The adage “necessity is the mother of invention” often applies to creative solutions for everyday problems, which is why art advisor turned avid (and often extreme) athlete Jun Lee created EiR, her wellness skincare line for people with active lifestyles. After a surfing injury, Lee started concocting potions in her Montauk kitchen to deal with muscle pain and stave off sunburn. She quickly went from selling her Surf Mud and Rolling Liniment to locals while riding around on her bike to getting her affordably-priced, unisex products in stores across the globe, from Merci in Paris to Urban Outfitters. It would seem her fearlessness (that led to her injury) paid off in her pursuit to promote clean beauty. It also speaks to her Korean heritage. Here she shares why basic, edible ingredients are best, the Olympic sport she trained for and why she’s become a reliable chef for one group of monks and nuns.
How do you define who you are and what you do? I feel like I’m an old Korean lady trapped in my body. But also like a badass Korean lady, you know what I mean? Talking about this wellness thing is really interesting to me, because I think in my upbringing I have transmission. My mom makes kimchi and miso paste from a family recipe that’s been passed down for, I don’t know, 100 years.
So wellness for us, taking care of ourselves, certain herbs that we use, certain foods that we eat, it’s not foreign to me. These ways of taking care of ourselves has been passed down without being that influenced by the modern society. So in that sense, I feel very lucky to have that. My friends say “you have to learn how to make kimchi because the recipe cannot stop with you”.
Have you learned? No, it takes so much time! I just go in and take my mom’s, but she makes miso paste and soy sauce in her backyard, and it takes two years.
In her backyard? Yeah, she has terra cotta jars in her backyard.
You were an art curator before. What led you to launch EiR? I went to Pratt for art school. Growing up in New York, I really was fascinated by the art and culture and I thought that that’s what I wanted to do, plus I got a full scholarship. So it was my life. But creativity doesn’t necessarily have to just be visual arts. Because the whole branding of my company is what I feel really excited about. The photography, the brand direction, the packaging design, the logo, that’s the thing that I really enjoy editing. So the visual aspect of it, and curating our social media, things like that, I think it comes from having that background.
Right. So when I was at Ogilvy I had two exhibitions a year and I curated concepts that I felt were very poignant to what was happening. A lot of people in advertising didn’t have time to go to museums or understand or being touched by what’s happening in contemporary art so it was my job to kind of bring in what’s cool, what’s edgy. And that was really exciting. I could kind of do whatever I wanted to do. Until people started complaining about the naked girls, and then I had to have HR involved, and that was not fun anymore. So I did that for about seven years but during that whole time I had this dream that I was gonna be training and fighting for Team USA in Muay Thai –
Which is what, Thai boxing? It’s traditional Thai street-fighting, so you use all your limbs–your fists, elbows, knees, the balls of your feet, your shins. The only thing you cannot do is headbutt. I became really fascinated with the sport in my twenties. As I was working, I was doing this the whole time. I was traveling to Thailand and training. Secretly that’s what I wanted to do. And I had dichotomy regularly, where I was rushing out the door to train to fight for two hours, and then going to work, to galleries, to the Venice Biennale pretending that I was presentable.
I really loved being physical and also, eventually, helping other women train, and be a mentor. Being physical, is very, very important to me. I take everything competitively, I do yoga competitively, y’know?
I’m getting a lot better, actually, because of all these injuries. But I’m the kind of person that it doesn’t dawn on me that it’s a stupid decision to go out when you’re an amateur surfer in two-story high waves, and try to do it.
You’re just fearless. I’m just like, let me see if I can do it. And so I did it. I just felt like, I was unbreakable and fearless.
I left the job eventually and I had to go to Korea to visit my grandpa because he has Alzheimer’s and I had a little hiatus. During that time I went to Bali to surf and I tore my shoulder in one of those big waves. I had to have surgery which went really well. During the physical therapy and pain management process, I had to go to my anesthesiologist for my pain management and he was like, “oh let me give you some Botox to help you with the scarring, let me give you some steroids”.
I was just really disturbed by it. I would read the list of ingredients of the creams they would give me, which was like a scroll, and wonder why does it have yellow colorant or fragrance. Like, what’s in this thing? It’s completely man-made and as I said before, I had this natural, clean of growing up and using Chinese herbs for everything. I realized if I wanted to continue to do this life–because I want to surf until I’m 76 and I know that having injuries is part of it, I wanted to find other ways to heal and recover and bounce back.
So I started taking classes and reading up on essential oils. I knew that Cleopatra used frankincense and myrrh in her beauty and healing routines. I was living in Montauk at the time and was kind of bored, so it was kind of witchy, I was in the kitchen, brewing up this oil mixture and somebody heard that I was making sunblock and some ointment. I was just doing it for myself, but people started coming by, “Oh I heard on the beach somebody said that you were making something, can I buy some?” And somebody else heard, I think acupuncturist, and he came by and he bought a dozen sunblocks from me and he said “I’m going to tell my friends, this is so great, it’s clean.” It kind of just snowballed from there.
You started with the Rolling Liniment, Cooling Butter and the Surf Mud sunblock….is the sunblock all natural? It’s food-grade ingredients and it’s made in a commercial kitchen where they made ice cream and health bars. It has cocoa butter which is chocolate. It has a lot of anti-oxidants and instead of using mica or colorants, we decided to use cocoa because it’s like a chocolate mud mask, it gives you a glow. When I surf and spend a lot of time in the sun I feel like I age, because my skin gets so dehydrated from the sun, so I wanted something that was super hydrating, that won’t clog my pores and something that stays.
What kind of SPF does it have? 30. And it’s not oily.
