Q&A with author and host of new CBC radio show, JJ Lee

Dec 19 2017, 11:18 am

It´s said that “you are what you eat,” but is it also true that you are what you wear? Award winning writer and host of the new CBC show Head to Toe, host JJ Lee wants the public to know that what we wear matters.

Lee describes his relationship with fashion as both a push and a pull – the velocity at which garments are created and the incredible people that continue to arise is catapulting at a rate this is almost too fast to grasp as a business and a culture.

And yet, he says that it is within this beautiful nest of the fashion world and all that it creates in its seemingly chaotic unveiling that he finds the craft he loves; the attention to detail, the commitment to creating beautiful things, and the amazing dignity it takes to make goods and clothes that are iconic and can last a lifetime.

“When fashion becomes style…that’s what I love,” he says. And so we delve into the mind of the man who sees clothing not just as cloth, but as our true skin.

Nicolle: What, in your opinion, has been one of the best and worst fashion trends over the past decade?

JJ: Easy. The worst is the low-waisted suit pant. The buttons on the jacket went up, the belt-line went down and a ridiculous triangle of shirt emerged like so many white-bellied flycatchers. I know everyone makes fun of the pants in “Her” but there’s something to be said of a nice, old-timey Spencer Tracy-like rise.

The best, and this is how you know I’m most a menswear guy, is the long resurgence of the brown leather lace-up shoe. A brogued, wing-tip in caramel…is there a better summer shoe?

And much like a timeless style, it is the memory of having a chance to write his 2011 memoir, The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit, that lasts in Lee´s mind as a defining moment, unfaded by the passing of time; fitting always like that perfect shoe. But the memory does not hold its vibrant color because he had become a published author; that would be too obvious.

“Instead, it was the time and reflection I put into remembering my father, recasting our relationship,” says Lee. “When I started writing it, I thought I was a bad apple from a bad tree. Writing the book, taught me that my father, who was a very fine dresser I should add, is an orchard. And now, I cultivate the best part of him in me and I don’t think of myself as a bad seed. Writing the book taught me that.”

Nicolle: What kind of power does clothing have on our every day lives?

JJ: Take a pocket square, the one that makes you so suave and turn it into a triangle. Cover your mouth with it. Now, you are a bandit. Take the same piece of fabric and pull it over your head and knot it in the back. Now, you’re Rosie the Riveter. Again, move that tiny bit of cloth to tie around your bare neck…your sexually provocative. Knot that silk around your neck but this time tie it over your shirt but under your collar. Now you’re a Scout or a Girl Guide. A kerchief is maybe sixteen inches of textile and it can change the reading of your gender, sexuality, class, merely by changing where you decide to put it. It has power.

Now, along with producers Kaj Hasselriis and Andrew Friesen, Lee will explore the emotions, stories, and psychology of why we wear what we wear in Head to Toe on CBC Radio One.

“Every week I ask people what are they wearing and jump into pretty deep conversations about what motivates us to wear the clothes that we do,” he says.

Perhaps it is for love, to impress, to hide, to disappear, and for all of the millions of reaons in between, that decide the fate of our wardrobe. He says that for each reason there is a personal story and when people talk about their clothes in a deep, reflective way, it is beautiful.

Nicolle: If you could describe yourself with an article of clothing or accessory, what would it be and why?

JJ: If an alien laser weapon reduced me to a single garment (the way it would in a Bugs Bunny cartoon), all there would be a top the pile of dust that was me, would be a hand knotted bow tie. A clip on would be entirely wrong.

The bow tie would suggest I am nostalgic, a bit off or funny, and have a desire to please, for better or worse.

One may argue that airing a show about clothes on the radio is a disadvantage, especially when the content matter is so visually driven. Lee, on the other hand, believes that a radio show about clothes and fashion is desperately needed.

“It’s hard to reach the soul through a television or computer screen; radio goes through the ear and connects directly to the heart,” he says. “Finally, there’s a venue, Head To Toe, to talk about what really matters in clothes. Enough eye candy. It’s time to engage our minds and spirit when talking about fashion. Radio does that and I hope we do too.”

Nicolle: With “thrifting” being a large part of the clothing culture, do you expect to hear stories with more history if the clothing has been worn before or can brand new clothing hold the same personal value?

JJ: It only takes one pivotal experience to make a garment memorable. But thrifting is, I agree, a fascinating part of how we dress now. It’s destigmatized and holds so much mystery. Who wore it before? How did it get here? But in the end, the magic of a garment mostly comes from wearing it. And the thing about clothes is it is armour. It protects you. It takes you places and when that happens, stories happen.

Lee says he is glad to be back with his colleagues at the CBC, where he began his career in 1997 as a contributor.

“I’m also excited to share the intimate insights that regular people and social scientists have about clothes. I’m excited that when listeners hear Head To Toe, they’ll never look at the clothes in their closet the same way ever again.”

JJ Lee is introducing the new rules of “who, what, wear, when, and why.” So next time you put on that dress, those shoes, that tie, those slacks, believe that beauty is not just on the inside anymore.