Although she has designed unique gowns, costumes and other apparel for thirty years, Velma Lee had a most unusual request when she received a last-minute call to design a costume for a dog that would bring her some unexpected attention.
The story: In February Reebok was shooting a new ad with award-winning B&B singer-songwriter Khalid for the “Sport the Unexpected” campaign. He was written up in Forbes magazine as “bringing Reebok’s timeless Classic Leather and Club C styles up a notch, bringing a bold new perspective to the initiative.” This is where Velma Lee comes in. The true focus of the campaign was not necessarily Khalid but his adorable dog Maui. Velma was contacted to design a custom-made red, blue and white tracksuit. According to Forbes, “They had to outsource special talent for this project.” Reebok even offered fans an online chance to win the limited-edition doggy track jacket for their own pet. Her work on the Khalid Reebok Collaboration was shown in Billboard, Rolling Stone Magazine, Hypebeast and Yahoo Entertainment, to name a few of the venues.
Velma is described as a “rising Mid-Atlantic designer” in the Forbes article, but that description doesn’t do her justice. She has been designing everything from wedding gowns (including modest wedding gowns for Orthodox ceremonies), and bridesmaid, mother of the bride and groom outfits, to clown costumes, gowns worn by actresses for appearances during the Tony Awards, and uniforms for the Redskins Cheerleaders. She has made everything from coverings for shoes to purses and comforters. She is also much in demand as a designer of high school graduation gowns and has outfitted young women from local schools including Holton Arms, Holy Child and Stone Ridge. Her daughters attended Holton Arms and she is the costume for the school’s Creative Summer Camp. Through this camp she met the stage manager for Disney Cruises and designed some costumes for cruise entertainers as well.
For 30 years she has been a creative designer offering bespoke outfits to her customers while she also worked as a tailor and seamstress. When potential customers come to her home office, chock-full of bolts of beautiful, unique fabrics, they sit down with her and design an outfit together. Lee usually will purchase her fabric in New York, and she makes regular trips to stores there. Sometimes she is asked to reconstruct a young bride’s grandmother’s wedding gown. Often such a job can take over 200 hours to rework the dress, match the fabric and tailor it to fit a new bride. Lee emphasizes that she designs for all sizes – she can always make an outfit work. She also works with every client to assure their purchase is within their budget. Many clients come to her and aren’t sure what they want and Lee says she often won’t sleep worrying that the outfit will please the client. She explains: “My motto is to be kind and be thoughtful. Do your best – even alterations are important. Then people will trust you.” She has even supplied shoes in a pinch. “I’m a full-service designer”, she laughs.
As a designer she didn’t foresee what would be one of her most in-demand creations: masks. When the pandemic started she was asked to design some attractive face coverings. She started with a plea from a senior living facility in Massachusetts called “Life Care”. After sewing several hundred requests came pouring in both out of state and locally as their availability spread by word of mouth. By the middle of July she had made 2,500 masks and keeps going. They have been distributed to a senior living facility in Kensington, to the post office in Potomac, to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York to a local Safeway. The demand hasn’t let up. Lee said that she often stays up all night making the masks and considers it her mission to help during this difficult time. She has made three trips to date to Massachusetts and doesn’t see herself slowing down any time soon.
Lee’s patrons are from various walks of life but she is discreet in mentioning well-known customers. She will mention how she came to display a picture of herself with the famous director Steven Spielberg in her home. Her daughter Sydney as a child had a role in “Minority Report”, Spielberg’s 2002 thriller. Fifteen years later she sold two of her “killer” body shapers to Susan Spielberg, Steven’s sister, and two to his mother Leah.
Lee’s didn’t follow a straight route to become a luxury designer. She grew up in Brocton, Massachusetts, attended Brandeis University and graduated from Rutgers Law School. After practicing law she decided she wanted a change and thirty years ago bought a children’s clothing store called “Model Child.” She said that as people came in for special orders she often had to tailor them to specific sizes. She learned how to sew from her older sister and by taking apart different outfits and studying how they were designed. After five years she sold the shop and moved to Potomac and started her own design firm.
In Maryland she raised her three daughters who are high-achievers in their own right. Velma laughs about being a “Tiger Mother” but is rightfully proud of all three. After graduating from Holton Arms in Bethesda her two oldest daughters attended the University of Maryland. Oldest daughter Sydney graduated number one inf her college class, attended NYU Medical School, and worked as an intern at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, once the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. She is now a resident dermatologist at the NYU Medical Center. Daughter Sammi is a Vice President of M&C Saachi, also in New York. Youngest daughter Spencer transferred from Harvard to the University of Florida to pursue winning a Division I National Title in collegiate tennis. She accomplished that twice and is now a Senior Analyst at Walker and Dunlop in Bethesda.