Yeohlee Teng

Clothing Designer
Yeohlee Teng

Courtesy of Yeohlee Teng

Yeohlee Teng:  There are people who believe fervently in how- how important the garment industry is and the garment center is to the city, its past, its future, how iconic it is, how almost every other New Yorker has a grandfather or a grandmother that worked in a factory in the garment district before they graduated and became lawyers and stock brokers and hedge fund managers. So I think that fashion and the garment center is part of the city's identity and, if imagined correctly, it can be a real tourist door as well, which may not be popular with everybody but I think that, if I were to visit New York and I could go walk around in the garment industry and understand that it's a creative hub and new businesses get started here and jobs are created and Jason Wu works there and Anna Sui works there and, and then the factories are on the side streets and I can buy those clothes that are made in those factories over near 5th Avenue in a street of shops, wouldn't that be terrific?

Jo Reed:  That was clothing designer Yeohlee Teng, she's one of the driving forces behind the project called Making Midtown.

Welcome to Artworks the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I’m your host Josephine Reed.

New York City has long implemented a zoning strategy which protects garment-manufacturing space in midtown Manhattan’s garment district. When the mayor announced that he would consider changing that zoning, the Design Trust for Public Space  partnered with the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA).   The result was a two-phase initiative: the first  Made in Midtown, an open-ended study that examined the value of the Garment District to the fashion industry and to New York City as a whole. Its findings were then the basis of the second phase Making Midtown: Sustaining Design and Production in an Evolving Garment District.     Making Midtown-- which has received an NEA grant-- is tasked with delivering policy recommendations that sustain and support the garment district as a vital center of fashion design and industrial production in the heart of New York City. 

One of the people leading the charge in these initiatives is designer Yeohlee Teng.  Yeohlee works very closely with Made in Midtown, in fact, she was instrumental in its creation. And Yeohlee is a rarity: she practices what she preaches: the clothing she designs and sells is made in NYC and she located her shop and studio, in the heart of the garment district

Yeohlee is a rarity in other ways as well.  Since she established her own house YEOHLEE INC back in 1981, her work has been recognized around the world for its emphasis on sustainability and structure. Her award-winning designs have been displayed on runways and in museums around the world.

Her clothing is functional, elegant, seasonless, and spare.  Her designs are driven by the fabric, maximizing its use, and minimizing waste.

I met Yeohlee Teng at her studio for a wide-ranging conversation about her design philosophy and how that connects to her work with Made in Midtown.  I began by asking her about a statement that she made: "clothes have magic."

Yeohlee Teng:  Clothes have magic, that geometry forms shapes that can lend a wearer power. What draws me into fashion and clothing design is the magic of numbers, and it's geometry and it's the power of shape. And when you think about it, think about the clergy, oh, I can't- I look like a parson. <laughter>

Jo Reed:  I actually like that, a black sweater with a white collar and white cuffs.

Yeohlee Teng:  So- but when you think about how symbolic clothing can be, that's what I'm referencing, you know? When you're in the Catholic Church, how tall the hats are. And if you want to be dramatic, you wear a big swooping cape. I once did a cape. When you take the cape off, you can make a crescendo because I put bells at the bottom of the cape on point so you have both a visual impact and a sensory effect.

Jo Reed: Did you come from a household when you were growing up where fashion was important? Design was important?

Yeohlee Teng:  I came a household of architects. The saying went that, if you throw a pebble into the Teng courtyard, you'd hit an architect.

Jo Reed:  Well, that makes sense. Your clothing is very structural, there is an architecture to your clothing.

Yeohlee Teng:  Well, clothing is intimate architecture, after all, right? I mean, it's the first shelter that you build around yourself and it's really part of your life, seamlessly. And what I try to do with my work is I try to make clothes that really would save you time, which is now the biggest luxury in the world. I mean, when people talk about fashion and luxury, you know, I'm thinking efficiency, time saving, multi-purpose, utilitarian. Those are my buzzwords because you can be the most fashionable woman in the world but, if the alarm goes and you have to bolt, you have to doff your heels and run, you better be in a Yeohlee.

