is shaway yeh china's avant garde answer to anna wintour?
As editorial director of one of China’s most respected style magazines, Modern Weekly, Shaway Yeh brings forward thinking fashion and culture to a notoriously straight-laced society.
Fashion magazines generally come in three varieties: the ones with actresses on their covers, the ones with models on their covers, and the ones with conceptual artists wearing hosiery masks and operating drones on their covers.
Shanghai-based Modern Weekly is the last kind. But it has a larger circulation than W, British Vogue, and Paper combined. "We're perceived as mainstream, but what we feature isn't," fashion director Shaway Yeh tells me.
The aforementioned cover, shot by Ryan Trecartin for the 2014 men's fashion supplement, went out a circulation base of 916,000. It was one of 61 issues that year, covering politics, business, culture, and fashion. That's the thing about Modern Weekly: you're as likely to come across articles about drone strikes in Yemen as fashion photography of drones. "Because the audience in China is new to all of this, it doesn't have as many opinions about what's 'too mainstream' or 'too weird,'" Yeh says.
As style editorial director of the magazine and its parent company, Modern Media Group, Yeh's job is to discover talent before anyone else. One recent issue featured an editorial of Chinese designers who sell on Taobao, the e-commerce portal often compared to Amazon. "People think it's full of copycats, but it's actually a fertile ground for young designers," Yeh notes. In one photo, a model holds a giant cloth butterfly, wings beaded with the outlines of planets. In another, a felt cape patterned with clouds comes to a sharp peak, like an object slicing the sky in a Magritte painting.
The first magazine Yeh ever read was Italian Vogue in the early '90s. "The images were fascinating. If it had been American Vogue I probably never would have been interested in fashion." She was already 23 when that happened. Growing up in Taiwan, most of Yeh's friends thought of fashion magazines as frivolous. "Everyone wanted to be part of politics and the student movement," she says. Coming to New York for college, though, the interest came naturally. "In a new environment when you don't have enough of a language skill to express yourself, style becomes an outlet."
At NYU, Yeh majored in performance studies, participating in happenings around the city and contributing to student magazines. Her thesis was about homeless squatters in Tompkins Square Park. A few years after graduating, she decided she needed to get a "real job" and went back to Taiwan to work on the launch of Vogue. Over the next decade, she worked at GQ in Taiwan, for a Hong Kong television network, and in communications at Prada. From 2003 to 2004, she was editor-in-chief of Vogue China in the magazine's pre-launch phase.
When I ask Yeh about her publishing career, the word that comes up most often is "boring." You can take the girl out of Tompkins Square Park, but perhaps you can't take Tompkins Square Park out of the girl. Modern Weekly is an exception. It's more creative than commercial, says Yeh. Since joining in 2006, she's curated exhibitions on contemporary designers and artists, launched iFashion, an app devoted to fashion film, and produced videos in conjunction with 89+, Simon Castets and Hans Ulrich Obrist's project on artists born in or after 1989.
One of Yeh's favourite video projects was a tribute to Madame Song Huai-Kuei, "contemporary China's first fashion icon," in Yeh's words. A friend to Pierre Cardin in the early '80s, Madame Song helped the designer organise fashion shows in Beijing, at a time when the city was only beginning to open to the Western world. The pair also created an outpost of Maxim's de Paris in the city. "It was this hub," Yeh says. "All the young, avant-garde kids would go there."
These days, China is much more culturally open, though that doesn't mean there aren't restrictions, particularly for media. "There are no real news magazines in China because of censorship," Yeh notes. In 2008, Modern Weekly encountered criticism over an interview with Sharon Stone that was on newsstands when the actress made a controversial comment about Tibet.
Such situations are rare. On most days, Modern Weekly is much more worried about being copied than being censored. "We're always the first one to discover Chinese talents but we don't always get credit for it," Yeh says. "Once we report on something we're onto the next thing."
Text Alice Hines
Portrait courtesy Shaway Yeh