Is it for the face or the body too? I use for the face and the chest and shoulders and then the Surf Mud Body Oil is for the skin. That has zinc, almond and coconut oil and chocolate, camomile in it. Every fragrance that you smell in my products has a purpose.
It’s amazing. It’s not like sunscreen. Well, regular sunscreen horrifies me. Then my friends who loved my products were asking, well “how do I know it’s still there” so I made Surf Mud pro, which a bit more chalky, more dense with Zinc. You know it’s there. It’s good for kids. And it’s still really moisturizing. The packaging and everything in it is compostable. So you take it to the beach and sometimes leave it behind or whatever. The idea is not leave plastic beyond.
What is the most important idea about your line you want to get across? That people think that if there is some rare seaweed or honey that’s really exotic, that that kind of ingredient is better for you and is a cure-all. When actually I think, we are given all the resources near us. For instance my belief is it’s better to eat a local apple from New Jersey than an organic one from Peru. Because whatever is in the soil is something you need and it’s going to help us. There is nothing exotic about our products, even with our face cream the most exotic ingredient is Kalahari seed oil which is watermelon seeds. It helps with scaring and pigmentation. These are really clean, simple, few ingredient products–very utilitarian. I think less is more. So it’s practical but the experience is luxurious.
What motivates you? I feel passionate about supporting and promoting clean beauty because our skin is the largest organ on our body and it doesn’t make sense for us to eat non-GMO, local organic clean and meanwhile put on fragrance number 3 yellow number 57 all over our body. There’s no connection there. Also with the packaging we are trying to create as little waste as possible and use recycled materials. We’re destroying our planet with garbage and plastic.
What inspires you? One of the things that inspires me is I grew up with my grandmother taking my to the monastery every week when I was little. I grew up in her spiritual world. Her practice of Buddhism involves 109 prostrations and still at age 86 she can get up and down. Since then I’ve found my own monastery and spiritual community that I belong to called Zen Studies. They used to train samurai warriors, that in the midst of the storm of war, how to be centered. So that’s the practice. The monastery is a beautiful place in the Catskills. I have been going there for almost 10 years and I have become one of their head chefs. I especially cook for their retreats where they sit from 4 a.m to 10 p.m. for a week and meditate all day long; they put their body through suffering. I cook meals for 3o to 50 people and each meal they use three bowls. It’s like origami, they unfold and there is a ritual, first is grain, then vegetables, then soup. So I cook for 30 to 50 people three courses, three meals for seven days. Part of my cooking is there is no waste and if there are leftovers I have to repurpose them. It’s very sacred to me, so I don’t talk about it much, but it’s been a huge inspiration. Some of the things I have made like the cooling butter, one of the nuns burnt her hand pouring tea for people so I gave her some and the next day she came and said “look at my had it is transformed”. They are obsessed with Rolling Liniment and they are not supposed to have any fragrance but when they meditate and I walk by I can smell the head nun wearing it, and I’m like “she’s wearing it, she’s in pain”. So it touches my heart to give back and my karma is being cleansed.
What was one the easiest things for you when you started EiR? The easiest for me is the branding, creating a story around…it’s basically my life and all the things I enjoy. All my photos are taken in Montauk. Coming up with the products, it’s a lot of trial and error and mistakes happen.
What was the hardest part no one warned you about? What has been challenging is treating this as a business, because everything happened so accidentally. When I was in Montauk and riding around on my bicycle selling my products to different shops. And then one of the products ended up in the Wall Street Journal and it went from a couple of people looking at my Etsy shop to 3,000 people a day. So I had to learn to learn a lot, make a business plan. I had to study a lot. Luckily New York City is one of the best places to start a business, because there are so many resources. There’s a lot of support and funding and mentors. I had a lot of guidance.
One of your attributes that helps you succeed: I think because we moved around a lot, I was born in Seoul then we moved to a Jeju Island, a volcanic Island between Korea and Japan, and then Chile–we moved to New York when I was sixteen so I had to learn English at 16 as a freshman in high school and I learned it in 3 months because I was so embarrassed. I became accustomed to dealing with challenge and adjusting. When I was 7 and growing up in South America I really thought I was a Latin girl, I didn’t realize I was different because I needed to fit in. I think I have a thicker skin. And I think it fits with my career goals….if this doesn’t work, what can I do to make it better? I have a solution-oriented mindset.
Role models: My mom. I know it’s so cheesy. When I think about it, my mom got married at 22, she left her country at 29 with her family and me as a child, and not speaking the language and we were living in the jungle. My mom has always been a provider, super business oriented. We came here, she raised us and always provided for us and she’s always calm about it. She takes care of my grandmother who has Alzheimer’s and she has time to make miso. She’s an anchor in my life.
What’s next? We have a couple of new products. I really love how the products I have now are multi-functional and are about athleisure, so we have a hand sanitizer, deodorant and air freshener, all-in-one. It’s anti-viral. We’re exploring the idea of redefining beauty and old school beauty–it doesn’t have to be that way.
Favorite charity: A Walk on Water.
Do you collect anything? I used to collect Thai Boxing shorts when I was training intensively and fighting. I would pride myself in the most elaborate colorful, sparkly shorts. I would have my name embroidered on them. Now I collect different kinds of herbs for tea making, healing and have them handy in case someone needs them.
Biggest splurge you don’t regret: My custom Jed Noll 8’6 longboard that I had shaped as a Xmas gift for myself and shipped from California.
Favorite small indulgence: Foot massages, matcha, a good podcast, Nutty Bunny ice cream.
Album currently on repeat: Gilberto Gil’s Gilbertos Samba. Reminds me of summer and the beach.