The shapes of things to come
To say that Asian-American designers are having a fashion moment is an understatement. Over the past five years, names such as Phillip Lim, Alexander Wang, Jason Wu and Derek Lam have been taking American fashion by storm with their clean and modern silhouettes. As these designers make the transition from rising stars to household names, a new generation is emerging to follow in their footsteps.
Chinese-American Ann Yee is one of this new breed of designer. The 28-year-old Michigan native is still new to the fashion game; she officially launched her label in autumn 2009, offering easy-to-wear and detailed pieces.
In person, Yee resembles a young Anna Sui with her blunt cut fringe and black hair. But that's where the comparisons end. Her designs couldn't be further from her doppelganger's saccharine sweet, girly collections.
Yee was born to Chinese parents who moved from Hong Kong to the United States in the 1970s. She spent most of her childhood working at her parents' Chinese restaurant, although fashion was always on her mind.
'I was raised in the kitchen, but from the age of seven or eight, all I remember is spending hours sketching. I would always draw gowns, which are not my aesthetic any more, thankfully,' she says with a laugh.
'I didn't seriously think I wanted to be a fashion designer until I went to high school. Of course, my parents were not on board initially because they wanted me to do something 'realistic' like be a lawyer. But since I have started to do well, they've changed. They are incredibly supportive.'
Rather than head to New York to attend popular fashion schools such as the Fashion Institute of Technology or Parsons, Yee chose nearby Philadelphia University. She completed a bachelor's degree in fashion design. At the time, her aesthetic was the opposite of the chic and clean vibe of her current work.
'It was all about designing something you loved. My two senior collections were crazy. My menswear was inspired by London street style with lots of neon, and my womenswear was deconstructed like Comme des Garcons. But some of the techniques I use now were developed in college, so there is some connection,' she says.
Despite winning an award for menswear ('I was excited as it was the only award that gave me money,' she recalls), she decided to pursue womenswear. She secured internships with popular American designers such as Jill Stuart. Soon after, she made the leap to New York, where she became a knitwear designer working for Barneys, La Rok, Elizabeth & James and Alice + Olivia. Working as a young designer in a big city had its challenges.
'My second job was where I learned the most technically, although it was like being in prison. You even had to ask to go to the bathroom! By 2008 I felt it was time to launch my line,' she says.
To fund her label, Yee kept her day job designing knitwear for a big brand, while spending her nights at home working on her own collection.
'It got too much: the sneaking around, the crazy schedule. I would fall asleep at the table in my office. By the end of 2010, it felt right to give it my all. Everything was happening at once, we got into showrooms and got some press. I was feeling super-confident and I just wanted to give it a push,' she says.
The line has a cool New York downtown vibe. But it's the way the sophisticated and architectural cuts contrast with soft draping that differentiates it from other contemporary labels. Most of the styles are versatile and can be worn in several ways.
'I love unexpected detailing because it makes the garment special,' says Yee. 'There's a couture sensibility with my technique, but the clothes are still wearable and sellable.'
For autumn-winter, Yee has created tailored pieces such as vests and jackets in recycled wool with details such as raised seams. As usual it's about versatility, as seen in the moto jacket with a removable collar, the wool snood that can also be worn as a skirt, or the high-waisted boucle pants with a tapered bottom that can be twisted for a more draped look.
'I love colour blocking, which I also achieve with fabrication,' she adds. 'For example, I mix sheer with non-sheer fabrics to give my dresses more dimension. You can see this every season with my three-layer silk dress. For autumn, it's folded in a certain way, so it creates a cocoon in the back.'
Yee says her aesthetic is also influenced by her parents' native Hong Kong and its cool street style. 'My trips there have really had an impact on how I style my own wardrobe, and I always take some of that with me when I design,' she says.
While the label is growing quickly - it has secured new retailers in Canada, Japan and, hopefully, she says, Hong Kong later this year - Yee still encounters many challenges.
'We're applying for funding right now, which I hope we get. There are so many things they don't teach you in school. Things like getting your name out there and getting people to pay attention, or getting them to return an e-mail,' she says.
She has turned to other fledging creatives to lend a helping hand. Last winter, for example, she recruited hip Brooklyn band Oberhofer to perform at her presentation after spotting them on MySpace. She also creates a video look book every season to set her apart from her competitors.
'You have limited funds, so you have to find creative ways to do things. But there are so many people out there who are in the same position as we are, so we have to help each other,' she says.
While she hopes to grow the brand slowly, she is looking forward to branching out into accessories. Her home-made tie-dye tights from her autumn presentation were such a hit that she has had many requests to incorporate them into the collection. Launching the brand to a global audience is also high on the list.
'I want to expand to Europe and especially Asia,' she says. 'Asia was the place that inspired me from the beginning.'
Ann Yee is available at FarFetch.com and FashionStake.com