The designer, who is launching her first book next month, says it’s one of her favorite shows due to its intense and sophisticated social commentary.
To someone only marginally familiar with Yeohlee’s work, however, it would be fair to wonder why this obviously intellectual designer would enjoy the often crude cartoon. But Yeohlee’s designs and “South Park” episodes are somewhat similar, as they both question and challenge societal norms and do so in a calculated manner. They are both thought provoking and deceptively simple in their design.
While the TV show is not mentioned anywhere in the book — entitled “Yeohlee : Work, material architecture” (Images Publishing Group, Australia) — the designer’s inspirations, concepts and wide body of work are explored throughout, with such notables as Harold Koda, Valerie Steele and Paola Antonelli leading the way through essays, pictures and commentary on the designer’s museum exhibitions around the globe.
Yeohlee took a break from the preparation of her Sept. 15 Bryant Park fashion show to discuss the book and her design philosophy with WWD.
WWD: How did you come up with the concept for the book?
Yeohlee: The book came about because of the show in Berlin [entitled Energetics: Clothes and Enclosures] in the chapter by Richard Martin. I had an opportunity to do a show in Berlin that paralleled the different forms of architecture and clothing design. Like a room is one size fits all, some clothes are one size fits all. I collaborated with the architect Kenneth Yeang [on the show] and he said to me, ‘Yeohlee, you really should do a book.’ And that spring, Images, which is a publisher for architectural books, approached me.
WWD: How is the book structured?
Yeohlee: It’s linked together by some pivotal exhibitions of my work. Some chapters are conversations with curators who had mounted the exhibitions and other chapters are essays written by curators who have worked with me or who know of my work. For example, Andrew Bolton invited me to do a show at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Subsequently afterwards, he wrote the essay in the book. With Harold Koda, for instance, I asked if he would let me interview him for the book because I was curious about the process of exhibitions, particularly at the Metropolitan Museum of Art [where Koda is curator of the Costume Institute].The book is about my work, but it’s also a forum for these curators to express their ideas.WWD: Why do you think clothing should be shown in a museum?
Yeohlee: It’s many things together. There’s a cultural aspect, an anthropological aspect, an artisanal aspect and a design aspect. It depends on what the curator is thinking about. I think that it really depends on the installation, what the contents are, how each mannequin relates to the next one. There are good costume shows and there are very superficial ones, but if you orchestrate it well, then there’s a whole chorus, and that chorus should speak to you.
WWD: Last season, you referenced the Arts and Crafts style of architecture in your collection. The book talks about architecture. Do you use the subject as inspiration?
Yeohlee: It’s really a similarity in approach to design. There’s a school of fashion designers that approach their craft in the same manner as I do, and there are architects who approach their craft in the same manner as I do. Which is, first of all, you meet your client and there is a problem to solve. Then the material has to be selected and you have to figure out how to engineer what you’re putting together. So those principles are similar, then each person has his own way of resolving all those issues.
WWD: How do you think your Malaysian heritage plays a role in your design?
Yeohlee: Living in the culture that I grew up in, certain attributes were really appreciated, one of which was simplicity. If somebody says that so and so is a very simple man, this is the ultimate [compliment]. It means you are intelligent, you know your place in the universe, you know how to conduct yourself, that you’re a man of honor. I don’t know if there’s such a concept in the Western world, but in the Eastern world, or at least in the Eastern world that surrounded me when I was growing up, that was prevalent. The ability to be humble is also very appreciated and admired.
WWD: How does humility make its way into your designs?Yeohlee: I think that my work is quite direct and there are no hysterical bids for attention. Great attention is paid to detail, but there is no grandstanding.
WWD: Do you design for somebody in mind?
Yeohlee: Yes, absolutely. But I design really for the human form. The way I approach design is universal. I like my clothes to work on somebody who is 16, somebody who is 22, somebody who is 45 or somebody who is 90. I think the reason that I get drawn to one-size-fits-all is that I am fascinated by proportions and how you can make something look terrific on somebody that is 5 feet 2 inches and a size 4 and have it work on somebody who is 5 feet 9 inches but a size 12 or 14. Clothing without prejudice is very interesting to me. There is this notion that in order for somebody to look sexy, they have to accentuate the figure and show cleavage.
