ExPats: Margaret McDowell Lee
Updated: Aug 2
designer Showcases New Line and Southern Tier Models at New York Fashion Week
The Southern Tier will be well-represented at 2022 New York Fashion Week when former Elmiran Margaret McDowell Lee showcases Just BE., her latest fashion line, on September 10, along with a slate of models from the region, who will wear her high fashion concept designs on Runway 7.
“First, I’m excited to offer the opportunity again, with Jordan Brooks, for some people from our community to participate,” Margaret said.
She’s collaborating with Brooks, who facilitates a Fashion Club and Model Bootcamps in the Southern Tier when he’s not working on his fashion and entertainment career in L.A., to provide local area models with the opportunity to walk the runway in a New York Fashion Week show.
“You have the opportunity, for New York Fashion Week, to hire professional models. They send you a list, you can interview them and hire professional models,” Margaret explains. “But, for me, I just want authenticity.”
This is Margaret’s second time at New York Fashion Week. In 2021, she attended the iconic event to show her athletic-wear line. In a nod to mentor Tommy Hilfiger, Margaret enlisted amateur models to showcase her empowering line.
It was the fashion icon and local legend who had chosen Margaret to be one of his runway models for a show in the 1980s, when she was a teen.
“Tommy Hilfiger was the first person to give me an opportunity to walk in a fashion show at the Clemens Center. I was such a shy, introverted person growing up,” she says.
“My family encouraged me to try to get into a fashion show he (Hilfiger) was holding an open call for. I remember, I went to the open call and I left because everyone there looked like supermodels. Tall, thin – I’m short, five-one and-a-half, and I’m probably pushing the half,” she laughed.
“I went and I didn’t think that I fit in, so I left. I called my mom on the pay phone and I was crying, and she said, ‘Just go back in and do your best. Just do it, and if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.’ So, I went and I did it, and I left.”
The wait to find out if Margaret made the cut was nerve-wracking.
“I remember, all of my friends that had tried out were getting calls back that they’d made it, and I hadn’t heard anything back in about four days. But, surprisingly, on my 16th birthday, I was having dinner with my family. He (Hilfiger) called to let me know that I was in the fashion show! He specifically waited for my birthday. I don’t know if it was from my interview, when I filled out my card and, talking about my confidence and that my birthday was coming up, but it was the greatest birthday present!” she said.
Before then, she hadn’t had experience modeling but had competed in some beauty pageants.
“Going into it, I was terrified," she says. “I think he (Tommy) could tell that I was shy and not confident, and he just boosted my self esteem."
"He signed my model photo with ‘Margaret moves. Walk, Girl!’
While that was the only exposure to modeling she’d had up until that time, the experience stayed with her.
Now, after a whirlwind life that’s involved spending time abroad in Italy and a relocation to the West Coast to raise a family, Margaret's ready to take on one of the fashion world’s biggest events for the second year in a row. Also for the second time, she’s inviting models from the Southern Tier to showcase her designs.
“Just BE. is scholarshipping six spots for them to walk in,” Margaret said, smiling. “We’re covering their hotel, professional makeup and professional hair … I’m excited."
"It’s going to be an experience of a lifetime for those kids and an experience they’ll never forget!”
Margaret was born in 1972 and raised in Elmira, N.Y.
“For me, Elmira was a safe place ... and it was always about family,” she says.
“For me, growing up in Elmira was all about community. You know, your neighbors were looking out for you. Everyone was your ‘Auntie’ or your ‘Uncle’ … it just felt like family to me.”
Photos provided. Fashion designer Margaret McDowell Lee grew up in Elmira and, although she now lives in Sacramento, CA, she hasn't forgotten where she came from.
She attended Ernie Davis Middle School and graduated from Elmira Free Academy with the Class of 1990.
“I got married at the young age of 20, and I moved to Italy for two years,” she says. “My husband’s job – he’s like the FAA of airplanes but for light rail vehicles and for passenger movers, like you find at the airport.”
It was when she moved abroad that Margaret became inspired by the fashion she was suddenly immersed in.
“Italy is just like Paris. It’s one of the fashion capitals of the world. I got to visit places like the Gucci factory, and I visited Milan. Just the style and the way they embrace fashion – it made me fall in love.”
The fashion and fashion sense of the Italians intrigued her.
“It made me look outside of what I was used to wearing and dressing like, stateside.” “I can remember growing up I wanted to fit a certain style because everyone else was wearing it,” she explains. “But in Italy and in other countries, it’s really just about what they feel good in. You can see that. Especially for women. Just the way that they express themselves.”
Growing up, Margaret’s sense of fashion had been less about her own individual style.
“I could always remember thinking I had to match everything and had to have a certain name brand and wear a certain type of shoes,” she explained. “But there, anything goes. So, if you wanted to put on a pair of shorts with boots that came up to your thighs with a cowboy hat – that was OK there.”
Her time in Italy also influenced the fashion line that Margaret would come to create, Just BE., which she started to combat the self doubt she was feeling.
“I’m always known for my smile. People always tell me that I smile a lot and I have a beautiful smile. And I was wearing that to cover all the sadness and lack of confidence that I had in myself. And it had been going on for years,” she said. “Up until October 2020, I remember, I was just in a really dark place. I wasn’t feeling good about myself. I wasn’t feeling good about life.”
In that dark moment, Margaret found the clarity to ask herself some hard questions.
“Why don’t you love yourself? Why don’t you think it’s OK to love yourself?” she thought. “I pour so much into everyone else, and I’m always giving and making sure everyone else feels confident.”
