “who said, ‘You know you’re 30 when being gifted really nice socks is actually a treat—not an eye roll.’”

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