“Presence/Absence”: What PHONE CULTURE Is Doing to Us | EDGE Talks To Ruree Lee

I find that sharing my personal experiences with societal issues and problems give such a special meaning and feeling to my clothes and work. I wanted to share the visualization of the difference between humanism and the world that humans created through their phones.

– Ruree Lee

Ruree Lee, designer, “Presence/Absence” | Photographer, Sukjun @Sukjun

Do you know how important touch is and how social media can impede our ability to benefit from social connection? We’re starting to see a backlash from today’s digitally saturated culture for a need for human contact.  “I realized that we are losing our humanity.  Our use of non-verbal language is leading to isolation and miscommunication”, says designer, Ruree Lee.  Inspired by her personal experience and the science fiction film “Her”, Parsons School of Design graduate, Lee, built a collection, “Presence/Absence”, illustrating how phone culture has taken over our lives, negatively impacting our well-being.

Lee captures the dynamic of people on their phones and integrates this into her design and textiles, conveying the physical detriment and emotional void one has by lack of human contact. She says in a statement about her work, “This collection portrays people who have lost the meaning of real communication and live in virtual reality. In modern society, people constantly communicate with others through their phone and try to build or maintain relationships via social media. However, there is a loss of real-time meaningful connection that creates a sense of loss. This results in loneliness and loses the meaning of deep communication and connectivity.”

South Korean-born, New York based Lee is one of the select few who build their collections through a framework of storytelling on world issues. In this case, Presence/Absence raises concern for technology and the loss of real-time human connection. Fashion has a deeper purpose when it can contribute to our culture and it has the power to transform. Presence/Absence is transformative because it calls out a societal issue, sparking conversation and behavioral change. Lee’s body of work, although aesthetically captivating, sends a strong message through design.

When you touch a person, the fingerprint doesn’t show on the skin, but you see it when you touch a phone.  I wanted to capture that moment and somehow integrate that into my collection.

– Ruree Lee

RPH: Ruree, where are you from in South Korea and at what point in your childhood or adult life did you want to pursue a fashion design career? 

RL: I’m from the countryside, a small town in South East Korea called Gochang, where I was surrounded by sea and nature. I think ever since I was young, I was into fashion. I liked to decorate myself with elements from nature. For example, I was into shells because my house was near the sea where you can to go collect shells, they were everywhere. Those beautiful colors, shapes and textures made me want to play with them. I often collected them and tried to paint them with watercolor or decorate my clothing with them. I was proud of myself for doing this from scratch.

RPH: Your passion for decorating with sea shells had something to do with a Disney princess character, right? 

RL: Now that I think about why I was so into those shells, I believe it was because of the Disney movie “Little Mermaid”.  I was thinking that I would also like to be a princess of the ocean and that I needed to decorate myself with sea creatures like the main character Ariel.

RPH: Let’s talk about storytelling and how important it is for you to be inspired, to envision what to compose.  The way you talk about your “Presence/Absence” collection, it resonates with a deeper meaning of human connection, specifically, the lack of.  What story in your childhood did you draw from to develop this concept?

RL: The starting point of the collection was a specific emotion that I remember from my youth.  Both my parents were always busy when I was young.  I always had to try to find ways to entertain myself.  I was raised by my grandfather and my parents would be home by the time I went to bed.  I didn’t really have any quality time with my parents when I was a child.  I think that developed my loneliness and desire to touch and hug all the time. My grandfather loved me very much, but I think I still needed my parents. That’s why I always want to be with my friends and family.  And when I turned 21, I came to the US.  At that time my English wasn’t very good and that turned me into an introvert.  I only wanted to contact my friends back in Korea.  So, I always had my phone on me so that I could text them at any time.  One day I looked back on myself, and I realized that getting away from the feeling of loneliness through my phone was only temporary.  I also realized the deep meaning of connection is through the eyes, to understand the soul and human contact.

Ruree Lee, designer, “Presence/Absence” | Photographer, Sukjun @Sukjun

RPH: Your experience of combating loneliness through your use of texting is the basis of this body of work. As you expressed “people are always on their phones”, and your design comes from a visual of what that looks like, right down to people’s’ posture and phone texting.  Presence/Absence offers such a contextualized dimension of texture and design that speaks to the story.

