By Bradley Quinn
Perfection must be a terrible affliction. The hypersensitivity to mistakes, the constant attention to detail, the subtle but precise control over each and every move. Though perfection might describe Yeohlee’s approach to fashion, Yeohlee works in response to the imperfections in the world around her. Her clear, intense perception of modern life inspires her to experiment with new forms and fabrics to produce clothing that is both practical and beautiful, and on the very cutting edge of fashion.
“I like the nomadic nature of our lives right now, she explained, “and making clothes that enhance that nomadic existence is interesting. Yeohlee’s Urban Nomads collection engages with the crazy acceleration of global travel and the aesthetics of transitional zones like Renzo Piano’s Kansai International Airport in Osaka. “I was taken with how very curvy the building is. I was looking at the interiors and noticed that the other travellers were in a mess as they traversed the space. They looked very interesting and textural, but Kansai looked so modern that it made the travellers look so dated. I did a collection around how I thought people should look in that space, she said.
Yeohlee’s approach is not to echo lines of contemporary edifices in the cut of fabric, but to fully assimilate visual and intellectual principles of architecture into fashion, interpreting the two disciplines in terms of congruity of ideas. “Fashion and Architecture operate along the same principles, Yeohlee said. “It has to do with appreciation of material, the ability to organise information and how humans function within their environments. Where they enter, exit and congregate. Egress is therefore an essential consideration for both disciplines. Whether or not a button-fronted shirt is chosen instead of a turtle neck has to do with egress. How we get in is important to consumers because of time - our most precious commodity, she explained.
In refining her signature mode of minimalism, Yeohlee revisited the starting point of fashion to determine its essence. “The nature of fashion is information. I think that what we choose to wear is impacted by things around us, she said. But Yeohlee’s minimalism is not just negation, subtraction and purity: she reduces the creative process to the basic concepts of volume, function and proportion to arrive at an architecture of the body itself. As Yeohlee relates the human shape to fabric and scale, she engineers a fluid structure around it with the same considerations an architect would have for a building project. She said: “For a fashion designer, there are traditional approaches, like sketching pictorial references on paper or draping muslin on a mannequin. I use geometry to plot something two dimensionally and make a flat pattern that will have three dimensional proportions. Knowing these measurements is like making a witches' brew: you throw numbers into the pot and come up with a formula. To determine the sweep of the garment you have to calculate the stride. Once you attribute that to the scale of people the whole equation is demystified.
Two years ago Yeohlee exhibited her collection alongside the work of architect Ken Yeang at the Aedes Gallery in Berlin, in a landmark presentation of the two genres. Yeohlee and Yeang share the desire to create environments defined by spatial awareness, working with and against the human form to create surroundings of positive and negative spaces, whose meaning does not depend on an associated discourse or an evaluation of the natural landscape. Both believe in the conservation of energy and material, and map the boundaries of the body by creating climatic ecosystems around it. As Yeang layers his buildings in different materials for better adaptation to climate, Yeohlee’s strata of clothing is determined by the use of tiers rather than conventional layering, which is a more efficient way of circulating air and body heat. The open spaces captured in the clothing’s folds varies from open edges to thin vacuums, giving the garment’s walls and centre spaces the same related values apparent in Yeang’s architecture. Studied together, their designs suggest symbiosis of the aesthetics of fashion and architecture, although Yeohlee’s simplicity makes a sharp contrast to Yeang’s complex architectural designs.
“There is an aspect of clothing as portable architecture, Yeohlee said, “and our clothes, which are modular, are also our shelters, which is the main function of buildings. Depending how extreme you want to be, you could say that clothes are your ultimate home. As the axis of architecture and fashion come closer together, designers like Hussein Chalayan borrow from and contribute to the built environment, while architects like Zaha Hadid design performance costumes. “There has always been a dialogue between the two disciplines, Yeohlee said. “It is a constant in our lives. I think it is a very practical step to explore the possibilities and potentials the two yield. Taking this interface to the extreme, C P Company’s Transformables collection converts clothing into camping gear, while Kosuke Tsumura’s Final Home collection features a 44-pocket jacket. This multi-purpose expression of functionalism may give clothing the potential to transcend its medium, but in most cases the resulting garments are shapeless and unisex.
