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The Antwerp Six’s Marina Yee talks her new Tokyo exhibition

*books flight*

If you ever find yourself in Tokyo, and have anything more than a passing interest in the anti-fashion movement of the mid-1980s – when the likes of Yohji Yamamoto, Martin Margiela, and Issey Miyake infiltrated the Paris catwalks with their avant-garde alternative to the mainstream – then dropping in to directional vintage store LAILA is a must.   

Founded by Hideo Hashiura over 15 years ago, rails of expertly curated items line LAILA’s walls – think rare pieces from Raf Simons’ and Rick Owens’ early collections, and hard-to-find Comme des Garçons styles – while downstairs, Hashiura runs, where he collates archival fashion tomes and prints his own limited edition reference books. The store also plays host to exhibitions: over the summer, pieces from Phoebe Philo’s first Céline collection went on display, in a timely nod to the end of her ten-year-long tenure at the French house.

Now, as part of the Tokyo store’s latest exhibition, Antwerp Six designer Marina Yee debuts her new collection, M.Y., within the space. As the most private of the six designers that emerged from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1981 – discounting honorary seventh member Martin Margiela, for obvious reasons – Yee has kept a relatively low profile in recent years, presenting small collections of salvaged, reworked clothing in Paris.

“I met Hideo a few times in 2016, when he was searching for pieces from my archive, and we discovered we had a similar philosophy and vision when it came to fashion,” explains Yee of how the exhibition came about. “I live and work in my house, and I began to realise how many things I made – and no one saw them, unless they came to my home to visit me. I’d made the decision to exhibit my work around my 60th birthday, and LAILA invited me to collaborate with them on M.Y. It went from there, really.”

Featuring a line-up of oversized, unstructured coats, hand-dyed vests, and pieced-together items, the edit puts forward Yee’s enduring message of the importance of sustainability. The designer has long been an advocate of the practice, creating collections by reimagining items found at flea markets and second-hand stores. “Maybe you could say I love to save damaged goods, things that nobody wants that have been thrown out in the garbage,” says Yee. “I just love to construct things really, and taking these things that aren’t valued, like empty boxes or broken glass or discarded clothes, and turning them into something that people don’t recognise any more is quite beautiful. Is that a cliché? I don’t know. But it’s from my heart. There’s a lot of ugliness and cruelty in the world and I think artists have a responsibility to challenge that.”

Yee, who now teaches the next generation of fashion talent at the same institution she attended, is keen for her students to consider the environment when creating their own work, and elaborate on her message of recycling and reuse. “This whole idea of ‘sustainability’ didn’t have a name when I first began designing, but I was already caring for the world in my own way. I was very sensitive to it,” says Yee. “Sustainability is a universal notion that’s very natural, and, back then, I understood the implications. But it’s not a choice anymore, it’s a necessity. It’s not about being ‘green’ or being a bit of a hippy. We need to do it. And fashion, particularly cannot stay behind, or keep using ‘sustainability’ as a gimmick when it comes to their marketing. We need to realise the true value of it.”

The importance of sustainability is not the only wisdom Yee is imparting on her students, though. “The most important thing I teach them is to follow their hearts, which sounds totally clichéd, doesn’t it?” she laughs. “If they create for somebody else and seek out appreciation and admiration, they will end up lost. It’s very important they do a lot of research into culture, and have a certain knowledge as to what fashion is about, what it means, colours, materials, the reasons behind them… But without passion they, they cannot create, and if they are not able to create, many of them will not be happy. It’s hard for young designers making their way now. The Six was a collective, and that made us strong. If you can gather together with two, or three, or four designers to create a collective, you can do anything. Connect with musicians, artists, or painters, too. Success isn’t just about fame and money. It’s about being happy and creating beautiful things.”

M.Y. is now open at LAILA and runs until September 9.