Jo Reed:  You say that you design for the urban nomad.

Yeohlee Teng:  Yeah, that was a term I coined probably back in '96 because I was in a loft on 20th and 5th, on the second floor, and I would always be looking out my window and I'd always be seeing people, you know, going back and forth, carrying things, traveling from point A to B to C to Z. And I thought about, hey, you know, we're all urban nomads. We're all on a journey. You came from D.C. to talk to me. So I thought about clothes that would really be very efficient and would service the urban nomad to the degree that you could get on a plane in New York, get off the plane in Kuala Lumpur and go straight to a meeting and be clothed appropriately.

Jo Reed:  How did you first open your house? That just seems daunting to me. This happened in 1981?

Yeohlee Teng:  Right. It wasn't, it was something that I always wanted to do. I was unemployable, I couldn't get a job so <laughs> okay, I couldn't sustain a job. I could get a lot of jobs but I was not very employable because I was very independent-minded, had my own vision, wanted to execute things just the way I saw it, wanted a lot of control. But I lucked out, you know? One- the first collection that I made was a hit, were immediate best sellers. And, as a matter of fact, the little cape on the cover of the book was designed back in 1981 and Dawn Mello, who was the president of Bergdorf Goodman at that time, saw it and immediately bought it, put it in her catalogue and, bingo, I was in business with 200 pieces from Bergdorf Goodman. And I said to myself, "Hell, what am I gonna do?" <laughter>

Jo Reed:  And we should just reference the book that we're talking about is your book.

Yeohlee Teng:  It's Yeohlee: Work, Material Architecture and edited by John Major.

Jo Reed:  And you.

Yeohlee Teng:  And me, Yeohlee Teng.

Jo Reed:  Fashion for women is often seen as constraining rather than functional and I think there is often a dichotomy. You can be comfortable, you can look fashionable. And what you do is you really make a bridge between what looks good and what feels good.

Yeohlee Teng:  Yes, you can be comfortably fashionable.

Jo Reed:  Why do you think that is still something that is difficult for people to grasp? There aren't that many designers who really do design clothes that are both comfortable as well as fashionable.

Yeohlee Teng:  It's really something that's difficult to do, to achieve. It's really easy to be outlandish and it's very easy to exaggerate the form. It's really easy to put everything in the kitchen sink onto a dress, right? So the restraint and the thoughtfulness that informs a well-functioning garment is something that - it can be provocative in its own way because, you know, clothes can conceal and reveal simultaneously. But I think, though, I am a big champion of subtlety.

Jo Reed:  Yes, I can see that. Let's talk about fabric. In reading about your work or reading about you talking about your work, you say you really believe in efficiency in working with fabric.

Yeohlee Teng:  Yes.

Jo Reed:  Explain what you mean by that.

Yeohlee Teng:  I will digress a bit. I reconnected with somebody that I went to primary school with and she reminded me that I once made a skirt and I told her that it was made out of a piece of fabric that was 36 x 36 inches and not a scrap was wasted. I didn't realize that that philosophy was so core. I didn't realize that it went back to, like, my childhood in Malaysia but I think frugality really informs my work. I really believe in conservation and, you know, the- the term sustainable is bandied about, like, all over the place. For me, it's a very- on a very simple level, you know? Like, I cherished a grandma that saves the strings and the rubber bands and, in material, when you think about how much fabric costs and the processes that the yarn has to go through to become what it is, you shouldn't be throwing scraps on the floor. You should be cherishing every inch of the material and using it in an intelligent way. So you can't do that with every item of clothing that you design but, within each collection, I try to apply that principle as much as possible.

Jo Reed: Fabric choice is also very key to your work.

