Backstage Pass with Lia Chang

Yeohlee: Work, a life in fashion by Lia Chang

For over 20 years, fashion designer Yeohlee has crafted “intimate architecture” in high-tech fabrics that combine luxury with low maintenance to address the needs of active women. Her cult following acquires her austere silhouettes in multiples from specialty stores around the globe.

She is equally lauded in the worlds of art, architecture and fashion design. Her wearable works of art, known for their spare elegance have been on view in museums around the globe including PS 1, the London College of Fashion, the Musee de la Mode et du Costume in Paris, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam and have earned a permanent place in the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The late Richard Martin, chief curator of the Costume Institute, called her “one of the most ingenious makers of clothing today.”

During Mercedes-Benz Spring 2004 fashion week in September, the mood backstage at Yeohlee’s fashion show is a whimsical one indeed. As the ringmaster of all that she surveys, Yeohlee orchestrates her remarkable crew of more than 50 who help her facilitate every moment. She oversees each detail personally. From the team of makeup artists and hairstylists transforming the models into her signature look, to working with the lighting and audio technicians, she insures that all the right elements will be in place at show time.

Twenty-eight minutes later, her exquisite new collection, inspired by astronomy and geometry is well received by the fashion press and buyers. She takes her bows after the models clear the runway and backstage she is swarmed by camera crews, reporters, and well-wishers. Through all of this, she remains calm, cool and collected. It’s easy to see why the Malaysian-born, New York based designer is a force in an industry where only a handful of Asian Pacific Americans have found financial and artistic success.

One month later at the Municipal Art Society’s Urban Books Center, over 200 Yeohlee devotees and many icons in fashion patiently wait in line with Yeohlee: Work (Images), the designer’s first book, to have Yeohlee personally inscribe their copies. The book, which surveys her designs spanning the past 20 years, features essays by critics and curators of the fashion, art and design worlds including Valerie Steele, director of the museum at FIT; MoMA curator Paola Antonelli, Lynn Yaeger, fashion writer for the Village Voice, and from the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, curators Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton.

After the cocktail party and book signing, over a dinner of steak au poivre and champagne at the Pink Pony Café on Ludlow Street, Yeohlee reflected about her life in fashion, her philosophy on design, and her path to success as the founder and president of Yeohlee, Inc.

“There was a saying while I was growing up in my hometown of Georgetown, Penang: ‘if you threw a pebble into the Teng family courtyard, you would hit an architect.”

Both of her brothers are architects, and Yeohlee considers herself an architect of clothing.

“I always viewed clothing as a shelter you build around yourself to keep warm, dry, and safe from the elements,” she said. “This philosophy is at the core and heart of my function as a designer.”

Taking control of her own destiny with her interest in fashion at the age of 9, she said, “There was no women’s ready to wear in Malaysia when I was growing up, and my mother used commercial patterns from England to make my clothing,” she recalled. “I had my own ideas and finally persuaded her to enroll me in the pattern-making classes of a woman from Java who had a school nearby.”

At age 18, fresh out of high school, Yeohlee entertained the notion of going to London, taking up law, and becoming a barrister. Instead, strongly influenced by Hollywood’s portrayal of New York, she headed for the Big Apple to study at Parsons School of Design.

Her initial influence was from no other than legendary American designer Halston. In 1976, Yeohlee had the opportunity to show her portfolio to him. After viewing her work, Halston paid her a great compliment: “Our work is similar in its simplicity and the way it articulates itself around the body.” Halston’s encouragement was enough for Yeohlee to decide to become her own boss.

Her first collection consisted of sportswear, but her coats would soon capture the world’s imagination.

“Part of the reason is due to my approach of designing coats without any restraints or convention because I grew up in the tropics,” she said. “Coming from the tropics of Malaysia, I had no idea what classic coat construction represented. I only knew they needed to keep you warm and keep you dry.”

Henri Bendel purchased that collection in 1976. The House of Yeohlee was born in 1981. In 1982, Robert Mapplethorpe photographed some of Yeohlee’s designs where they were featured – along with the works of seven other designers including Armani, Ferre, Montana and Issey Miyake – in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Hayden Gallery Exhibition, “Intimate Architecture: Contemporary Clothing Design.” In 1993, she established her showroom, studio and offices at 530 Seventh Avenue.

Yeohlee did not have a financial backer, preferring to use her own money to maintain total control. She values a certain amount of independence in being able to make creative decisions and not have to compromise.

In 2001, the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology presented Yeohlee: Supermodern Style, a retrospective exhibition highlighting her design philosophies comprising over 35 garments spanning her collections from the early 1980’s to the present.

According to Valerie Steele, chief curator of the Museum at FIT, “Her deceptively simple garments draw on the best elements of tradition and technology. With patterns and textiles, Yeohlee shares how she moves from the fabric to the three dimensional object.”

Yeohlee’s unique design approach for the modern professional, her “urban nomad,” combines architectural geometry and animated movement.

“In my work, I can visualize something either flat or sculptural and tend to combine the draping aspect with the mathematical aspect in my clothing design. I break everything down into planes, either squares, rectangles, triangles, circles and all of them are made up of numbers,” said Yeohlee.

Entering the world of Yeohlee, one is transported on a lyrical journey. An exquisite “Yurt” cape of gray ombre mohair and wool evoking animal skin opens the exhibition. A Turkish cheongsam, with Muslim and Chinese influences, echoes Yeohlee’s cultural heritage. For the designer, textile is invaluable and intrinsic to fashion. She takes classic ancient pieces like the sarong, the cape and the poncho and integrates them into contemporary clothes using modern fabrics.

During the Spring of 1998, Yeohlee’s work was exhibited in a show entitled Energetics: Clothes and Enclosures along with the work of architect Ken Yeang. The show paralleled the disciplines of architecture and clothing design and showcased how the architecture of the spaces affected the design of the exhibition. At the Aedes East Gallery in Berlin, the clothes were enclosed/veiled by the glass panels. Yeohlee: Work, is the offspring of that show which explored clothes as second skin and its analogy to modern architecture.

Asian design reflects a sense of balance and proportion. Yeohlee continues to endure in the fickle world of fashion and fellow Malaysians Zang Toi and Chanpaul, in addition to David Chu of Nautica, Hanae Mori, Josie Natori, Anna Sui, Vivienne Tam, Vera Wang, Peter Som and Jiwon Park count as just a few of the Asian designers continuing to make their mark on the international fashion scene.

The fashions these designers produce represent a host of widely different styles, and while several offer an identifiable Asian aesthetic, their common denominator is their heritage and their minimalist approach to design.

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This entry was posted on October 26, 2003 by in Asian American Pioneers, Fashion, New York and tagged , .
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