Global pop star Chaelin Lee, or CL (as she's known to her fans), has mastered the power of fashion since she debuted in the former K-pop girl group 2NE1 in 2009.
Back then, while under the tutelage of the major Korean music label YG Entertainment, CL and the other girls (Dara, Bom, and Minzy) were dressed by fashion students Daniel Lee and Yang Seung-ho, who now goes by the name XIN. While most Korean girl groups adhered to a certain hyper-feminine, angelic uniform, Lee and Yang took a completely different approach. The group was heavily influenced by hip-hop and relied on baggy pants, cartoonish chains, blacked-out sunglasses, and sneakers—an aesthetic that was considered particularly radical at the time. As they continued to push the boundaries of dress, 2NE1 eventually caught the eyes of brands like Chrome Hearts, Rick Owens, Moschino, and Jeremy Scott.
CL the solo artist is a fearless dresser who uses fashion to shore up her public persona, which she has described in the past as a kind of "armor." She can make something risky look tame and uplift something weak to make it look strong. As a child of the MTV generation, her influences are expansive and international (she attended schools in France, Korea, and Japan as a youth). She can be found wearing anyone from Hood by Air to Ambush to Stella McCartney to Juun.J, but there's always something in her style that links back to Korea. The artist likes to showcase obangsaek, the five traditional Korean colors—red, blue, yellow, white, and black—in her videos, like in "Tie a Cherry" off her debut album, ALPHA.
Since 2NE1 formally disbanded in 2016, CL has sought out multiple avenues to achieve pop stardom on her own terms as a solo artist. Those dreams finally came to fruition in October with ALPHA, which was made by Very Cherry, her creative hub. Below, she speaks with BAZAAR.com about fashion in her early days of K-pop stardom and how she's stretching her creativity with ALPHA.
Pre-2NE1, what was your relationship to fashion? What was young Chaelin's style like?
I was an MTV-era girl, so that definitely influenced me. I've loved playing dress-up ever since I was young. I tried on many, many different styles, even before it was a part of my job.
2NE1's style set you apart in the K-pop landscape. What was the styling experience like within the confines of a major label? Especially as the "leader," did you have any say on the group's image?
Now things are done through the major label system, but in the beginning of 2NE1, it was very organic. There were very few people in the companies. It would be me and my creative director, and we were all friends, and we were just in the studio coming up with what we liked and finding references.
And you guys were working with XIN and Daniel Lee back then, right?
Exactly. We were all friends, and I've known Daniel since I was 10 or something. The connection was already there, and it was organic. That's why it was easier to take risks. Back then, performance was the main point, so that's why we were wearing sneakers onstage, which I didn't know that it would be such a big deal for a girl group in Korea. We were just being ourselves, and that happened to make us different from the other groups.
What did you learn from them?
Many things. I think they were still students at the time, but we would get vintage pieces and re-work them, and we made a lot of our own stuff, which was fun. I learned not to think too much, but to also think out of the box and how to express myself through fashion.
You all were among the first in the K-pop sphere to collaborate with major fashion labels like Chrome Hearts and Jeremy Scott. How did those relationships come about?
Chrome Hearts, I personally loved. And I was a fan, so I was collecting it! We became friends first. Then the collaboration happened. With Jeremy, I think he just reached out to us and was like, "Oh, I wanna meet those girls!" He came to Korea, actually, and that's how the relationship started. Jeremy played such a big role for 2NE1. As a group, we wore a lot of his stuff, and it really represented our music very, very well. It's colorful and bold and fun; it's sporty, but also fashionable.
How are you keeping up with what inspires you?
These days, fashion-wise, If I love a brand, I kind of dig into that brand. I'll love the designer and really get into what they create even outside of clothes and the fashion shows. To me, what they do is like creating a character. I love watching that.
You collect a lot of vintage Chanel, right?
I collect a lot of vintage in general. There are a lot of pieces that I have that I can't even wear, but I love them—they're like art pieces to me.
When you were creating the roster for Very Cherry, how did you choose your stylists? What was your goal in bringing those specific people together?
For a very long time, even musically and creatively, I worked with one team. So I wanted to try collaborating with very different types of stylists this time. I can't even name them all, because there were so many. For me, with styling, I can work with anyone creative—they don't have to be a stylist. In the beginning, I worked with creative directors, designers, and students like Daniel and XIN. We can work and style together.
For each music video in the ALPHA era, you work with a heavy rotation of looks. What have been some of your favorites? Was there anything that didn't make the final cut?
Oh, my God, so many! You know my videos, I love doing that, and it's always like, "One more look! One more!" But there were some custom suits that I couldn't introduce and some other looks that I loved but didn't make it.
You work with a lot of emerging designers.
It's so special because it happens before the work needs to be commercial. It's like their dream, whatever they wanted to express. That's why I love it so much.
You like to incorporate instances of Korean culture into your looks and videos, one example being the hanbok and obangsaek, the traditional Korean color spectrum. Why is that important to you, and are there other Korean motifs we can find in your choices?
I love that color palette. It's very beautiful, and I think it's so strong. And it's not obviously traditional, so that's what I like about it. I can't believe you found that out! That's very impressive because it's not an in-your-face type thing.
It was your first Met Gala this year! Alexander Wang drew reference from the hanbok with the denim dress he created for you. Was that your initial idea for making your red-carpet debut, or were there other ideas?
We changed the outfit last minute! When we got there, it was a completely different, like "cape." We did the fitting and that was done. But then we thought, How can we meld in Korean culture? He saw it in a dream, and he just made it happen in a day. It was very special.
Have you ever been interested in starting your own line?
You know, I love clothes, so I don't know. Never say never, right?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.