Yeohlee Teng:  Yes. It's very interesting. Harold Koda is the chief curator at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and he is so brilliant because he came and looked at a piece of my work and he said, "Uh huh, that's informed by the width of the fabric, isn't it?" And he was completely right. So not only fabric choices but understanding what the width is and mastering that really can contribute to controlling your consumption of fabric. Like, I know in my head that, if a fabric is 36 inches wide and your skirt is 24 inches long, you're gonna need at least a yard and a half of fabric to cut it. Whereas if your fabric was, like, 55 inches wide, you probably could get the skirt under a yard. So it's the magic of numbers.

Jo Reed:  The term the Fifth season has been used to describe your clothing, what does this mean?

Yeohlee Teng:  Well, you know, forever, I was a big proponent of having season-less clothes and, you know, we have rules in fashion, especially in the northern states, spring wardrobe, fall wardrobe, and my tendency is to make clothes that you can wear year-round. The fifth season was coined to describe the kind of clothes that I make that you can wear year-round and from north to south, east to west, globally.

Jo Reed:  We tend not to think of one size fits all clothing as being very fashionable but you have completely turned that upside down. What made you first conceptualize the one size fits all?

Yeohlee Teng:  Efficiency. We live- I live in New York City, everybody has, like, very little closet space, you know, unless you're in the 14 room apartment. And floor space, if a store is buying your collection, they have a limited amount of square footage for you. If you have a lot of things that are one size fits all, it reduces the inventory on the floor. It's zero waste where selling is concerned. I mean, if you cut a size range and it's all one size fits all, you sell them out. If you cut four to 14, you might get stuck with the 12 or the four. So it- the- the thinking has a lot to do with efficiency. And, mind you, my first order of 200 capes that I got from Bergdorf Goodman, I had to cut it myself. Thank god it was one size fits all. Can you imagine having to cut the same item from four to 14, which means you cut the size four, the six, the eight, the ten, the 12, the 14, you have to do the cutting six times. One size fits all, you can stack it up, one shot, 200 pieces. Or, if that's too high, you cut it two shots, 100 each. You're done. So not only do you save time, you save energy because cutting machines run on electricity.

Jo Reed: Your clothes are made in New York City.

Yeohlee Teng: Yes, and I have a tiny carbon footprint because they get rolled over on racks to my store. You know, my thinking is very complete.

Jo Reed:  You are efficient.

Yeohlee Teng:  Yes. It's very important that we all think that way, you know? We take our resources so for granted and we should not. And the resource that we take the most for granted is time. People don't understand the value of time. You spend it, you can't get it back. Spend it well. Always.

Jo Reed:  Well, one resource that you're also determined we don't take for granted is the resource of the garment district where your headquarters is located, here on 38th Street. Somebody said, "The garment district is like the Cinderella of the fashion industry. It's where all the work gets done but somehow, Madison Avenue has all the glitz."

Yeohlee Teng:  Not any more. I have the first designer store on 38th Street.

Jo Reed:  Tell me about your recent efforts to support New York City’s garment district, you’re involved in Made in Midtown and its second phase Making Midtown.

Yeohlee Teng:  Well, this actually goes back quite a few years. I won't go back as far as when the rezoning was done but, recently...

Jo Reed:  That was in the late '80s.

Yeohlee Teng:  Yes, I think it was Koch. Back in 2007, you know, I was on 35th Street and I got a flyer that the- you know, that there was going to be a meeting about the rezoning of the garment district. And I said to myself, "Well, you better get over there and see what's going on." And at that meeting, it was the Economic Development Corporation, they were making a presentation to the contractors about how the city needs to rezone the district, take away the P1 and P2 status.

Jo Reed:  Okay, what's P1 and P2? Can you just explain that very briefly?

