A Conversation with Monica Lee, NIKA Couture’s CEO

The “NIKA” of NIKA Couture derives its origins not from Nike, the Roman goddess of victory, or from some form of Russian slang, but instead from CEO Monica Lee’s own name, a tip the young entrepreneur learned from researching successful methods of company branding. 24-year-old Lee, a Parsons School of Design graduate, radiates a kind of unassuming warmth, and yet she has designed dresses for the world’s top amateur Latin couples and participants on NBC’s World of Dance. As if being a full-time dress designer wasn’t enough, Lee also dances Latin on the amateur level, and designs her own costumes.

Between being a vendor for New York Dance Festival and jet-setting to Paris for a week, the up-and-coming designer recently sat down with Waltz Tango Foxtrot to discuss her inspirations, aspirations, and what makes her feel empowered as a female entrepreneur.

How does your love of dance impact the designs you create?

When I go to practice every day, I want to wear something that makes me feel sexy. One day I just ended up making a practice dress for myself, and that’s how I started with practice wear in the beginning. I want to feel a certain way, and when I wear a certain wrap skirt or mesh top, I go to practice and I feel powerful. My designs and my dancing go hand in hand. When I wear the wrong thing to practice, I can’t rumba walk, I don’t want to see my partner, the whole day is just bad [laughs].

For collegiate dancers, there are two issues that are important when it comes to costumes: having a dress that we can actually afford and having a dress that suits our body type. How do you approach either of these issues?

If someone is on a really tight budget, there are a few options. The first is, they can ask for a base dress. Dresses cost so much because of the details, the crystals, the amount of work and the hours spent applying them. If a dress doesn’t have crystals, you cut out the bulk of the cost and 40 hours of labor. The second thing is, there’s always previously owned dresses, which is always more affordable. And then finally, I actually sometimes donate dresses to college students. I’ve already donated a few to Wellesley College. However, when you just start out, you might not be ready yet for something so bright and blinged out. Just like in dancing, you upgrade every time you improve. Like with shoes – you might start out with Capezio, then upgrade to Ray Rose, then to Dance Naturals, and finally you design your own custom shoes.

In terms of the second issue, every single one of my customers has a different body type. That’s why I do multiple consultations. I usually do one to two where I just meet the dancer in person, even if that person is out of state. What I ask for them to do is point out their “pain points,” and they might tell me, “Oh, my hips are really wide,” or “Oh, I want to cover my skin.” For older clients who want to cover up sagging skin, what they really need is support, so you can wrap the skin in strong mesh. For clients with bigger hips, you might design a different style of skirt, one without straight lines. That’s the strength of custom-made dancewear.

This month’s issue of Waltz Tango Foxtrot is about empowering women, and within the dance community women have been becoming entrepreneurs more and more, despite this sport being so dominated by gender roles. What has been the most difficult part for you so far?

My worst enemy is self-doubt, my own negative thinking. When you’re an entrepreneur, you’re constantly asking yourself, “Did I do enough? Is this good enough?” Something I recently started doing is writing down what is true. So I ask myself, “What is true?” and the truth is, my customers love me and support me. The truth is, I have customers. The truth is, I am good at what I do. These kind of truths help me find me my strength.

What has been your favorite part?

My favorite part of being an entrepreneur is that I really grow, and I am one hundred percent responsible for my own growth. It is so satisfying, but it’s hard to explain [laughs]. It’s like, when you cook your own food, and eat it after you cook it, it tastes more delicious. If you go to a restaurant and order a plate of food, yeah, it might be good or it might be not good, but there’s never that same sense of satisfaction.

To see Monica Lee’s designs and learn more about NIKA Couture, visit nikacouture.com.

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