the designers behind yanyan want you to dress like their grandmas
i-D talks to Phyllis Chan and Suzzie Chung about their new knitwear line inspired by the bold old women and colorful architecture of Hong Kong.
Image by Vinci Ng.
It’s not hard to see how the colorful pastel architecture and stylish grandmas of Sham Shui Po in Hong Kong inspired Phyllis Chan and Suzzie Chung’s new knitwear line YanYan. “In Hong Kong, each public housing estate has a color theme, there’s always pink and green or lime, or the really famous Choi Hung, which is rainbow colored,” explains Chan. Moved by the city in which they both grew up, YanYan is the duos tribute to the region. “We wanted to create something that was inspired by our own culture, we want to make clothing that reminds us of our heritage and our ethnicity but it doesn’t have to be so literal. We don’t always have to look like Maggie Chung in In The Mood For Love.”
Instead, YanYan, which means “people” in Cantonese, makes novelty knitwear that is fun, quirky, and happy. Bright colors help breathe new life into design elements like their twisted button knots, which are inspired by the ones they found on the down-filled jackets left to them by their own grandmas. While bicycle shorts are a modern adaptation on classic twinsets, the two-piece looks adopted by Chinese grandmothers. Chung remembers how her own “maa maa,” a war refugee, who grew up poor and frugal, maintained a penchant for twinsets in fun prints. Think florals, polka dots, and paisleys with a lot of shimmer, she says, paired with tracksuits tops and windbreakers. “She dressed for comfort and didn't pay too much attention to what other people thought about her. I think that’s why it’s important to us that we design things that are authentic to our personalities and styles, and not just follow trends.”
Forming the knitwear brand has allowed the women to rediscover the “traditions and history that we might have neglected before,” says Chung. “It’s quite a personal exploration for us.” That’s also true because YanYan is the result of over a decade of friendship. The pair met at an international secondary school in Hong Kong 15 years ago, and have been best friends ever since. Though they currently live and work together in Kowloon, Chan has only recently returned from New York, where she spent over 10 years at Rag & Bone as its director of knitwear. Chung stayed in the city after studying apparel design at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and went on to work as a print designer.
Serendipitously, both women left their jobs at the same time and were quickly offered a space in a small factory by the owner, Miranda, who Chan had worked with while at Rag & Bone. She showed the women a huge binder filled with tons of leftover yarn from different vendors. The stash included excess yarn from fashion houses that had cut production, as well as the standard 20-30 percent consumption and wastage companies overbought just in case anything went wrong during the manufacturing process. As they looked at this excess yarn, the women thought, “Why don't we try and use it?” And “that's kind of how our company was born,” says Chan.
YanYan sources high-quality yarn from other countries too, because they don’t want their “line to look like a mess,” Chan explains. “But we try to look at everything [Miranda] has and we build out a whole concept and story around different yarns that we think we can feature.” They want the customer to be able to go on the website and see a story, and have all the colors working together and making sense. Chung, who is particularly fastidious about the colors being harmonious, says it’s “a big part of Chinese culture, we use a lot of bright colors like red, green, and gold during festivals, and traditional ceremonies.” Adding, “the colors are very inspiring to us, and it makes the yarn picking process more fun to match those colors.”
Since launching in March, the press surrounding YanYan has focused on the sustainability element of their brand, but that was never intended to be the main selling point and it’s not even listed on their website, yet. “It’s not a gimmick that we do this,” Chan explains, and “we don’t want to greenwash anyone.” Instead they want to make good quality clothing that is reasonably priced and just so happens to be made of leftover yarn.
What they do want their buyers to know though, is that they’re proud to be manufacturing in Hong Kong. “Everyone else does,” they say, even if they don’t promote it. “There’s such a stigma to having things made in China,” says Chan. “It kind of bugged me that we were making all this stuff in here and it’s really well-made and expensive but as a country and community, we’re embarrassed.”
In fact, knitwear manufacturing in Hong Kong became really big in the 60s and 70s, and continued to boom in the 80s and 90s — even though the product wasn’t made for the local market, where it is hot and humid most of the year. “There’s a ton of artisan craftsmen that have made really cool, beautiful products in the last 20-30 years like crocheting, hand embroidering and macramé,” Chan explains. “But because of pricing, everything is moving to different countries again.” It is no longer cheap to manufacture in Hong Kong or China, so maybe it is finally time for the country to be seen as a place of quality and craftsmanship instead.
“We love Hong Kong very much, we love the city we grew up in,” says Chan. But as “a very fast paced city that prides itself on efficiency and its modern architecture, it’s sometimes very quick to be out with the old,” adds Chung. With lots of redevelopment and changing politics, young people are rallying together to preserve their heritage, “not in a really square way like we have to save this building, but inspired by our identity,” explains Chan. In both their spring and summer collections, the designers are embracing this idea too. They’re channelling the style and attitude of the fearless generation of old women that taught them to “face adversity with determination.”