Yeohlee Teng:  P1 and P2 is uh.. special zoning status. The area roughly incorporates 40th to 35th Street, Broadway to 9th Avenue.It was a way to help the industry. The P1 and P2 status guarantees one square foot of other uses and one square foot of manufacturing. And there has been a slight imbalance in the usage and a lot of illegal use in the district. And when I got involved, it was from hearing about a rezoning, which I realize will, of course, affect the manufacturing end of the business. And I thought about the Cheungs and Changs of the world, who are the people who sew for me and all the other contractors that I knew that do laser work, that do trim, that grade and mark. I thought that they would all be affected and I looked around me and I said, you know, not only will they be affected, it's their livelihood and it is the foundation of the fashion industry. You take away all those hands, what have you got? And where are you going to get it done? Not only what have you got, you know, what are you gonna do? So I was very alarmed and I did a talk at the Van Alen, the Van Alen Institute. Their concern is public space and I did a talk there with Calvin Sal and we discussed- he was working in China. We discussed how the Chinese government had consulted with him about how do you build factories and then a sustainable city around the factories? And I told him and the audience that, in the- in midtown, in Manhattan, we're trying to take that apart. And there were people in the audience from the board of the Design Trust for Public Space and they suggested to me why don't you send a request for a proposal and we will consider your project? So, with my partner, Joerg Schwartz, we put together the RFP and submitted it to the Design Trust for Public Space. They kicked it back to us, said, "We can't accept a proposal from citizens. It has to be from a community organization." So I, at that point in time, I was on the executive committee and the board of directors of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, CFDA for short, and I proposed to the CFDA that we submit the proposal with the CFDA as partners. And we went through a very long process, there were 40 entries, and finally there was a jury. We were selected. So that's how Made in Midtown came to being and right now we're entering into finishing up phase two, which is Making Midtown.

Jo Reed:  Okay, let's discuss Phase 1:   Made in Midtown was an open-ended study that looked at the Garment district's place in NYC's economy and culture. What did it find?

Yeohlee Teng:  The success of phase one was it proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the intrinsic value there is in the cluster that we have in Midtown. We have brilliant fellows and the design trust really did an excellent job in the project, in how it was put together, and in how convincing the results have been. It actually stayed the rezoning. There's a website called madeinmidtown.org where anybody who's listening to us and interested can go online and really look at the project.

Jo Reed: Let me chime in. It is a great website.

Yeohlee Teng:  Yes. And it really explains to the lay person the value of what we have in Midtown. It's an ecosystem, it's a coral reef. You just don't know how one thing affects the other. It is the whole that makes it fabulous. And it is this coral reef, this existence of this ecosystem that enables somebody like a Jason Wu to  get started in business because, with the infrastructure that we have, if you are a graduate from Parsons or FIT and you don't have a lot of means but you have talent, you can make six dresses, run it out to Bergdorf's or Barney's and try and sell it and, should you be successful, there are jobbers in the district that can sell you fabric, you can take it to a freelance pattern making service, they'll make your patterns for you, they'll grade and mark it. Grading and marking means- grading means making it into many different sizes and marking it means creating a template so that you can cut the different sizes. And then you can take it to an independent cutting room or you can take it to a factory that cuts and sews and get your garments made, even if all you have is ten pieces. Can't do that overseas.

Jo Reed:  You're saying the garment district and the fashion industry are inextricably linked....

Yeohlee Teng:  Yes, they are. But I think that, you know, it- I guess everybody uses the garment district whether you manufacture locally or you manufacture overseas. If you manufacture overseas, you still need the garment district because you have your shows here and sometimes your samples are late, you have to run around and get them made. Sometimes your samples come in, they're not properly done, they have to be, like, re-pressed, refinished. Look, Project Runway would not exist without the garment district. You need to be able to walk about and get all these things done. The walkabout factor is a- really key to the existence of the district. And we have some fabulous ideas about how to re-envision the district, to improve the public spaces, to re-envision, like, my storefront, for instance. We restored the façade, because, really, there is value to changing some of the façades but there's even more value in restoring it so that the historic characteristics do not disappear. So 38th Street can be the gateway to the garment district with its own identity and its own look.

Jo Reed:  As you just referenced, there are a number of design schools in and around the garment district, and I would imagine that would give this area a distinction as well.

