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Can sustainable fashion be both polished and quirky?

Hong Kong-based designers and childhood best friends Phyllis Chan and Suzzie Chung are banking on it with their premium knitwear brand YanYan, which utilizes deadstock and leftover yarns from mills and knitwear factories.

The two are aiming to create a youth factor around sustainability, blending grandma elegance with a playful spirit in their designs, and simultaneously touching on hot-button issues facing the fashion industry — including low-waste production, experimental retail strategy, reacting to the pace and competitiveness of fast fashion, and putting out product with more long-term, less trend-driven, potential.

“We thought about what’s a good and interesting way to create product,” Chan said on a call with Chung from Hong Kong, adding: “We didn’t want to put stuff out there that doesn’t contribute anything new. We wanted to make sweaters that were special. We wanted to challenge ourselves and make sweaters that aren’t traditional. The knitwear market is starting to grow. It’s a space for people to have fun and experiment.”

Knitwear was a natural venture for Chan, too, who moved back to Hong Kong after spending nearly a decade at Rag & Bone in New York, most recently as the director of knitwear until 2018. Alternately, Chung has spent her fashion career in Hong Kong as an outsourced print designer for a number of mass companies in China, ranging from children’s to men’s and women’s, denim and lingerie.

“We have very complementary personalities,” Chan added when asked about the formation of the brand. “We both were burnt out from our jobs. We really wanted to start something new and build something that we were interested in. We wanted to change how people view Chinese clothing.”

The brand name reinforces the idea of inclusivity and openness. In Cantonese, Yan means humans; Yan Yan means everybody. The company ethos is grounded in making design-driven products accessible to all.

The debut capsule is a modern insight to what Chinese fashion could be. The designers are able to diversify their knitwear offering by drawing from their heritage and culture, particularly design inspiration from traditional cheongsams and style inspiration from their metropolitan surroundings and Chinese grandmas who favor matching print and color sets.

There’s a lighthearted spirit in the brand’s East-meets-West aesthetic. There aren’t any actual cheongsams, but frog closures adorn muted color-blocked cardigans and dresses, and the lime-colored neckline of a dark Italian-spun tweed dress trace what is typically the closure on a cheongsam to provide a sense of familiarity.

Chan and Chung brought the collection forward with charming accents, too. Notable are the ivory Scottish lambswool items with colorful hand-embroidered Chinese knots made to look like little florets. These target a younger audience, cut into an oversize cardigan, a hoodie-and-track pant set, and a cool-yet-casual day dress with two large overlapping pockets at the bust. These, along with solid and more fitted pieces, feature delicate pointelle double “Y” stitching that plays off the brand name.

A range of comfy matching top-and-bottom sets harken to Nineties nostalgia, while pants lean more day than leisure. The large pointelle that reveals hints of skin provide the extra benefits of breathability and allure. The only trend-driven item is a neon lime bike short, which Chan argues is a better alternative to spandex shorts because of the awesome stitch and built-in elasticity. For an all knitwear range, there isn’t a lack of interest.

As much as the design component is grounded in reality, so, too, is the production and sales end of the business.

The sustainable arc of utilizing deadstock and surplus yarns from mills is a reaction to the industry’s wasteful nature. If left to expire, yarns are either shipped back to their country of origin or tossed into landfills. Having worked for large corporate businesses that oftentimes buy overage to meet their production minimums, the designers are making a conscious effort to reduce their carbon footprint. It’s an added bonus that one of their mills is Todd & Duncan, a 152-year-old mill with environmentally friendly practices in accordance with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency that strives to use Global Organic Textile Standard approved dyes and chemicals.

The use of limited amounts of yarns naturally leads to a strategic sales model, as well, where the designers will drop 10 to 15 new items every two to three months on their own site, yanyanknits.com, which launched this week. Each item can be cut about 10 times in various sizing. It’s a way to offer newness, create small batches with minimal waste, and gauge consumer demand immediately. Not to mention it’s a considered, slow-fashion approach in a competitive, fast-fashion era.

“Two to three months is comfortable enough to design a small group,” Chung said. “If there’s more interest in a particular thing, we can work with our factory to cut it in a smart way. We wanted to own our own calendar.” Chan added: “We’ve learned to be authentic and make things that are emotional and special, not trend-driven. Years down the line you won’t be mad you bought it.”

Prices range from $95 for a knit tote bag to $425 for the embellished ivory lambswool dress. The majority of the range sits between $225 and $350. The tentative next drop is mid-May, with hopes for a retail pop-up.

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