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Fashionable choices lead to success

Kitson CEO will celebrate the upscale chain’s 15th anniversary by sponsoring a contest to benefit the Joint Educational Project

Kitson store in Japan
Kitson opened its first store in Tokyo. (Photo/pablo 808)

An economics major at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kitson CEO Chris Lee has fond memories of participating in the Joint Educational Project (JEP) as a math tutor at Manual Arts High School.

“At the time I think I was too young to recognize how valuable the program is, but now that I understand exactly what JEP is all about, I want to maintain my involvement in it forever,” Lee said. This fall, he will celebrate Kitson’s 15th anniversary by sponsoring a design contest to benefit one of the oldest and largest service learning programs in the nation.

Chris has brought excitement with the Kitson-JEP T-shirt idea.

Tammara Anderson

Open to all USC Dornsife students, the contest will challenge participants to design a Kitson-JEP themed T-shirt. The winning design will be sold in Kitson stores; proceeds will benefit JEP.

“This is a way to celebrate our 15th anniversary by reaching out to the community,” Lee said. “It’s a great partnership between USC and Kitson — two Los Angeles icons that exemplify the city and the LA lifestyle.”

Kitson founder Fraser Ross, whom Lee describes as “one of the world’s merchant geniuses,” will serve as a judge for the contest, alongside JEP supporters and Tammara Anderson, JEP executive director.

“Chris’ experience in the community is still important to him and is present in his personal and business life,” Anderson said. “JEP is tremendously fortunate to have alumni like him who are truly engaged with our program and care deeply about its future. Chris has brought such excitement to JEP with the Kitson-JEP T-shirt idea. We are so thankful for his energy, creativity and enthusiasm.”

Taking stock of life

Lee can trace his career trajectory back to seventh grade when he joined an investment club at his junior high school and began following stocks.

Former USC student Chris Lee

Kitson CEO Chris Lee (USC Photo/Matt Meindl)

“My first stock was Kellogg’s. I was fascinated. I thought since I ate Kellogg’s breakfast cereal every day, and all the other kids were eating it too, it must be a good stock and it turned out to be great.”

By high school, Lee was determined to be a stockbroker.

At USC, Lee began working part time with Shearson Lehman Brothers. Within a year he had his license and was a fully fledged broker. During his academic years, Lee rose at 5:30 a.m., went to work, then to classes before working again at night.

During this period he also made time to participate in JEP, where he felt he could relate to the circumstances of many of the high school students he was trying to help.

“Once you get to know people, you realize it’s those shared experiences that create bonds.”

Shearson Lehman Brothers was so impressed with their part-time employee, they offered him a full-time job, and in 1991 he decided to leave USC to pursue his dream.

Realizing he didn’t have the typical stockbrokers’ pedigree, Lee decided instead to focus on Southern California businessmen who were Asian, had businesses worth $100 million and didn’t speak English or have access to Wall Street.

During 10 years in the securities industry, Lee won some of Southern California’s leading retailers as clients. Then in 2001, he joined clothing manufacturer and retailer Forever 21, where he stayed until 2009. After two years in private equity, he joined Kitson, where he is concentrating on building another global retailer.

“One of my major skills is identifying key management that can add value to the company. Another is figuring out the capital structure,” said Lee, whose eldest son, Ethan, is joining USC Dornsife as an undergraduate.

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