NEW YORK TIMES: Sober Yet Sleek, To Match The Times
December 2, 2001
Unfazed, she went on, conducting a tour of "Supermodern Style," a 35- piece exhibition of her work on view through Jan. 5 at the Fashion Institute of Technology. The show, a retrospective of the Malaysian-born designer's work since the early 1980's, showcases her signature low-frills, high-tech style - which, though conceived in a more buoyant climate, seems oddly attuned to today's mood.
Ms. Teng uses the word "shelter" to describe many of her sumptuous yet rugged one-size-fits-all protective mohair cloaks, melton coats and loose-fitting loden-cloth trousers. With versatile, streamlined shapes meant to encapsulate the wearer without impeding motion, the pieces seem to have been eerily prescient, said Valerie Steele, acting director of the museum and a co-curator of the exhibition. More than, say, a gypsy skirt or off-the-shoulder peasant top, these garments respond to many women's "need of clothes that are functional and easy, that you can really move in," Ms. Steele said.
But Ms. Teng is not a seer. Her high-mobility fashions, she said, were conceived for "urban nomads," those peripatetic professional women who are always "camping and decamping" from one city to another, from board meeting to black- tie event, and require a garment suited to every exigency.
Her reliance on ancient, often Eastern, forms makes the clothes appear timeless. But their fabrics - high-performance Teflon-coated wool and quilted nylon, for instance - lend them a functional, even aggressive, quality. "These clothes cover you like a blanket or cocoon," she said. "At the same time they say, `Don't mess with me.' " Offhandedly sexy and luxurious, they include what she calls a Turkish cheongsam, made of silky but washable satin-trimmed matte jersey, and a raffia sarong, its fluid outlines designed to graze the hips. There is also an organza cape made from Tactel, a synthetic fabric coated with translucent polyurethane, a finish that lends it an otherworldly shimmer.
Ms. Teng's incongruous melding of disciplined form and tough but opulent fabrics has made her a designer's designer, a favorite of fashion historians and museum curators. "In Yeohlee's work there is a kind of richness, despite its apparent simplicity," said Harold Koda, curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "They are the kind of garments that end by revealing more of themselves over time."
As her admirers like to point out, Ms. Teng treats fashion as a form of soft architecture; her minimalist creations are sold at Bergdorf Goodman and other high-end stores. But they seem equally at home in a pristine gallery space, and often are, having been exhibited in museum settings from London to Berlin.
Their wit and function tend to emerge in their details. For instance, a gamekeeper's coat features holster pockets, designed to foil thieves by being accessible from without or from within. Those pockets were among the highlights of a show last April at the Milan furniture fair aptly titled "Don't Tempt Me: Design Against Crime."
Meandering seams and exposed selvages are often a garment's only decorative elements. "I believe in using the selvage rather than cutting it off, in allowing the fabrics to be what they are," Ms. Teng said, though she is not averse to giving her materials a boost from technology.
Not long ago Ms. Teng created a white wool coat that seemed at a glance both gorgeous and hopelessly impractical. "I thought when I saw it, 'How can you ask a New Yorker to wear that?' " Ms. Steele recalled. " `It's going to get filthy instantly.' "
But she coveted it just the same, all the more when she realized that Ms. Teng had coated it with an imperceptible layer of Teflon. " 'Whoa,' I said at the time. `This is what I've been waiting for' - someone to invent an immaculate white coat that I could wear everywhere, forever."
By RUTH LA FERLA
SUSPENDED from invisible wires or wrapped around floating dressmaker forms, Yeohlee Teng's capes and airy sarongs seem poised for flight. "They are the kind of clothes that would look cool with flat shoes on, made for a quick getaway," she said. "These days everybody knows that they can be evacuated at any moment in time," Ms. Teng added, only half in jest, as a wailing siren lent her words an unnerving gravity.
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