Yeohlee Teng: Yeah, and the- the schools are located and directly dependent on the garment district. Parsons is on 7th Avenue and 40th Street. FIT is on 27th and 7th Avenue. I know Kent State has their fashion department headquartered in the garment district. And LIM is down the street, too, and they're a merchandising school. So, the talent's here and a lot of the schools focus on designing but some of the schools do teach pattern making, CAD. What we need now are a few trade schools who can really teach cutting, sewing... We need to train people, we need more skilled labor, we need all the high school students that never go to college to have a desire to make things and learn how to cut and sew. The jobs in factories for skilled labor, you know, the average pay is $15 an hour, it's more than minimum wage. I don't know what fast food restaurants pay but I think that the industry offers really good jobs and, when you make something, you get a special kind of reward that doesn't have anything to do with money. You get the satisfaction of having made something tangible, useful.

Jo Reed:  Is that becoming a lost art? Or is it in danger of becoming a lost art?

Yeohlee Teng:  I think that we just need to keep our eye on it because that pool of talent is really important, very critical. It's been lost in a lot of major cities, you know, because they don't bring up another generation of skilled hands and I think skilled hands, you know, you don't just want to use your fingers to tweet, you know?

Jo Reed:  Now you're in Phase 2 of the project, which is called Making Midtown, and that just received an NEA grant, so congratulations. Can you explain what the goals are of Phase 2? What is this about?

Yeohlee Teng:  What we’ll do is put together the best ideas, and make recommendations to the city, with very convincing policy suggestions; so that, we can re-envision the district so that it's more in tune with the 21st century and also to satisfy all the stakeholders so that everybody can move forward together. And that the neighborhood can be a stronger community. It can be a resurgent development hub besides being a manufacturing center.  

Jo Reed:  Talk about some of the ideas you have that are being discussed for re-visioning the public space.

Yeohlee Teng:  Well, we noticed that a lot of the buildings are connect- interconnected, like, they come- you can go into a building on 36th Street and exit on 37th Street, so we're thinking of creating uh.. pathways, not like the high line but a similar concept that takes that ability to traverse the building across another street but in the air. So I think that that's kind of exciting.

Jo Reed:  Yeah.

Yeohlee Teng:  And then, you know, the other thing, I wanted to mention is to make fashion more visible on the street level. And one of the things is to have more designers opening stores in the district so that you can get it made locally and you can buy it locally. You have Manufacturing Center of Excellence on 8th Avenue and 38th Street, Street of Shops on 38th between 5th and 6th, no brainer.

Jo Reed:  Isn’t there talk also of having pop-up stores?

Yeohlee Teng:  Yes. And fashion shows on the street and street fairs of all things made in New York. Those are actually dreams but dreams can become reality, you just need to have the will and you need to convince a few people to support us.

Jo Reed:  And in part of the revitalization of the garment district there is also a hope that designers who perhaps have their things made overseas would begin to think about having their clothing made in the garment district with the hope of some kind of tax incentives.

Yeohlee Teng:  Absolutely. I really think that things that are locally made should not be taxed. I mean, I think it would be a tremendous help. The other thing that would be a tremendous help is the duties that we have to pay for importing fabrics, they're humongous and the reason that they're humongous is because we, at one point, had to protect our textile industry but our textile industry today is, you know, it's not what it was. So I think a closer look at that initiative is warranted. You know there are a lot of interests involved so I can't make a sweeping statement there, you know? There are other interests but having some control over the duties that we have to pay would help bring a lot of manufacturing home because you get Italian goods sent over to China, you don't pay the same high duty, which is sometimes about 35%.

Jo Reed:  How do you see Phase 2 for Made in Midtown?

Yeohlee Teng:  The Design Trust for Public Space has done an excellent job with the fellows that are working on phase two. And they have the ground really thoroughly covered. Beyond that, they have the talent, the skill, and the imagination to drive this forward.

Jo Reed:  That was award-winning clothing designer Yeohlee Teng; she's has been pivotal in the initiative Making Midtown which has been awarded an NEA grant.

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Yeohlee Teng talks about her design philosophy and her work with Making Midtown, an initiative to reinvigorate creative production in NYC’s garment district. [28:51]