A new vanguard

Emerging young fashion designer Yen Wong navigates through a precarious fashion landscape

22 Jun 2020 / 10:27 H.

WITH the growing influx of fresh graduates each year, young fashion designers face new challenges and uncertainties in the wake of the pandemic that has reshaped the fashion landscape.

Yen Wong graduated with a Bachelors in Fashion with Business Studies at the University of Brighton, and returned to Malaysia to gain a foothold in the industry shortly after showcasing her graduate collection at the London Fashion Week in February.

In her graduate collection Sunny Side Up!, derived from the TV series The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, she used satirical humour fuelled with anger to reinterpret the persona of a ‘Stepford wife’. She ridiculed the image of female and domestic perfection immortalised by the 1950s and 60s, leading to an eventual manic episode.

She also paid homage to Dior’s New Look from the same time period, as well as Balenciaga’s approach to volume, applying and exaggerating these elements within her work. Silhouettes and construction of the dresses referenced classic couture, reflecting the ideas of kitsch and camp aesthetic.

“It’s an extremely personal process when creating garments,” she described. “It’s a rollercoaster of emotion, everything from happiness, frustration to oddly enough, sensual.”

Yen Wong’s graduate collection Sunny Side Up! – Courtesy of Yen Wong
Yen Wong’s graduate collection Sunny Side Up! – Courtesy of Yen Wong

What are some of your early influences and how have they informed your idea of fashion?

“History has always been a great passion of mine since childhood. I love looking and referencing fashions from the past.

“As cliché as it sounds, couture and tailoring are also big influences of mine. I’ve so much admiration for traditional couturiers and the petites mains of today in carrying forward the heritage of making clothes by hand.

“If we’re talking about a person, Jean Paul Gaultier was, and still is, a designer who has largely influenced me. His playful and humorous, as well as technical, approach to design is something that’s inspired me since I began my journey in fashion.

“I like being able to use humour as a light-hearted way to approach and address topics we might be uncomfortable to talk about. At the end of the day, as fashion designers, we’re all just making frocks, so I want to focus on just being able to have fun with it.”

Upon returning to Malaysia, what are the challenges in building a name for yourself?

“Honestly speaking, when I returned, I didn’t necessarily expect to ‘build a name for myself’ and was just attempting to join the workforce.

“As someone who’s still in the beginning stages of working things out, utilising and maximising social media to increase brand awareness has been something I’ve been trying to figure out.

“Additionally, conducting press loans given the current climate has been extremely challenging, especially for international loans.

“Understandably, a lot of stylists based overseas do not want to be liable for the loans should anything go awry but there’s also an expectation placed on young designers to be fully liable for the costs of the loan, which is also challenging.”

Yen Wong’s graduate collection Sunny Side Up! – Courtesy of Yen Wong
Yen Wong’s graduate collection Sunny Side Up! – Courtesy of Yen Wong

Has your perspective changed in light of the dynamic shifts in fashion?

“Yes. The fashion industry has finally been cornered, and we as designers, image-makers, writers and creators within the industry have to own up to the practices we’ve been enforcing systematically as well as culturally, and build a better industry for the earth and its people.

“As a young designer joining the workforce and potentially starting my own label, I’m in the discovery stages of how I’m going to practice moving forward, slowing down the cycle of consumption, as well as making more ethical decisions.”

Your graduate collection uses the narrative of the perfect ‘Stepford wife’ persona as a framework, while playfully exploring its themes with satirical humour. What is it about the inspiration that intrigued you?

“When I was starting my graduate collection, I had stumbled upon The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and that was sort of my starting point.

“The show is set in the mid-50s revolving around the character Midge, who accidentally becomes a stand up comedian as her marriage crumbles. There are lots of themes within the show that explore the social pressures of women back then, which arguably, still persist until today.

Yen Wong’s graduate collection Sunny Side Up! – Courtesy of Yen Wong
Yen Wong’s graduate collection Sunny Side Up! – Courtesy of Yen Wong

“Society still upholds these ridiculous standards towards women, to be ideal in every single way. This is something that affects women worldwide but especially in the Asian community, so this theme was something I could relate to very personally.

“Additionally, I was inspired by her character navigating through that world, as it mirrored my personal usage of comedy and satire as an outlet to vent about life and to have uncomfortable conversations with.”

It’s a subject not to be taken lightly so it wouldn’t be perceived as an ill-conceived attempt to glamourise the ideal portrayal of women.

“I approached it from a perspective that viewed the manic episode as almost otherworldly. I tend to describe it as almost like a really bad acid trip; or maybe better put, a bad dream where she had been transported into a semi dystopian world, whereby all the symbols and signifiers of the world that have driven her into insanity have manifested onto her body in exaggerated forms and patterns.

“Sort of like wearing her anxieties, playing a bit with the phrase, ‘wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve.’”

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