Author Min Jin Lee: ‘Dua Lipa and Beyoncé give me hope for the next generation’
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My personal style signifier is a vest, or a jacket over a white dress shirt and jeans. Sometimes, I wear both a vest and a jacket. Like a lot of women, I have mild body dysmorphia. Like most writers, I live in my head, and I try to forget my body by padding it with layers. I also wear Gabriella Kiss earrings or a pair of Ted Muehling hoops.
The last thing I bought and loved was a charcoal-grey pinstripe Margaret Howell blazer. When I am in London, I buy her clothes at Liberty.
My favourite building is the Neue Galerie on the Upper East Side. What I like is the interior by Annabelle Selldorf. I can’t figure out why exactly, but what I yearn for is how I feel in that building. I live in a large, creaky old house in Harlem, which I adore. However, if I won the lottery, I wouldn’t mind having a second home designed by Selldorf, which I imagine might feel like how I feel in the Neue Galerie – calm, restrained and light.
And the best souvenir I’ve brought home is from my honeymoon in 1993. In Venice, Chris [Duffy] and I spent what seemed like a king’s ransom on Faenza-Garofano handpainted ceramics from a small shop near the Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. At great expense, we had them shipped to New York. Every time I set the table and use our dishes, I remember my first trip to Italy as a newlywed.
The best book I’ve read in the past year is The Persuaders by Anand Giridharadas, which I loved. I was moved by these real-life profiles of iconoclastic individuals who were willing to cross the aisle and engage a person who seemed directly opposed to their point of view. As the world appears more frightful, I am drawn to this idea of reconciliation.
The best gift I’ve given recently was a birthday pick-me-up I sent to a good friend, the Westman Atelier Lip Suede in Les Nudes with a lip brush, which I also have myself. And I like to give Vosges caramel marshmallows. Vosges Caramel Marshmallows, $34 for box of nine. Westman Atelier Lip Suede, £78, cultbeauty.co.uk
And the best gift I’ve received is an extraordinary pair of toshi from my friend Miri Kim, the culture writer for The Chosun Ilbo in Seoul. These traditional, colourful wrist cuffs from the Joseon dynasty were handsewn by Lee Jiyoung, a hanbok [traditional Korean dress] designer. They are gorgeous and useful.
The place I look forward to returning to next is Jeju, a gorgeous volcanic island in South Korea. I visited Jeju in 2008 and have longed to return since then. I adored exploring extraordinary Halla Mountain and its lava tubes. The next time I get to Korea, I am also determined to return to the seaside city of Busan, where my mother was born, then fly on to Jeju, which takes about an hour.
I have a collection of tailored pieces by Thom Browne, whose work does not seem to go out of fashion. Ever since 2006, when it was just menswear, I have been slowly amassing a collection. Each item is costly, but I find that his clothing is beautifully sewn and works well with items from past and current seasons.
The last music I downloaded was “Cold Heart” by Dua Lipa and Elton John. And also “Renaissance” by Queen Beyoncé. Dua Lipa and Beyoncé are intelligent, vital and give me hope for the next generation. I love the track “America Has a Problem” and the line “Know that booty gon’ do what it want to” is just delightful.
In my fridge you’ll always find eggs, broccoli, bacon, goat’s cheese and Momofuku chilli crunch. In my cupboard, there are always crackers and boneless, skinless sardines. I am fond of sardines on buttered crackers with chilli crunch. I love potato chips, too.
I’ve recently discovered Atoboy, a terrific, deeply satisfying restaurant in NoMad, owned by the creative couple Ellia and Junghyun Park. For a fairly reasonable prix-fixe, you can dine like a prince and his friends. They also own Atomix, which has two Michelin stars, and they’ve opened Naro in Rockefeller Center.
The thing I couldn’t do without is white shirts. I’ve worn them since university and am routinely adding to my collection – it’s my most Gatsby-esque quality. My favourite is the NL shirt by Nili Lotan. It is cut narrowly and has long cuffs, which I never button. For summer, I have discovered that Brooks Brothers has a reliable Irish linen shirt, which can be monogrammed.
An indulgence I would never forgo is salted butter. In the freezer, I have several pounds of Kerrygold Irish grass-fed butter.