The beauty of Yeohlee’s process and methodology is that they extend beyond the garment and the wardrobe, into the living sphere of the wearer’s everyday world. Yeohlee explores this vision of human evolution through the micro-shelter provided by a garment and the macro-shelter of architecture and technologised spaces. Intrigued by the prototype A3XX aeroplane that seats 600 people, Yeohlee considered how travelling in such a huge crush of people would impact upon the urban nomad. “I would like to travel wearing the most efficient outfit possible. I would want my outfit to define my space, making a clear and concise statement about my relationship with my surroundings, she said. “Clothing is an essential tool for people to define their space, she said. “The designs are not just about clothing or spaces but also about posture and movement. Where you situate pockets affects your stance and movement. Everything is interconnected and interconnecting.
Yeohlee’s use of geometric shapes and subtle gradations of colour captured the attention of the art world. Susan Sidlauskas featured Yeohlee’s designs in Intimate Architecture: Contemporary Clothing Design at MIT’s Hayden Gallery, of which Sidlauskas wrote: “Her geometric sheaths, on which squares or triangles float on a contrasting field of colour, challenge spatial perceptions in a manner reminiscent of a Richard Serra drawing of a black plane skewed against a white page.
Richard Martin also recognised Yeohlee’s work as three-dimensional art, grasping the spirituality evident in her spare approach to the essentials of form. Above all Martin prized Yeohlee’s reverence for the wearer’s role in giving function to form. Noting how her soft layering created textile environments that enabled the wearer to navigate both weather patterns and climate-controlled interiors, Martin credited Yeohlee with developing a “fifth season of fashion. In Martin’s essay, Yeohlee: Energy and Economy, Measure and Magic, he wrote: “While Yeohlee conforms to fashion’s seasonal calendar of showings and store delivery of merchandise, her clothing often surpasses the seasons, allowing wearers to function in the ‘fifth season The year-round wardrobe offers another economy from what was turn-of-the-twentieth-century’s apportioning of the year and closet space into four separate parts.
Martin’s critique identified the blueprint that has often remained invisible in Yeohlee’s work. Her minimalism scales the wardrobe down to layered, interchangeable components that facilitate individual expression. The use of high-performance fabrics, like teflon, polyurethane, nylon and polyester, create breathable water-repellent surfaces that empower the wearer to negotiate environmental conditions in clothes succinctly tailored to function for formal expression and still meet the needs of the everyday casual. Yeohlee refines the norm of conventional cuts by conceiving unconventional shortcuts, such as combining the bust dart with the side seam. “An essential part of minimalism is knowing when to stop - I think that is really important, she said.
Critics of Yeohlee’s work allege that her purism divests fashion of fantasy, an element many designers consider to be at the very epicentre of their work. Yeohlee’s critical examination of the principles of clothing steers her away from ornamentation, as Alexander Rodchenko’s vision of Constructivism consciously rejected decorative elements to integrate technique and organisation with fashion design. Yeohlee’s work echoes the space age geometry of Paco Rabanne and André Courrèges, bringing to mind the sci-fi fantasies of Kubrick’s 2001. Though Yeohlee may not be inspired by fantasy per se, her garments anticipate a future lifestyle that we can only dream about.
Yeohlee’s oeuvre is a journey through simplicity as much as it is through minimalism. “Basically I am a simple person. I like simple solutions, so the minimalism comes from that. Simplicity captures truth and elegance. So from my Chinese culture, to say that someone is a simple person is a supreme compliment meaning they have the ability to be humble, and it encompasses a lot of intellectual values. Though Yeohlee left her native Malaysia for New York several decades ago, she often references her Chinese heritage and Malaysian upbringing in her designs. “The collection I’m working on now came from the connection between Muslim culture and clothes, and the use of shrouding, she said. “What people conceal and what they choose to reveal depends on their culture - some Muslims will reveal the nape of the neck and ankles or emphasise the waist, others reveal only the eyes. To me this creates a sense of mystery.
Having stripped fashion bare and simplified it to cloak the shortcomings of the aesthetic world, Yeohlee’s vision of future worlds enables her to confront the problems of 21st century technology by using fashion innovation to solve the dilemmas of the modern human. Whatever the complexities of contemporary life, the streamlined chic of Yeohlee’s designs reminds us that achieving perfection is simpler than we think.