JUNEYEN is translating emotion into witty womenswear
The Taiwanese brand draws inspiration from Surrealist art, fetishwear and Harajuku fashion.
Photos courtesy of JUNEYEN.
Although Jung Yen Chen came upon the name of his womenswear label, JUNEYEN, quite by accident -- “In India, I had a keychain carved and they misspelled my name as June” -- its conception was deliberate, years in the making and a labour of love. “I think sometimes people might relate the belief in destiny to uncertain energy, but I just had the strong feeling of wanting to be myself, to do my own designs, to create and to live for it,” Chen says. “2018 was quite an important year for me. That was when I founded JUNEYEN.”
Chen developed his latent interest in fashion in his youth, during that period in the 90s when Japanese culture had a massive influence on the rest of East Asia, Chen’s native Taiwan included. Think J-Pop, Neon Genesis Evangelion, FRUiTS. “I loved to draw manga when I was younger and I was deeply influenced by Harajuku subculture in the 90s, especially the street snap magazine, FRUiTS. I was so fascinated by people’s colourful and dramatic styles back in those days; I was shocked that people could wear such otherworldly clothing out in the real world,” says Chen, who still has his collection of well-thumbed FRUiTS. “When I would draw my manga characters and dress them up, I would reference those magazines. This was the starting point of fashion for me.”
Later, Chen pursued a BA in Fashion Design from Taipei’s Shih Chien University, where he paired his boundless creativity with a newfound appreciation for the technical language of clothes: “choosing buttons, linings, how to finish a garment, the details and the luxury side of clothing.” Post-BA, Chen briefly attended Parsons for a summer course, where his professor gave him a piece of advice that would change the course of his career: “He told me, ‘If you really want to study fashion design, you have to go to London. They value creativity more there.’ So, I went to London to study at London College of Fashion.”
The vibrancy and diversity of the English capital -- perhaps reminiscent in some ways of 90s-era Harajuku -- had a huge influence on Chen’s LCF MA output and future designs. “I really loved my days in London; I love the diversity of the city. You can see how different types of people dress themselves. It’s very vibrant. I was living in Hoxton and I was inspired everyday when I was walking down the street.”
JUNEYEN, Chen’s solo label launched in 2018, still finds much of its inspiration in these subcultures, from Chen’s life in current-day London to nostalgia for 90s Japan. “The label is heavily inspired by queer subculture [in London]... the nightclubs, people dressing up, drag queens,” Chen says. “The club scene there was really fascinating to me. I wanted to create something that would appreciate those cultural things.”
Contemporary art is also at the forefront of JUNEYEN. “Women artists and queer artists are the ones I’m inspired by the most. They feel more relevant to me,” Chen says. The designer cites Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas as major influences. Pina Bausch (“witty, elegant, sensual and emotional,” effuses Chen) and her gender-fluid costuming finds its way across JUNEYEN’s sumptuous and andrognyous silk dresses and suiting. Méret Oppenheim’s “Fur Breakfast” served as inspiration for the label’s signature accessory: a luxe leather Chinese take-out box, with furry handle. Poring through the expansive and sometimes surreal worlds of these artists instill Chen with a sense of play in his practice, an out-of-the-box way of thinking, that takes shape in JUNEYEN’s strange and delightful combinations: flowers bloom from the cups of a classic silk bra; a slip skirt is pieced together from a patchwork of floral handkerchiefs; the sheer mesh waistband of a pair of trousers looks like knickers peeking out, a chic wardrobe mishap. “I want to give daily, basic clothes an interesting twist. I want to have a little bit of fun in my work,” Chen chuckles. “For example, suiting can be serious but I want to inject it with some wit.” Upon closer inspection, the label’s luxe suiting trousers look more like leather biker chaps.
Even more so, though, what connects all these artists -- and what draws Chen to them -- is the raw emotionality contained within (or overflowing from) their works. “For me, art is a true form of human expression. It’s pure and honest,” he explains.
For Chen, designing is also an emotional process. Each collection springs from the emotional undercurrents of Chen’s day-to-day, life’s trivialities and quotidian rituals. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly what a collection’s inspiration is,” he says, of the organic way he builds his seasonal concepts, then adds, for clarification, “My moon sign is in Pisces, so sometimes it can be like living in water or fog.”
Centered around “the bedroom,” the label’s SS20 collection was about security. “The bedroom is the place we feel the most secure. The collection is about that comfort and the intimacy of pillow talk,” Chen explains. Luxe cotton singlets, granny-panty shorts, wallpaper-floral slips and 90s silk bra tops run the gamut of underwear-outerwear dressing. A sheer organza jumpsuit in a boxy cut speaks to this pyjama style of dressing, but also exudes a sense of vulnerability. Outsized totes are puffed and padded to look like pillows tucked into their cases. “I was thinking about the different kinds of bedrooms we all live in,” he elaborates. “And also the fetish side of the bedroom, with swings. Like a sex dungeon.” Indeed, the pendulous straps of the label’s SS20 it-bag call to mind the ropes of a sex swing; its metal hoop detailing, the thrills of chokers and harnesses.
While JUNEYEN’s SS20 outing was about respite, Chen’s next collection was inspired by heartbreak. “For my AW20 collection, I was inspired by a break-up. So, I wanted to create the image of a strong woman for that season.” Drawing inspiration from 80s power dressing -- trench coats and blazers, silk dresses with massive shoulders, carrot trousers, biker jackets -- as much as photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s fetishwear photographs, Chen created a collection of, what he calls, “armour-like” separates.
Androgyny -- this play between the codes of mens and womenswear -- is one of the threads that weaves its way throughout each of JUNEYEN’s collections. For SS20, conventional three-piece suits -- waistcoat and all -- were recreated in traditional women’s evening wear fabrics: silk satins, taffetas, organzas. “I want to extract the elegance from men’s and women’s wardrobes and combine them together,” states Chen, who explains that the label can be considered unisex. “It’s all about inclusivity: design for everyone. I think there’s some part of the clothing that suits men, as well.”
Even though Chen designs with both men’s and womenswear in mind, JUNEYEN is intrinsically and irrevocably preoccupied with the inner lives of women. A companion piece to the label’s SS19 and AW19 collections, Chen and his team shot a short film starring Taiwanese actress Jean Liao. Titled Audition, the film draws inspiration from a myriad of actresses’ screen tests and audition videos: Edie Sedgwick and her lost-girl eyes in the 60s, Audrey Tautou trying on the ingenue personality of Amélie, Natalie Portman smart-mouthing as Mathilde in Léon: The Professional. Also the vast and varied women of Bergman’s Persona, Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, Assayas’ Irma Vep. Liao dances, whispers seductively in black and white, argues with someone off-camera, rubbing her forehead in exasperation, and auditions for a role. “The film was about portraying women who have different aspects to their lives. These women, they’re not perfect. They’re human beings,” Chen explains.
This championing of women’s issues is embodied in another one of the label’s adjacent art projects. “Cigarette Butt Project”, the brainchild of JUNEYEN creative collaborator Jacqueline Chung, is a series of cigarette butt portraits, labelled carefully with the smokers’ name and the year the cigarette was extinguished. “From my perspective, this project is about how, especially in Asia, women are expected to look a certain way or have a certain role. They’re always constrained by social norms or the image of being a ‘good girl,’” he explains, before adding, “Sometimes I feel a little bit guilty for posting these images. Because cigarettes are bad for your health.”