The last item of clothing I added to my wardrobe was a pair of Chimala jeans. When I lived in Japan about 10 years ago, I bought a pair, which I wore down to the threads. Recently, I learnt that at 180 The Store in Tribeca there is an impressive array of Japanese selvedge denim jeans. The price tag is shocking. Well, at least to this writer. I am sorry but you may need them. I am glad I have a new pair. Chimala denim jeans, from $440, 180thestore.com
An object I would never part with is a dark green ceramic plate my mother gave me that belonged to my maternal grandmother, who I never met. She died when my mother was at university. The Korean war destroyed so much of the real and personal property of my grandparents’ generation, and this dish is the sole remnant object that belonged to her.
In another life, I would have been a cabinetmaker. As a child, I wanted to make chairs, desks and bookshelves. In high school, I took a class called Scientific Technical Laboratory, which was woodworking with electricity. I loved this class, where I made a psychedelic infinity mirror. At university, I thought I might be an architect, but then I met real architecture students and architects, which chastened me because there seemed to be so much hardship and delay. I admire anyone who can make things from their original vision to the final product. As I get older, I realise that execution is important in anything creative.
My favourite room in my house is my study, and if I could, I would stay in my house all the time, shuffling between my bedroom, study and kitchen. The other rooms seem extraneous. My study is quiet, its walls lined with my current research books, and there is a brown sofa for napping. I have two teddy bears from my husband to cheer me. It faces south, so there is usually lovely morning and afternoon sun streaming through the two windows.
My beauty and wellbeing gurus include Mamoru Takahashi, an elegant hairstylist who works at Hisako Salon in midtown. I think I have been going to him for more than two decades. He’s flawless. If I could, I would live next door to him, so I could always look clean-cut. After I had my son in 1998, I developed some serious health issues, which required me to go to a rheumatologist. She told me to start Pilates, which I knew nothing about. Eventually, I met Steven Fetherhuff, a brilliant Pilates teacher at NoHo Pilates, who has taught me how to properly walk, climb stairs, carry things and sit. Hisako Salon, hisakosalon.com. Steven Fetherhuff, hss.edu/rehab-staff_fetherhuff-steven.asp
The books that changed everything for me are Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde and The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin – I learned how to be a political person by reading them. Middlemarch by George Eliot is my favourite novel – for me, Eliot, above all other writers in the English language, has set the standard in writing a novel about individuals in a community.
The skincare staple I’m never without is SK-II Facial Treatment Essence. I have changed creams, but the Essence has stuck around for a dozen years. I think it works. $130, sk-ii.com
When I need to feel inspired, I walk in the city. I walk from Harlem, downtown toward Battery Park City. I just walk until I cannot walk any more. It is impossible not to feel different after walking in New York.
The place that means a lot to me is the borough of Queens in New York City, where I grew up. It is considered one of the most linguistically and ethnically diverse places in the world. In. The. World. The fancy bit of Queens is Forest Hills, where it’s worth getting to Eddie’s Sweet Shop, an iconic ice-cream parlour, which makes its own ice cream, whipped cream, syrups and hot fudge. You will also find the best Korean, Chinese and Latin American food there.
My style icons are Jenna Lyons and Eva Chen, who are both iconic women. What I admire about them is how they seem like themselves. It isn’t so much that I want to look like them or to dress in their style; rather, I like that they seem comfortable being playful, which makes them cool and elegant.
The podcasts I’m listening to are many because I am always in transit. For tech and business, there’s Pivot with Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway. For law and government, Stay Tuned with Preet with former US Attorney Preet Bharara. For creativity, I turn to Design Matters with Debbie Millman. For screenwriting, Scriptnotes with John August and Craig Mazin is very good. For television, TV’s Top 5 with Lesley Goldberg and Daniel Fienberg. For news and politics, The Ezra Klein Show is excellent.
The one artist whose work I would collect if I could is Jacob Lawrence, especially something from his Migration series, or a larger oil painting by Kim Tschang-Yeul of his famous waterdrops, or perhaps an angry little girl in a pinafore by Yoshitomo Nara. There are too many artists whose work I’d love to live with.
The best bit of advice I ever received was to choose the important over the urgent. I heard this bit of advice from a sermon decades ago. Apparently, Eisenhower said something like this, too, which I find interesting. I like this advice especially now, as the world rushes at us with its endless distractions. Knowing what is important makes the urgent things seem rather trivial.