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'An artistic statement': Designer Anna Lee's 'Gray Matter Series' busts through black-and-white thinking

After moving back to the area, Anna Lee found great space for her design studio in Moorhead. Alexandra Floersch / The Forum1 / 5
Gray Matter Series fashion designer Gina Moorhead was educated under designers for Vivienne Westwood, Vogue Patterns and others before founding House of Gina Marie. Photo courtesy Lauren Krysti Photography / Special to The Forum2 / 5
Kelsy Osterman, a hair stylist involved in the Gray Matter Series, approaches hair as art. Photo courtesy of Lauren Krysti Photography / Special to The Forum3 / 5
Gray Matter Series photographer Lauren Krysti is an award-winning photographer who has worked with retailers such as Mall of America and Target Corporation. Photo courtesy Lauren Krysti Photography / Special to The Forum4 / 5
Local hat designer and founder of Workerby design studio Anna Lee recently launched the Gray Matter Series, collaborating with nine other artists. Alexandra Floersch / The Forum5 / 5

When she was younger, Anna Lee loved wearing hats to school. The milliner for Ruby 3 by Anna Lee, dreamt of being an artist while also helping people.

"I wanted to make pretty things but I wanted to have something to say, too," she says. "Turns out what I wanted to do when I was 12 is exactly what I'm doing now — I just didn't know it was possible."

In addition to her brand of hats, Lee is the owner and creative director behind Workerby design studio where her biggest client is a company based out of China. In charge of trend, design and technical design for the company, Lee develops kids' accessories for Target.

But Workerby encompasses much more.

"I wouldn't call myself a life coach but I've made a career of mentoring other people. I actually take on one mentee a quarter and work with them on creative things," she says. "My business is super multi-faceted."

Finding her niche

Having studied both fashion and fine art, you might wonder how Lee decided to focus on hats, in particular.

The truth is Lee hated the Midwest winters growing up. Rebelling against the cold, she'd forgo many of the necessary layers needed to keep warm. But one day, something clicked.

"I learned if you have all the right accessories, anything is possible," she says.

Lee says as a Midwest native, she needed her art to be functional.

"I had this love of fashion and really, hats are wearable sculpture," she says. "Basically, it was this happy medium. The more I really dive into it over the years — I worked at Target in technical design for hats — for me it was a good balance because I could be so entrenched in the industry. That informed how I designed my hats, making things more wearable."

As business owner, Lee is now in charge from concept to final design.

"My life is so engaged with headwear — whether fascinators for the Kentucky Derby or bridal pieces, down to a little beanie for a kid for the wintertime," she says. "I feel like I've found my niche, but it's actually broader than I thought it could be — masks to one-of-a-kind pieces."

As years pass, Lee's brand has evolved. Now she's finding new ways to style and showcase her designs.

"I've talked to many people over the years who are like, 'I love hats but I'm not a hat person,'" she says. "For the show I did in San Francisco for the American Craft Council, I had hats pinned onto these ribbons so it looked like they were all works of art. I'm also doing painting on my hats. You could look at it like that or you could wear it, so my work continues to evolve."

Perhaps the most fulfilling part of her job comes with helping others. Lee worked with SPF fabric to design gloves and masks for those who most need sun protection.

"What I love is one day I can be making this bridal headdress — something as delicate as that — and then the next day I'm designing something that helps people who have been diagnosed with skin cancer," she says. "To me, that's the most gratifying job a person could have — being able to help people and, in that same course of time, being able to make an artistic statement."

Gray Matter Series

Lee's latest, project, the Gray Matter Series, launched during Fashion Week MN Sept. 9-10. Rather than participating in the runway show, Lee and 9 other artists had a different idea.

"Fashion week in the classic locations is evolving," she says. "The world itself is evolving, and retail is evolving. Everyone is thinking about how to do it differently."

Lee founded what was then called MNfashion Week in Minneapolis back in 2005 and has since became an advisor to those producing the show. Throughout the years, she has witnessed fashion week around the world evolve; people are finding more intimate ways to connect with their audience and sell their work.

"Now there are tools that didn't even exist back in 2005," she says. "What's happening in Minneapolis now is a lot of trunk shows, pop-ups. For me, (Gray Matters Series) is a pop-up gallery and retail experience. This is our chance to say, 'Come in and talk to us. See the work we do in a setting that we're all showcasing our work.' "

Teaming up with a model, makeup artist, hairdresser, web designer, photographer, creative director and jewelry, clothing, apron designers, Lee launched the Gray Matter Series.

"The concept of Gray Matter is about finding that space between the black and the white thinking, and you have to start with yourself before you can fix the world around you," she says. "It's about finding that space of peace — that gray matter — using my mind to get to a place where I can be angry, and I can still have compassion for my fellow man or woman. And it can all exist at the same time."

Coming home

Moving back home to the Fargo-Moorhead area in 2016 and setting up her 800 square-foot studio space within view of the Red River has re-ignited Lee's creativity; that's why she started painting again.

"This whole interesting piece of coming home — figuring out who are you in relation to all these things — has just taken my art to this whole other level," she says. "Being able to be here and be with my partner and his family and still be able to create is probably one of the most gratifying things in my life."

Though art is a close second, the most important aspect of Lee's life are the people.

"Having this place to come home to and knowing your roots is really, really important," she says. "Especially in this era where you could live anywhere and be anywhere, then what's the most important thing and why do you choose that? I've just really found a nice balance."

Between a pop-up trunk show in her Moorhead, Minn., studio in October with House of Gina Marie, a designer in the Gray Matter Series, and workshops offered in F-M and Minneapolis in January, Lee is one busy gal. She's also simultaneously working on her spring/summer 2018 hat collection in which she's expanding on a set of lipsticks — including the perfect shade of Ruby 3 red — for pairing.

"Basically I'm figuring out how do I expand on the work that I do in ways that make sense? With conscience growth," she says. "I don't want to work more. I want the work I do to be more fun, more adventurous and sometimes more boring."

Inspiring entrepreneurs

Having worked for other companies, Lee says she is a creative entrepreneur at her core. Here, she shares advice for other aspiring entrepreneurs — how to get stuff done.

• Map out your goals. "Create structure around your goals," she says. "If you have this crazy, audacious goal, you'll more than likely reach it if you have patience and show up every day. It might take a lot longer, it might take a lot shorter but the whole thing is just to keep showing up."

• Don't get in your own way. It's easy to run with every idea you have. "You have to learn how to harness the restlessness because you can so easily distract yourself," Lee says. "That's its own thing — distracting yourself with productivity vs. actually doing the work."

• Let yourself change your mind. "Keep constantly learning," she says. "What you thought you wanted might be different because you just didn't know yet. Show up, research, do the work and don't be afraid to change your mind."

• Gain perspective from others. Brilliant ideas are a dangerous thing. "Know who you can talk to and who you shouldn't talk to about your goals," Lee says.

• Don't "fake it 'til you make it." Lee isn't a fan of the phrase. "It doesn't approach the situation with the right energy," she says. "I am a fan of putting yourself in a place where you're doing the work. You can be honest where you're at in that situation but just show up and just keep doing it."

Alexandra Floersch

Alexandra Floersch has worked for Forum Communications since February 2015. She is a content producer and photographer who enjoys writing about finance, fashion and home.

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