WWD: You rarely show cleavage. Why?
Yeohlee: I think there are other ways to tantalize and seduce. One doesn’t have to be so obvious.
WWD: Your necklines are always designed with such calculation. Why is this?
Yeohlee: I always make my necklines on the girls to see the bone structure and the height of the neck. The other thing I like is working with negative spaces. Once you put an article of clothing on the person, the neckline, the neck and the face becomes a negative space. I have assistant designers and pattern makers, but there are certain things I do myself and one of these things is make necklines, because I feel necklines frame the face. So, I really pay attention to it.
WWD: You have a section in the book that features the different types of fabrics you’ve used, and it’s very diverse. Do you strive for this array, or do you simply find yourself attracted to various fabrics?
Yeohlee: It’s like falling in love. Most of the time I will select fabrics that I love, then I go back and try to explore them. So all these sections in that chapter are explorations.WWD: Is there any one fabric that is your favorite?
Yeohlee: No, because I think it changes all the time. I think recently I’ve been very fascinated with fabrics that are functional. One of my [favorite] things to do is to make clothes you can wash. In designer clothing, it’s semiunmentioned, but it’s nice to be able to toss all your clothes into the wash. I had this whole collection of sweaters by Sonia Rykiel, who happens to be somebody that I admire, and I was in a very cavalier mood and decided to throw them in the washing machine and I ended up with little baby sweaters! So sometimes I approach things like a little science experiment. I like challenges, I like getting a fabric and trying to figure out how to work with it. I like to deal with my materials in a really simple, straightforward manner and I like to bring across the properties of the materials. I have a deep reverence for textiles.
WWD: You have designed things in the past that have had little or no leftover fabric. How do you create a garment that is not wasteful of fabric?
Yeohlee: It probably started with these three dresses [on pages 82-83]. I hadn’t, up until that point, really done a lot of clothing in very expensive fabrics and that fabric was over $100 a yard. So I only bought seven meters and I made three dresses out of it. So, depending on what the fabric is, it’s just managing it. Geometry comes into play, as do numbers. I think there are magical properties to numbers and if you marry the right number systems together, you have a garment that has magical proportions.
WWD: Can you give me an example?
Yeohlee: Like the cape that’s on the cover of the book. It has to be an all-time bestseller. It was a bestseller when it came out, it was a bestseller throughout and they’re still selling it today. If you walk into Bergdorf Goodman, you’ll be able to buy it there.WWD: How do you know when you’re overthinking a design?
Yeohlee: Oh, you know. My principle is, less is less. Because you’ll have somebody standing next to you and they will say, ‘Why don’t you do this and that and that?’ I always listen because I find communication is very important, but generally, when observations are made, they would be things that I had considered and rejected. When you finish something, the less you can do to it, the better. But the hardest thing to do is something really simple. You can overfinish, overdetail, overeverything, very quickly.
WWD: There are so many different types of clothing in the book, such as pants, dresses, one-piece outfits, capes and coats. How do you balance the commercial aspects of selling your collection and providing a wardrobe for your customer?
Yeohlee: The very first collection I made was a real capsule collection with a coat, jacket, pants, skirt and a T-shirt. Generally, I think the collections have depth, so [buyers] probably would be able to find something within what I do that would satisfy their need — as long as it’s a need I’m sympathetic toward. If somebody said I needed to show a lot of cleavage, maybe I wouldn’t feel the need to satisfy that need. The trick is to remain really open-minded.
WWD: How do you stay open-minded but also stay true to your design philosophy?
Yeohlee: The evidence is in the book. You see that I’ve done a whole range of things. I’ve worked with all kinds of fabrics and I’ve designed clothes from active sportswear to eveningwear and they still have my signature. They still look like Yeohlee.
WWD: Whom do you want to read the book?
Yeohlee: Anybody who’s interested, not just in my work, but in design in general. That would be really cool. I think that I’d like my book to communicate something to the reader, but just like in my work, it’s not exclusionary. I don’t believe in just marketing to the elite. I know that lots of fortunes have been made that way, but this is about the work, not about making a fortune. That’s why it’s called ‘Yeohlee : Work.’
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