New York Newbies: Ann Yee

Standouts from Ann Yee’s autumn/winter 2011 collection (left to right): Jordyn jumper and Cora seamed capri; Marcel draped skirt and Dasha seamed vest; and Malene cocooned dress.

Recently I have met a bunch of  young Chinese-American designers based in New York who are carving their own niche in the contemporary fashion scene. Best of all they are proving that the Chinese are a force to be reckoned with in terms of creativity.

In the past this category was defined by names such as Phillip Lim and Alexander Wang, but now young hopefuls like Ann Yee are appealing to a younger audience looking for fashion that is still hip and cool but way more affordable.  Her line has all the hallmarks of good modern design – architectural cuts, great fabrics, cool details, pieces that can be worn multiple ways and above all, versatility.  Read on to find out more!

TO SAY that Asian American designers are having a fashion moment is an understatement. In 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. But as they make the transition from rising stars to household names, a new generation of designers are emerging and hoping to emulate their success.

Chinese American Ann Yee is one of these designers. The 28-year-old Michigan native is still new to the fashion game – she officially launched her label in autumn 2009 but has already been tagged as a name to watch thanks to her easy-to-wear and detailed pieces. In person, Yee resembles a young Anna Sui with her blunt cut fringe and dark 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 anymore 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 like F.I.T or Parsons, Yee chose nearby Philadelphia University where she completed a Bachelors Degree in fashion design. At the time her aesthetic was the complete 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 men’s wear was inspired by London street style with lots of neon and my women’s was deconstructed like Comme des Garcons. But some of the techniques I use now, I started developing in college so there is some connection,” she says.

Despite winning an award for men’s wear (“I was excited as it was the only award that gave me money,” she remembers), she decided to pursue women’s wear and 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 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 had to ask to go to the bathroom! By 2008 I felt it was time to launch my line. I thought about going “designer” but it was much easier to do something in the contemporary market. I would have loved to design pieces that are a thousand dollars but who would buy it when I didn’t have a name yet?”

In order 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. While the label officially launched in autumn/winter 2009, she did both jobs until last year.

“It got too much, the sneaking around, the crazy schedule. I would fall asleep at the table in my office! By end of 2010, it felt right to give it my all.  Everything was happening at once, we got into showroom and got some press. I was feeling super confident and I just wanted to give it a push,” she says.

While the line is known for its cool New York downtown vibe, it’s the sophisticated and architectural cuts contrasted with soft draping that differentiates it from other contemporary labels. Most of the styles are versatile and can be worn in several ways, while understated details have become the brand’s signature.

“I love unexpected detailing because it makes the garment special. These pieces are not about fads – you can invest in them and they will last and can be incorporated in your wardrobe easily. Quality was integral – 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 which 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,” she says.

Yee says that part of her aesthetic is also influenced by trips to her parents’ native Hong Kong and its cool street style.

“Hong Kong is one of my favourite cities in the world. When I go there I see so many original pieces and one-of-a-kind designs that you don’t find here. 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. People have so much more fun dressing over there and it’s so colourful,” she says.

While the label is growing quickly – they’ve secured a host of new retailers in countries such as Canada, Japan and hopefully Hong Kong for autumn/winter 2011 – Yee says she 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. Getting your name out there and getting people to pay attention or return an email. We don’t have a rolodex,” she says.

As such she has turned to other fledging creatives to lend a helping hand. For autumn/winter 2010 she recruited hip Brooklyn band Oberhofer to perform at her presentation after spotting them on My Space. She also creates a video look book every season to set her apart.

“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 us, so we have to help out one another,” she says.

While she hopes to grow the brand slowly, she is looking forward to branching into accessories. Her homemade tie dye tights from her autumn presentation were such a hit that she has had numerous requests to incorporate them into the collection. Also high on the list is launching the brand to a global audience.

“I want to expand to Europe and especially Asia. Asia was the place that inspired me from the beginning,” she says. 

Ann Yee is available at FarFetch.com and FashionStake.com

As published in the SCMP on July 15, 2011

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