By Elyse Major

When you step inside the sun-filled studio of painter Monica Lee, at first you don’t realize the scale of her work because the space is so large. Like most mill buildings enjoying a second chance as mixed-use properties, there’s an ample footprint, with high ceilings, brick walls, enormous multi-paned windows, and hardwood floors. While rooms of this size could seem cold and cavernous, Monica’s studio is warm and inspiring; 40x40 canvases with subjects like abstract florals and female figures in sultry pigments line white walls. “I love the overall square footage,” says Monica.

“I like to have soft cozy surroundings. The more pillows, textiles, blankets, rugs around, the better, but I also love a good disco ball and vintage gold cocktail cart. Shiny things make me happy.” Monica has coined the phrase “Leftover Bohemian Glamour” to describe her style, explaining, “‘Leftovers’ as in from my house, as I use moving something to the studio as my excuse to replace something in my home!” There is also a mood board, filled with clippings, stacks of art books, and bouquets of stained brushes in glass and tin vessels.

Monica was introduced to 545 Mills a couple years ago when she borrowed studio space from a friend in preparation to bring large paintings to Shanghai Fashion Week. It was the first time she had painted away from her own home. “The mental shift I made on the drive to the studio was really good for my painting,” she recalls. “Basically, in a short ride to the studio, I was able to occupy the space that shifted me into my art practice. Plus, there’s no dishwasher to unload!”  “It is so great to be able to have these old mill buildings to set yourself up in. It has encouraged me to scale-up my work.”

Currently, Monica paints with acrylics and oils on wood and canvas, and uses terms such as “sensual” and “abundant” when discussing her work. “Whether it shows up in the female figure or lush tropical botanicals – I can’t seem to tear myself away from a deeply feminine story. I believe young and older women alike hold a sense of mystery inside themselves, they are really quite beautiful.”


Maybe I am old school, but I could not help being intrigued by these fashion life drawings traditionally illustrated yet now digitally captured. Single-line color definitions conjuring up memories of the exquisite free-hand designs Yves Saint Laurent effortlessly produced (back-to-back without blue pencil once leaving the paper) captured on video in the studio of his home in Marrakech, and now within a new, digitally purposed environment from the hand craft of Massachusetts based Monica Lee.


A cool design signifier for a brand perhaps? The stylistic representation of Monica’s illustrations provide a unique hand-drawn appeal to any fashion garment design, capturing the humanistic quality of ‘being there’ at the catwalk and the immediacy this conveys. As with the journalistic requirement to rapidly annotate impressions from the catwalk as they come at you, Monica’s illustrations convey the essence of silhouette and palette, with enough detail to capture key design features and signature looks in the blink of an eye, literally. It’s an extraordinary skill seeming to intuit the garment in a way that feels more in-tune with the original design inspiration than the photographic image, with its over-subscribed immediacy too readily available to be objectively appreciated.

Monica’s illustrations may evoke classical Vogue illustrations from as far back as you want to go to appreciate haute couture styling, yet equally brought to life on the Fashion Scout catwalk in a contemporary way for any designs. Hard not to be an instant illustrator groupie, delighting in the deft touch of Monica’s Apple pencil, (the newly released star performer from the orchard) as she painted Leaf Xia’s AW16 collection, New York based Chinese designer, onto her Ipad canvas, with Adobe Draw and Vector files making up the supporting cast. Easy peasy apple squeezy. 

Monica’s freelance illustrator skills and professional ambitions are aimed at the larger, luxury end brands, cultivating unique relationships and exclusivity through her own signature style. It’s an intriguing proposition: the opportunity to use her talent and promote the brand story in a global fashion arena that is by definition, visually determined in a new way. Her hand-drawn signature styling easily positioned within hi-end fashion magazines the traditional home of fashion illustrations. Monica Lee adds an artistic layer to the Instagram world we now habituate.

There’s a sense of seeing-is-believing with her on-demand illustrations and the creative potential it affords particular fashion houses willing to use their imagination to adopt them as part of their brand positioning.

Monica is no ordinary creative and fulfills a number of parallel professional endeavors. She delivers ‘Smart Creative Women’ podcasts (huge following stateside where she hails from). “A weekly coffee chat coaching for creative women.” And her current focus didn’t just happen out of nothing. “I went back to school after 16 years to learn Photoshop, having been traditionally trained as an illustrator.”

Three weeks prior to LFW, Monica saw Fashion Scout (FS) on social media and thought why not give it a go and hop across the pond. To their credit they responded quickly and positively with as many FROW’s as she wanted. This act of London-bound spontaneity is in harmony with her. “Suddenly becoming conscious of my own brand, using drawing and creating a following.” She also just happened to launch her own bag brand recently. Monica’s all really rather got it going on it seems. I hope the fashion world in its infinite variety of wisdoms has the good sense to know a good thing when it sees it. And use it.