“I coached competitive cheer for 22 years, and that was my goal with cheerleading – is making sure that the girls knew that it was about more than the sport, but loving themselves and being confident in who they were. But I wasn’t doing that.”
“I thought about how sometimes society makes you feel like, if you’re self confident or you’re loving yourself, that you’re conceited. I think that’s what I didn’t want to portray, that I was conceited and I wasn’t humble.”
When Margaret made the conscious realization that she’d let external opinions affect her mental and emotional well-being, an urge to express herself and what she calls “the Rebel” arose and birthed the fashion line Just BE.
“It’s OK to love yourself. That’s when the rebel came out. I thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to do this. I’m going to live the way I encourage other people to live.’ That’s how it (Just BE.) came about. The idea was ‘Be a rebel and love yourself’.“
Initially, Margaret came up with the idea for a t-shirt that was, originally, just for herself, her friends and family.
“We just made a simple black and white t-shirt and, as I was designing it with my son Lain Lee, III, who helps put it all together, then I thought ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be great to have, ‘Be a Rebel. Love yourself’ down the side of your leggings?”
What started as a personal project to create a t-shirt with a positive message became a fashion line that celebrates individuality and self-expression.
“I was giving it away at first … and they were getting a lot of compliments,” Margaret said. “Then I thought, ‘I should make a brand, a clothing line called Just BE., for people to 'just be' who they are.’“
“I started with that, and I started out with athletic wear. But then we moved into being able to offer clothes for all sizes, all races, all different types of fashion style because athletic wear was a little limited,” she explains.
Photos provided. Fashion designer Margaret McDowell Lee showing off a variety of her designs, accepting accolades after her 2021 NYFW show (top center), and the models (bottom center), many of whom are from the Southern Tier and walked her NY fashion runway in 2021.
Just BE. is a family affair. Margaret and her son, Lain Lee, III, collaborate on the line’s custom designs. Her daughter, Lauren Lee Boyd, runs the business side of Just BE as co-director, in addition to modeling and serving as the Just BE ambassador.
“The pieces I put out are pieces you can wear every day,” Margaret says. “Even with the high fashion, even though it’s a little bit different, it’s my interpretation of high fashion. It’s things you can still wear – you can walk off the runway and wear it out to dinner or wherever.”
“For me, BE is just about the everyday girl. It’s about self confidence, about being yourself. Owning that you love yourself and the body that you’re in,” she explains.
“Our girls, we have a couple of hours to rehearse and get them familiar with the runway. But what we put down is what BE stands for – It’s just being authentic. Being who you are and that’s what you can expect whenever we do a show. Especially at NYFW.”
“The first time I went to NYFW, I went with eight girls and I had 10 looks. And I made sure that four of them came from the Elmira area and then the other four came from California, New York and other places.”
To recruit models for her first New York Fashion Show in 2021, Margaret put the word out on social media and through her personal network.
“It (first New York Fashion Show) was unbelievable. I loved that it was so intimate and small,” she said. “I remember us walking in and there were, again, all these tall models. I had that same feeling from when I was with Tommy – Am I in the right place? Do I fit in here?, and I had to do that self-talk and say, ‘You fit in. You’re gonna do great!’ And we killed it!”
Her line also lived up to its rebel spirit at the 2021 New York Fashion Week show.
“We started a new thing – before, dancing … and other performances were rarely done, it was just straight walk on the runway,” Margaret explained. “We started ours out with a dance because I only had eight models and I had to fill up the time. So, we did a dance that my daughter put together."
"Now I look back at the February (show) that they had, and I see opening acts with ballet and magic tricks, and things like that. That’s something that we started! It was an amazing experience.”
She's excited to be working with Brooks and his models this time around.
”I do want to say ‘Thank you’ to Jordan Brooks for reaching out.” Margaret said. “We were connected by Dianna Boswell.”
“He (Brooks) came to L.A. Fashion Week. We made that connection and we vibed really well, so I think we’re just going to ride this until the wheels fall off,” Margaret says. “We’re gonna keep giving back."
In addition to having the Southern Tier models walk the runway, Just Be. is gifting nine fashion show tickets to the local program Runway for a Cause with Emmi Saufley, co-owner of Runway for a Cause, so that the models in the program can get an inside look at New York Fashion Week.
"I’m excited for this season. Going bigger and offering Elmira a little bit more.”
Margaret does return to the Southern Tier to visit with family and catch up with friends.
“With Covid that’s been a little bit difficult but, normally, I try to make it back once a year,” she said. “My mom, one of my uncles and all of my cousins still live there.”
“There’s a lot that I miss about it, but after I moved and I’ve seen the brighter, bigger, broader side of the world, I understand that there’s more out there.”
After New York Fashion Week, Margaret won't have much time to relax.
“My goal is to start getting into boutique shops and little boutiques at the malls,” she says.
She hopes that her success is an inspiration, especially to those in the Southern Tier who may lack self confidence in themselves and achieving their dreams.
“You have to go for it. You just have to do it because, if you sit back and you try to analyze it, something’s always going to try to keep you there,” she says. “Just do it. Home is always home. You can always return. Just take the opportunity.”
“Whatever little victory you get, take it! Embrace it, take it, learn from it, and just grow.”
GO TO THE Fashion SHOW
You can attend the Just BE. New York Fashion Show in-person or online:
If you're in NYC on September 10, you can attend Just BE. fashion show in-person. Tickets are available here.
To watch the show online, get paid access here.
About this feature
ExPats catches up with former residents of the Southern Tier who've left the area to find out where they landed and how life is going. If you know a subject for a future ExPats feature, please send the name and contact information to email@example.com.