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Samuel Yang creates fake office for latest collection

While previous collections have seen him encase clothes in ice and connect models with rubber sock-shoes, this season the Chinese designer presented the collection among banal workplace items

It seems that we live in an era of interdisciplinary fashion. Not just through garments, we also consume it as images, videos, text and endless references. On one hand, this approach has inevitably drawn the attention of young designers away from clothes – on the other, the diversity of disciplines has allowed them to take on work with a variety of media, previously reserved for artists. 

Among these newcomers is London-based Chinese designer Samuel Yang, who has always stood out in his quest for creative tools beyond fashion. Yang graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2015, and not long after ended up in LA where he presented his SS16 collection encased in blocks of ice – incorporating a performance element by Milka Djordjevich where models struggled with their legs connected by rubber sock-shoes. From the very beginning, it was clear he was keen to do things his own way.

All of Yang’s collections are layered with references from film, art and photography to create a narrative of a strong audio-visual and tactile impact. In a video for the brand’s presentation at Shanghai Fashion Week, directed by Au Matt, the garments are presented in relation to daily objects: a hanger, a desk, a photocopier, a set of small vases. It refers to subverted practicality and efficiency, much like the soft, semi-translucent rubber boots and tops. 

Despite Yang’s work with a range of artistic media, the central element for him is clothing in relation to the body, much like sculpture. The living body becomes the shape-shifting element of his vision, a meeting point of cultures and concepts – the fit, the touch, the texture, the garment’s elements are incredibly important. And although Yang’s storytelling is timely image-driven, his designs are the antidote to losing the touch with our physicality.

We spoke to Yang about his latest collection – titled Ephemeral Study 4 – and how he is trying to combine art and fashion. 

How do you approach each collection? 

Samuel Yang: A woman has been in the centre of all my previous collections: every season I try to tell a story about her. Through influences from cinema, music, artworks, painting and images and my experiences from my own personal life I try to get closer to her and get to know her better. For the AW17 collection, I wrote a short text evoking the sensation of being in a completely closed environment, and the way the thoughts evolve and interchange within it. In the end of the story a hole opens, an arm reaches in and pulls her out. She is rescued somehow. It’s a very blurry story, but it has helped me. It is about her being trapped in a space, but also in a time frame – it’s about being futuristic and nostalgic at the same time. As a Chinese designer being educated and working in another country, I can relate to this a lot.

How does your heritage come through in the clothing?

Samuel Yang: It’s actually only in my last two collections that I have openly referenced my Chinese identity. For example, through the figure-hugging silhouette of the qipao and the Mandarin neck. Even though it always has been a part of me, I have not felt the need to point it out. I guess I am now at a stage where I feel confident about handling it without risking cliches. I try to reflect a story about contemporary China, a mix of old and new, like traditional flower printed fabrics and Shanghai checks mixed with rubber and nylon. 

Immigration is a very interesting process creatively as it could make you feel like an outsider in both cultures. Have you ever felt this way?

Samuel Yang: Very much actually. I spent a long time in education at Central Saint Martins, Foundation, BA and then MA. Luckily, I was surrounded by a great group of people from all over the place and I found that I could always be myself. Maybe even more than I could before. The longer I stayed in London, the stronger I became, I managed to find my voice and what I stand for. For me, and probably for many other people, choosing a multicultural city like London as your home I have come to realise and appreciate my Chinese background and identity as well as my new found London habits. In many ways my immigrant status has become less and less important. 

Do you feel like people expect certain things from you because you come from China? Do you encounter any preconceptions?

Samuel Yang: Not that much actually. I think most people don’t really know what contemporary China is like, which gives me even more encouragement to continue working. I think it’s a special moment for China now, people are longing for something, and because of politics and what’s been happening in the last 30 years, things have changed so much. There is a major culture clash between the East and West, and also a clash between the young generation and our predecessors. This is happening at the same time as fast growing consuming power with new needs and habits are emerging. This shift in contemporary Chinese culture is what I’m very interested in reflecting in my work.

What was your impression of Shanghai fashion scene when you showed your collection there?

Samuel Yang: There is definitely a big splash in fashion and creativity going on there now. Shanghai is very different from the rest of China, it’s been open for a long time, and it has an interesting history. This is still reflected in the city today for instance through the mix of old traditional living quarters and the modern skyscrapers. It makes for interesting living conditions. Shanghai has a good foundation for an emerging fashion scene, partly because what I just mentioned before, but also because of China’s role as a manufacturer of fashion. The quality of what’s put out there is at a good level and can be translated into a product ready to sell. The Chinese market is very open, the consumers are longing for new, and us, the designers, are ready to challenge them.

“It’s not just about making clothes but also creating a meaning, creating design surrounding the body by using it as the main subject.” – Samuel Yang

The rubber pieces stand out in particular in your collection with their very soft tactile texture. Does it transmit similar sexual vibes for you, or is it something different?  

Samuel Yang: For me, rubber is not related to fetish – I’m into the industrial element of this material. I produce this rubber in China, in the Canton area where I come from, which is very industrial. The factory I have these pieces produced in doesn't make fashion or fetish garments – just functional items. The boots and the rubber tops are all constructed seamless using a mould, and it’s a very high quality rubber, the same one used for plastic surgery. With the rubber pieces, I wanted to create something which has tension, is invisible and visible at the same time. When you put it on it stretches and moulds your body, and when you take it off it becomes a sculpture in itself.

Your approach seems to refer a lot of contemporary art, is this the direction you would like to move towards in the future?  

Samuel Yang: Before I started working in fashion, my dream was to be an artist or a painter. When I moved to London, I was planning to apply for a different course. But somehow I realised that fashion here was different than I thought– it’s not just about making clothes but also creating a meaning, creating the design surrounding the body by using the body as the main subject. One day, through time and practise I hope to able to develop my language for all of the different channels fashion works through like clothes, video, music, sound, sculpture, set design and performative presentations.