#fashion: Sau Lee is fashion’s meeting point between East and West

Drawing inspiration from Hong Kong’s unique East-meets-West culture, Sau Lee’s founder-designer Cheryl Leung has been creating dresses that make women feel good and look good for the past eight years. She speaks to Zaneta Cheng about making it in the US, expanding her brand in Asia, and why bigger and bolder are the keywords of the season

Cheryl Leung celebrated the Year of the Water Rabbit with a hotpot party in Wan Chai. The founder of Sau Lee toasted to the new lunar year and to eight years of her brand with champagne and tequila along with over 60 of Hong Kong’s socialites and influencers amid steaming metal tubs of chicken soup with fish maw and mala. It’s likely the Leung of years past wouldn’t have guessed the success she would achieve from the dress samples she would ask her local tailor to make for weddings and events, or even when she began selling at pop-ups in Hong Kong markets.

But in the span of a decade, Leung has made her way from pop-up to wholesale, from cold-calling buyers to building a sizeable brand presence in the US as well as establishing a manufacturing infrastructure in China – all out of a desire to build a global business specialising in clothes that bridge East and West.

It’s a principle she hasn’t deviated from in all this time. “It’s been pretty easy because I grew up in Hong Kong and what I wanted from the brand has always stayed the same,” Leung says when asked whether she ever considered adjusting her perception of East and West. “I always saw that there was a missing piece. I was born in the US and I grew up in Hong Kong. I have a very strong Chinese identity, but I relate to a more Western sensibility and I wasn’t really seeing something in the market that represented this very multicultural point of view.

“I think there are a lot of brands that are either very traditional, which is amazing and really captures the traditional craftsmanship of Chinese design, and then there are brands that are just more Western but I didn’t really see anything in the middle. That kind of hasn’t changed. For me, it’s all about trying to capture and be inspired by some of the Chinese craftsmanship that I really appreciate and being able to deliver and portray it in a way that is international and relatable to everyone globally.”

Aside from Hong Kong, Leung most wanted to secure the brand’s presence in the United States, where it now performs most successfully – “to be honest, the US is one of the biggest markets in the world that I wanted to hit. I tried to secure our footprint there because I think it’s a tough market. But if you can make it in the US, my line of thinking was that you can really make it anywhere.”

Seen on the likes of influencers such as Jessica Wang, Devin Brugman and Tina Leung, the brand has evolved and grown in response to the US market, which can account for Leung’s more daring design choices. “Because the US is our main customer base and I think they actually respond really well to sexiness – I think the women in the US are very open to showing themselves and they’re very confident, which I love – we did take inspiration from that,” says Leung.

“I think aside from that we have a big Asian-American following, which I guess is not surprising but really inspiring, so maybe four or five years ago I started Asian-American bridal, which has become a strong category for us. I think for those customers, they want something to represent a bit of their culture, a touch or an element of where they’re from ethnically, but nothing extremely traditional, so the success of this has been quite nice and a very good insight for us.”

Still, Leung hasn’t forgotten this side of the pond. Sau Lee remains headquartered in Hong Kong, where the founder has an office in PMQ, home to many local brands. The Chinese New Year celebration confirms this, with a fanbase of celebrities and influencers including Fiona McLeish, Irisa Wong and Elly Lam all attending dressed in their Sau Lee best.

“We’re still looking to continue our expansion within the US but this year one of our main priorities is to actually focus on Asia. We love Asia, it’s such a huge part of our inspiration. The product fits really well for the consumer here so it’s somewhere we’re looking to invest in quite heavily this year – and also just globally in general. We already have a little footprint in the UK, a little footprint in Europe, the Middle East a little bit, so we’re really looking to translate it into a real global brand,” says Leung.

As Sau Lee continues to grow, Leung remains steadfast to her original design ethos. “A huge part of our brand is making women feel good and empowered, but I think it’s more about each collection and which piece speaks to me – where I think there’s value added in more obvious Chinese elements. I also draw a lot of inspiration from the charm of showing off a woman’s curves like the slits, those cheong-sam thigh-highs. They might not be as obviously Chinese but they’re still there,” she explains.

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Leung’s commitment to femininity is equally steadfast. Given the brand’s focus on dresses for as long as it’s been in operation, and Leung’s ability to speak to women across geographical boundaries, Sau Lee’s strength lies in the designer’s belief that her pieces empower young women and help them feel good about themselves. “I think I’ve always been a feminist,” she says.

“In terms of the brand and its take on femininity, I think that’s changed over the years because when I started I was really into ’50s style, like the tiny waists and mini skirts. With trends and with time, I’ve actually found that I’ve leaned into sexier designs because, honestly, I just want to feel good and sexy about myself. I’ve leaned into that and my friends have as well.

“When I was younger it was more about trying to look really grown-up and elegant whereas now it’s more about showing it off because our bodies aren’t going to stay the same. Show off what you work for and what you feel good about, and accentuate the areas that you feel great about.

“I always try to have designs that cater to different body types. I think there are parts of a woman’s body that are very sexy, like the collarbone and a sliver of midriff, and I have friends or customers who come in and whom I try to push towards something new. They might be a bit hesitant to try, say, cut-outs but then they’ll try something on and find that they feel really sexy and good about themselves. I find that really rewarding because I designed the pieces for women to feel good about themselves so I pick areas of the body that I’d like to show off and that’s how I want the dresses to make everyone feel.”

For the coming seasons, Leung says Sau Lee is going to be all about “super vibrant colours and really over-the-top drama.” Post- Covid, girls just want to dress up and have fun, she says, and if the enthusiasm with which the attendees at the Chinese New Year hotpot embraced their sequins and feathers, thigh-high slits and miniskirts are anything to go by, Sau Lee’s post-Covid Year of the Water Rabbit wardrobe will be one we’re all going to want to get our hands on.

Photos courtesy of Sau Lee

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