“I always feel that the collection evolves from the previous collection, so it was Schindler followed by Gaudi with Schindler influences, then [for Spring ’08] I did something informed by Gaudi and the Spanish influence from Mexico and the mission architecture of the American Southwest,” explained Yeohlee Teng of a few of the recent inspirations behind the namesake collection she’s been designing since 1981.
For Fall 2008, the boxy ponchos and geometric coats of the previous season segued into cube skirts, arc tunics and a series of quilted cover-ups, all of which paid homage to the design and spiritual values of the Shakers and SANAA, the architectural firm behind the recently opened New Museum of Contemporary Art on the Bowery, where the designer, not coincidentally, held her Fall show.
Although architecture is the main recurring theme in all of Yeohlee’s collections – a theme that has led to her work being exhibited in museums around the world - the designer insists she only recognized the connection when it was pointed out to her by others.
“It’s really strange because when I burst on the scene it was because of ‘Intimate Architecture: Contemporary Clothing Design,’ an exhibition at the Hayden Gallery at MIT,” Yeohlee told The Fashion Informer as we sat in Philippe Starck ERO/S/ chairs at a glass table in her light-filled studio in midtown Manhattan. “That was the first time that my work was linked to architecture and that exhibition was in 1982. I grew up amongst architects, but I didn’t really see that. I thought that I was happily designing and making clothes, but the curator sought me out because she saw something in my clothes that, to her, spoke about this idea of intimate architecture, which is the first shelter that you build around yourself.”
Since then, Yeohlee’s shelters...err, clothes, have been exhibited in “Energetics: Clothes and Enclosures,” alongside the work of architect Ken Yeang in 1988, and were featured in shows at the Galleria Museum in Paris and London’s Victoria & Albert in 2000, at New York’s Museum at FIT in 2001 and at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2005.
Her designs are currently showcased in “Skin + Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture,” which launched at MOCA-Los Angeles in 2006 and traveled to Tokyo’s National Art Center in 2007 before moving to London’s Somerset House Embankment Galleries this week, where the exhibit (also featuring the work of Alexander McQueen, Boudicca, Hussein Chalayan, Zaha Hadid and Future Systems), will be on view from April 24th through August 2008.
We asked what the typical jumping off point was for her when designing a new collection (e.g., which comes first, the fabric or the shape, such as the spiked shells from Fall ’08 that serve as sartorial armor for the designer’s “urban nomad” fans)?
“It changes all the time,” Yeohlee replied, brushing a piece of hair out of her face. “I’m not rigid about it. Like, it would be difficult for somebody to stalk me because I never pick the same path. You know how, if you’re a creature of habit, you might start your day at 8:15 and go to the same deli for coffee and read the New York Times? I don’t do that.” She laughed. “And with [my work], each season the approach is different. I’m sure there are similarities but my thinking is different. For Spring 2008, for instance, we were going along working on the characters and crafting shapes but then the collection took a quantum leap.”
Based on what you were doing?
“Based on how you cut, so the collection evolves in that way,” she explained. “At a certain point you get a breakthrough and then it changes. So on the one hand, it’s always different. But on the other hand if you look at my work, there’s a very strong signature - and that signature is a constant. However, with what I discover during the design process [each season], we do make breakthroughs.”
So tell us about how this piece evolved, we asked, pointing to a mannequin wearing a silvery-black knee-length sheath that was fitted in front and seriously voluminous in back.
“That’s called the bellows dress,” she said, leaping to her feet and motioning for us to follow.
“I decided to create a lot of volume in the back, but if you’ve seen Gaudi’s work and how he created his shapes, you know he lets gravity create the shape.” Yeohlee pulled the back of the dress further away from the mannequin’s body, where it stayed, as if held aloft by invisible hands. “Well, this is a standing shape, meaning I allowed the fabric to determine the shape and the cut. Now this is not structured, there’s nothing in it to make it stand out like this, though the fabric itself has got metal in it.”
She then showed us a perfectly simple strapless wedding dress with a train that could be looped over the shoulder for dancing, followed by a reversible black and white felted topper that was one part coat, one part cocoon.
“This piece was informed, really, by the width of the fabric; it’s called an ovoid. Here, I’ll demonstrate.” And with that, the petite designer held the coat up by its hem, so that all we saw were her hands and feet peeking out from a circle of ivory wool.
So does she have a particular woman in mind when designing her collection, famous for its modern shapes that appear somewhat simple at first glance, their intellectual rigor and incredible craftsmanship apparent only upon closer inspection?
“I actually think that design is universal, so I design for people,” she replied mischievously. “I know there are designers that have a certain muse or client in mind, but I don’t think that way. I think [my client] is you, it’s your sister, it’s your future daughter, it’s your mom, you know what I mean? I really feel that if your design is successful, then it works for a lot of people.”
Yeohlee then pulled from the rack a rain cape with a hood that, when tied around one’s neck, completely covers the head, making an umbrella unnecessary. “It’s also very efficient in its design because there’s very little fabric waste and it’s one size fits all.”
“I try to really use fabric efficiently so there’s no waste and then I try to design efficiently with very few pattern pieces, one size fits all, that you can kind of stack them up and tuck them together [when cutting],” she added. “So I incorporate some personal philosophy into the design process. I have a real respect for fabric and process.”
And, clearly, Yeohlee’s fellow designers (and, it would seem, curators and architects the world over) have a real respect for her work and her process.
We mention that she always looks so happy and contented whenever we see her.
“Well, I kind of like what I do,” she replied with a grin, “and I really feel that that is such a privilege.”
Skin + Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture” will be on view at the Embankment Galleries at Somerset House through August 2008.
Photos © The Fashion Informer/Lauren David Peden