Yeohlee Teng Looks to the Future in the Heart of New York

Despite the challenges caused by the pandemic, New York-based designer Yeohlee Teng is energized about the future of fashion and the city that she calls home.

While custom design has always been part of the designer’s repertoire, it is becoming a bigger part of her business. Designing a wedding outfit for a mother-of-the-bride helped to rev up that interest. The wedding was slated for last fall, but the celebration was postponed until next month due to the coronavirus crisis.

After designing a dress made of rose-colored double-faced satin and navy silk for the wedding client, Teng suggested during a fitting that she make a jacket with the scraps. “She said, ‘Go for it!’ I mean how fun — I got to make something out of the scraps. The fabrics were very expensive but it was like an add-on experience.”

She added, “Because of the time of COVID-19, this kind of relationship and intimacy that you share with your clients is heightened because of all that isolation that we experienced. It becomes more emotional.”

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To that point, recently a gentleman stopped into her West 29th Street store and decided on a custom outfit in a coral print. The customer, who prefers to be identified as “they,” is getting something from the women’s collection that is being made for them to wear. Teng described the experience as “very moving for both the buyer and herself.” It was “out-of-the-blue” and one that was “an adventure and a discovery,” she said.

The designer noted that the customer had not asked her, “‘Is this for women or men?’ They just went for what was there, put it on and it looked great.”

That sparked something in Teng, who contends that good design is universal. “You know there’s no gender in a paper clip. It just works.”

Gender fluidity is something that is very exciting about fashion right now, as well as the increased freedom for people to be more creative, said Teng, adding that some of the clothes that she has seen are more daring. Through a fellowship with The New School’s Parsons School of Design, she sees and works with an abundance of talent. “In fabrication is where the future lies. Everybody talks about sustainability and zero-waste. If you can get fabrication down, that’s one answer.”

As a result of shutdown, Teng started upcycling all of her fabrics. Many of the items in her store are either onesies or three-of-kind, she said. Some pieces feature fabrics such as jacquards that are no longer made since the silk mills that they were sourced from no longer exist. “That’s another way to consume. Consuming your inventory equals zero waste,” she said. “That enables you to make something very interesting.”

With New York Fashion Week approaching, Teng has not yet decided how and where she will show her collection. Whatever she makes will determine that and she’s in the throes of that, having been inspired by recent encounters, such as the aforementioned “drop-in.”

The pandemic has made people freer with their abilities to express themselves, according to Teng. “They’re taking more chances and they’re being more daring. If they have something to say, they are ready to say it. And I like that,” she said. “It’s really interesting that under lockdown we became more free. But freedom of expression seems to be really ripe right now.”

Having run her business in New York City for decades and been a vocal advocate of the Garment District, Teng said she is “quite determined that we establish something in the Garment District that gears itself up toward manufacturing of the future. Some efforts should be made so that we understand and acquire the kind of equipment that we need that will be appropriate for making clothing for the future.”

As one of the judges for an upcoming scholarship, she said most of the entries had clothes made from such fabrics as plastics retrieved from dumpster diving, or from developing fabric from kelp, mycelium and E-coli. “The forward path is innovation and how you assemble and put together clothes of the future has to evolve. Cut and sew is wonderful and necessary and essential right now. But there’s a path toward the future and the Garment District should be ready to embrace that.”

Barring any state or federal restrictions regarding the coronavirus crisis, the spotlight will be on New York fashion next month with the return of in-person fashion week shows and the unveiling of “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” the first installment of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute’s two-part exhibition dedicated to American fashion. Teng said of all the anticipated attention on New York fashion, “I think it’s the right thing to do and I hope that it will have great success. New York should seize the moment to shine.”

While some have compared the city’s current state to how it was in the 1970s (based on the uptick in crime, increased vacancies and the question of whether commercial real estate will bounce back), Teng said, “You can’t compare it to the ’70s. This is the year 2021. That was like the age of ‘Taxi Driver,’” referring to Martin Scorsese’s 1976 crime drama starring Robert De Niro. “I think the city is resilient. I believe that New Yorkers are strong. I also see the city getting younger. There’s been an influx of young people because rents came down. That energizes the city.”

Allowing that things are tough in some areas, the designer said, “I rely on the resilience that New Yorkers have.”

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