Lorraine Lee’s business, Talee, was born out of adversity. In 2010, her father, who loved the sea and was active in water sports, was diagnosed with Brugada syndrome, which severely affected his memory.
As part of his recovery process, Lee and her sister spent time with him tying nautical knots. He had learnt how to tie the knots as a boy scout and had passed the skill on to his two daughters. These practice knots were the spark of inspiration for Talee.
In 2017, her parents had travelled to Calgary in Canada for her graduation. Lee, who studied fine arts and architecture, says Canada was going through a recession then as the price of oil and gas, one of its main resources, had plunged. Many were left jobless when companies were shut down.
“It was really tough at that point for me to find something to do close to the creative side because there was no market for it,” she recalls. Lee had just been let go of by a design company that made bags, where she was part of the prototyping and production team.
After her parents returned home, Lee was at a crossroad. “Either I worked with an architectural firm, or continued doing product design. In my heart, I knew I wanted to create something that was small, meaningful and personal, but I didn’t know what.”
She thought of the knots that she and her father had tied together. “I wanted to frame those knots initially. These knots were wonky as he couldn’t remember [how to tie them] and he would stop when there were mistakes. I realised I wanted to wear them so that they would remind me of something meaningful,” she relates.
Lee fashioned one of the knots into a necklace, and wore it to the shoot of an advertisement where she was an extra. “The founders of the company asked, ‘Where’s this [necklace] from? Who made this?’ They were really curious because it was a bold necklace. And then they said, ‘We’re launching a retail store in one week. If you can come up with something, we’ll make sure it’s out there’. And, literally, in that one week, I came up with everything, without knowing where I was going to go,” she explains.
Lee decided to spend her last C$50 on a domain to display her first batch of necklaces and earrings made with knots. With no business background, she scrambled to get everything done in time. Her brand, Talee — from the Malay word “tali”, which means rope — was launched in August 2017.
The jewellery received a lot of positive feedback, which pushed her to take the venture more seriously. “I think because they’re so bold, people took a while to get used to wearing them. I came from a very sculptural point of view. I wanted to change the jewellery to still be bold but smaller. And I realised people gravitate more towards earrings,” Lee says.
To make ends meet, she also worked as floor manager at Artista, a Vancouver fashion house. After two years of juggling between the job and Talee, Lee decided to move back to Kota Kinabalu to spend more time with her father and help with the family business. Talee moved with her.
“I came back in July 2019, and pretty much restarted Talee here. The challenging part was when you’ve figured out the system but have to move it to a new place. It wasn’t foreign because it was home, but it was also foreign because Talee was new here,” she explains.
The main material for the earrings is Pima cotton from Peru or organic linen from Italy. “Initially, I wanted to find materials that imitate the idea of ropes, or allow repetition. Twining was one thing that I was looking into. And that led me to fibres, yarns and cloth,” Lee says. Not only are these materials lightweight, but they are also easy on the skin.
With the environment in mind, Talee’s earrings are made to order, ensuring as little waste as possible. Each knot comes with a story that determines the three or four colour variants for each pattern. For instance, the Wildflower collection is Lee’s farewell to Calgary as it includes the colours of prairie flowers from Canadian mountains. She makes a maximum of 30 to 40 pieces of each design to maintain their exclusivity.
In addition to the brand’s online store, local customers can get Talee earrings from Fern Batik in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur. Talee also has stockists in Canada, the US and Singapore.
Lee makes all of the jewellery by hand, but is moving towards growing the team. She also hopes to expand the product range into apparel.
Talee’s earrings may have been inspired by the wonky knots made by Lee’s father, but out of these “mistakes”, she has created something beautiful that also celebrates his journey and how far he has come.
This article first appeared on Jan 13, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.