Triton 5: Ji-San Lee ’11

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Ji-San Lee ’11 holds the Runyon, a retro running shoe he designed using vegan and recycled materials. The mural behind him was painted by fellow Triton, Kent Yoshimura ’10, at the CLAE offices in L.A. Lee has been doing most of his designing at home during the pandemic.

01. What do you do? I’m the senior designer for CLAE Footwear, which means I wear multiple hats throughout the shoe design process. It mostly involves developing our lines, figuring out the color palettes, working with other designers on mood boards, and coming up with the story, the overall theme for the season—be it a material story, or color story, or other factors. Right now, for instance, a very hot topic is sustainability. So we’ve been exploring a lot in terms of materials like alternative leathers, like cactus leathers, or other recycled materials like plastic bottles.

02. Why do you do it? It’s funny; I never thought that I would end up in footwear, but I got into it through skating and sports—I was obsessed with soccer cleats, for instance, once I learned how much thought and design go into them. I think it all comes down to being a creative person. Over time, I’ve come to see designing shoes as one sort of outlet for the way I see the world. I can put my stamp on it, so that’s why I do it.

03. What have you done? I’ve had all kinds of roles in my career, from being an intern doing anything, then sales, and now design, which I love. Outside of footwear, I’m an apprentice in building motorcycles, and I do leatherwork—handmade wallets and wallet clips for my leather goods brand, Klip. It’s a common theme in design—it really doesn’t matter if it’s part of your job or just your outside interests, the creativity is always the same; it’s just something you live.

04. What did you learn here? I’m proud of my degree because engineering kicked my butt, and getting that critical thinking part down made anything else seem fun and easy. I always had a lot of interests outside my major, and I was able to indulge them at UC San Diego. My mom gave me a sewing machine in my senior year, for example—that’s how I started making wallets for friends. And with electives, I’d always go for the visual or creative ones. They taught me how to take logic and problem-solving and incorporate it into something creative—basically merging engineering and art.

05. What have you learned since? How stubborn and persistent you have to be to become a designer! But really, I learned it’s all just a journey. I didn’t know at all where I would end up, but pursuing and developing my interests, and really listening to them, that gave me an open mind as to what new things I can learn. Since then, I’ve always asked, “What else can I learn?” That mindset has really pushed me to grow, not just in my career but in all other areas of life.