RL: Rhonda, I find that sharing my personal experiences with societal issues and problems gives such a special meaning and feeling to my clothes and work. I wanted to share the visualization of the difference between humanism and the world that humans created through their phones.  When you touch a person, the fingerprint doesn’t show on the skin, but you see it when you touch a phone.  I wanted to capture that moment and somehow integrate that into my collection.

RPH: Ahh, quite an interesting approach. In your textile and pattern development, I see your use of  abstract design? What materials were used and what does your pattern design represent?  

RL: Most of the fabrics were left over fabrics from the sample studio that I used to work at and the materials I mainly used were new wool/cotton/organza/crepe for this collection. I created my own textile with trimming sewn onto organza fabric, the fingerprint looking embroidery on wool and I made the piping with thick cotton rope to make the bold visualized textiles represent fingerprints!

Ruree Lee, designer, “Presence/Absence” | Photographer, Sukjun @Sukjun

RPH: The color palette is subdued, neutral. Is that on purpose, part of the theme?  

RL: The subdued, neutral color palette was on purpose and part of the theme … I wanted to show the contrast of neutral skin tones and the color of a dark screen that’s turned off.

Ruree Lee, designer, “Presence/Absence” | Photographer, Sukjun @Sukjun

RPH: From our talk, you mentioned that the black symbol on the pleated dress represents people’s posture while on their phones.  Explain the meaning or symbolism of the ties – the sleeves that tie around the waist and sleeves that tie at the hands.

RL: For the dress that is tied at the hands, I wanted to make a fun message. Since the dress represents “touching phones”; (the square print represents the screen and the organic embroidered shape represents the fingerprints).  I wanted to tie the hands so that you couldn’t use your phone!  So, I would say this knot symbolizes a restriction of phone usage. The other dress that has sleeves at the waist, I wanted to show the visualization of the posture of receiving a hug from the back.

Ruree Lee, designer, “Presence/Absence” | Photographer, Sukjun @Sukjun

RPH: What reads as success to you, Ruree?  To some, it may be the satisfaction of an artistic outcome, commercial success, or the connection one’s work has on those who experience it.  How do you determine success, accomplishment, or content with your work?  

RL: I think I would consider my work successful when the audience understands and empathizes with the story of my collection.

RPH: You are part of a new generation of designers who have the talent to design fashion as an art and purpose, with an ecological sense of longevity.  When I look at “Presence/Absence” and the story behind it, it matters in the framework of storytelling on relevant issues, imagination, with timeless appeal.  The industry is not friendly to this method of designing.  There is a constant battle of commercial mandates versus creativity.  What’s good for commerce minimizes innovation, curiosity, and experimentation, particularly in the mass market.  As a designer, what would you like to say about how the industry values fashion as it relates to art and culture?

RL: Rhonda, this question really represents the problem that designers face all the time.  Commercial designs are usually minimal and comfortable commercial obligations because they are favorable in the popular market.  Still, people look for clothes that they can realistically wear within the confines of societal norms and most think of clothes as a utility rather than a way to express oneself.

I regret that most people’s exposure to artful pieces of fashion is through historical pieces.  Perhaps if more meaningful pieces of fashion were more prevalent in modern culture and popular media, it would become the new norm and people would be more open minded to trying more creative fashion in everyday life.

RPH:  Well, you are preaching to the choir.  Not only am I in agreement, but the EDGE Fashion Intelligence platform helps to expose the work of contemporary talent like yours who are doing meaningful, storytelling designs, so that consumption of work like yours can be the norm.  Congratulations, Ruree!  Keep creating innovative work that speaks to our culture.

Ruree Lee, designer, “Presence/Absence” | Photographer, Sukjun @Sukjun

Ruree Lee’s “Presence/Absence” will be exhibited at Parallax Art Center, Portland, Oregon, 23 October 2023 – 26 January 2024.

More about Ruree Lee – go to Ruree Lee.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Ruree Lee, designer.  “Presence/Absence” collection.  Photographer, Sukjun @Sukjun; makeup artist, Minju Kim @m_j108; Models – Maja and Victoria Levy at Directors Model 

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Rhonda P. Hill

Founder, Publishing Editor